Ever Wondered where the whole idea of Musical Theatre originated from? We take a look right back to the very start of it all in our OnlyMusicals complete history of musical theatre.
In the Beginning:
Musical theatre in Europe dates back to the theatre of the ancient Greeks, who included music and dance in their stage comedies and tragedies as early as the 5th century B.C. Aeschylus and Sophocles even composed their own music to accompany their plays. The Third Century B.C. Roman comedies of Plautus included song and dance routines performed with orchestrations. The popularity of theatre declined somewhat in the Roman Empire, but some innovations were made: to make the dance steps more audible in large open air theatres, Roman actors attached metal chips called “sabilla” to their stage footwear – the first tap shoes. During the middle ages, performers travelled from town to town trying to find an audience. At times, they were barred, as it was feared that they brought the plague. In the 12th and 13th centuries, religious dramas, such as The Play of Herod and The Play of Daniel taught the liturgy, set to church chants. To teach the latin bible to illiterate masses, cycle plays were created that told a biblical story divided into entertaining parts. Several pageant wagons (stages on wheels) would move about the city, and a group of actors would tell their part of the story. Once finished, the group would move on with their wagon, and the next group would arrive to tell its part of the story. These plays developed into an autonomous form of musical theatre, with poetic forms sometimes alternating with the prose dialogues and liturgical chants. The poetry was provided with modified or completely new melodies.
By the Renaissance, these forms had evolved into commedia dell’arte, an Italian tradition where raucous clowns improvised their way through familiar stories, and from there, opera buffa. Molière turned several of his farcical comedies into musical entertainments with songs (music provided by Jean Baptiste Lully) and dance in the late 1600s. Arts of all kinds became widely popular, including musical theatre. By the 1700s, two forms of musical theatre were popular in Britain, France and Germany: ballad operas, like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), that included lyrics written to the tunes of popular songs of the day (often spoofing opera), and comic operas, with original scores and mostly romantic plot lines, like Michael Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl (1845). Other musical theatre forms developed by the 19th century, such as vaudeville, British music hall, melodrama and burlesque. Melodrama’s popularity, in particular, was popularised partly because most London theatres were licensed only as music halls and not allowed to present plays without music. In any event, what a piece was called did not necessarily define what it was. The Broadway extravaganza The Magic Deer (1852) advertised itself as “A Serio Comico Tragico Operatical Historical Extravaganzical Burletical Tale of Enchantment.” The first recorded long running play of any kind was The Beggar’s Opera, which ran for 62 successive performances in 1728. It would take almost a century before the first play broke 100 performances, with Tom and Jerry, based on the book ‘Life in London’ (1821), and the record soon reached 150 in the late 1820s. New York did not have a significant theatre presence until 1752, when William Hallam sent a company of twelve actors to the colonies with his brother Lewis as their manager. They established a theatre in Williamsburg, Virginia and opened with The Merchant of Venice and The Anatomist. The company moved to New York in the summer of 1753, performing ballad-operas such as The Beggar’s Opera and ballad-farces like Damon and Phillida. By the 1840s, P.T. Barnum was operating an entertainment complex in lower Manhattan (theatre in New York moved from downtown gradually to midtown beginning around 1850, seeking less expensive real estate prices, and did not arrive in the Times Square area until the 1920s and 1930s). Broadway’s first “long-run” musical was a 50 performance hit called The Elves in 1857. New York runs continued to lag far behind those in London, but Laura Keene’s “musical burletta” Seven Sisters (1860) shattered previous New York records with a run of 253 performances.
Musical Theatre as we know it:
The first theatre piece that conforms to the modern conception of a musical, adding dance and original music that helped to tell the story, is generally considered to be The Black Crook, which premiered in New York on September 12, 1866. The production was a staggering five-and-a-half hours long, but despite its length, it ran for a record-breaking 474 performances. The same year, The Black Domino/Between You, Me and the Post was the first show to call itself a “musical comedy.” Comedians Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart produced and starred in musicals on Broadway between 1878 (The Mulligan Guard Picnic) and 1885, with book and lyrics by Harrigan and music by his father-in-law David Braham. These musical comedies featured characters and situations taken from the everyday life of New York’s lower classes and represented a significant step forward from vaudeville and burlesque, towards a more literate form. They starred high quality singers (Edna May, Lillian Russell, Vivienne Segal and Fay Templeton) instead of the ladies of questionable repute who had starred in earlier musical forms. The length of runs in the theatre changed rapidly around the same time that the modern musical was born. As transportation improved, poverty in London and New York diminished, and street lighting made for safer travel at night, the number of potential patrons for the growing number of theatres increased enormously. Plays could run longer and still draw in the audiences, leading to better profits and improved production values. The first play to achieve 500 consecutive performances was the London (non-musical) comedy Our Boys, opening in 1875, which set an astonishing new record of 1,362 performances. This run was not equalled on the musical stage until World War I, but musical theatre soon broke the 500 performance mark in London with the long-running successes of Gilbert and Sullivan’s family-friendly comic opera hits, beginning with H.M.S. Pinafore in 1878, which were exceeded by Alfred Cellier and B. C. Stephenson’s record-breaking 1886 hit, Dorothy (a show midway between comic opera and musical comedy), with 931 performances, which was followed by several of the most successful London musicals of the 1890s. The most popular of these shows also enjoyed profitable New York productions and tours of Britain, America, Europe, Australasia and South Africa. These shows were fare for “respectable” audiences and starred respectable girls, a marked contrast from the risqué burlesques, melodramas, bawdy music hall shows and badly translated French operettas that dominated the stage earlier in the 19th century and drew a sometimes seedy crowd looking for easy entertainment.
Charles Hoyt’s A Trip to Chinatown (1891) was Broadway’s long-run champion (until Irene in 1919), running for 657 performances. Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas were both pirated and imitated in New York by productions such as Reginald DeKoven’s Robin Hood (1891) and John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan (1896). A Trip to Coontown (1898) was the first musical comedy entirely produced and performed by African Americans in a Broadway theatre (largely inspired by the routines of the minstrel shows), followed by the ragtime-tinged Clorindy the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), and the highly successful In Dahomey (1902). Hundreds of musical comedies were staged on Broadway in the 1890s and early 1900s comprised of songs written in New York’s Tin Pan Alley involving composers such as Gus Edwards, John J. McNally, John Walter Bratton, and George M. Cohan (Little Johnny Jones (1904), 45 Minutes From Broadway (1906), and George Washington Jr. (1906)). Still, New York runs continued to be relatively short, with a few exceptions, compared with London runs, until World War I. Meanwhile, musicals had spread to the London stage by the Gay Nineties. George Edwardes had left the management of Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Theatre, perceiving that theatregoers’ tastes had turned away from Savoy-style comic operas and their intellectual, political, absurdist satire. They wanted breezy music, snappy, romantic banter, and stylish spectacle. He revolutionised the London stage by presenting musical comedies at the Gaiety Theatre, Daly’s Theatre and other venues that delivered these elements, borrowing others from Harrigan and Hart and adding in his famous Gaiety Girls to complete the musical and visual fun. The success of first of these, In Town in 1892 and A Gaiety Girl in 1893 (which played at other theatres), confirmed Edwardes on the path he was taking. His early Gaiety hits included a series of light, romantic “poor maiden loves aristocrat and wins him against all odds” shows, usually with the word “Girl” in the title, including The Shop Girl (1894) and A Runaway Girl (1898), with music by Ivan Caryll and Lionel Monckton. These shows were immediately widely copied at other London theatres (and soon in America), and the Edwardian musical comedy swept away the earlier musical forms of comic opera and operetta. At Daly’s Theatre, Edwardes presented slightly more complex comedy hits. The Geisha (1896) by Sidney Jones with lyrics by Harry Greenbank and Adrian Ross and then Jones’ San Toy (1899) each ran for more than two years and also finding great international success. Other British musical comedy composers of the period included F. Osmond Carr and Edward Solomon.
The British musical comedy Florodora (1899) by Leslie Stuart and Paul Rubens made a splash on both sides of the Atlantic, as did A Chinese Honeymoon (1901), by British lyricist George Dance and American-born composer Howard Talbot, which ran for a record setting 1,074 performances in London and 376 in New York. The story concerns couples who honeymoon in China and inadvertently break the kissing laws (shades of The Mikado). After the turn of the century, Seymour Hicks (who joined forces with American producer Charles Frohman) wrote popular shows with composer Charles Taylor and others, and Edwardes and Ross continued to churn out hits like The Toreador (1901), A Country Girl, The Orchid (1903), The Girls of Gottenberg (1907), Our Miss Gibbs (1909), and The Boy (1917). However, only three decades after Gilbert and Sullivan broke the stranglehold that French operettas had on the London stage, European operettas came roaring back to Britain and America beginning in 1907 with the London hit production of The Merry Widow.
The move to Operetta and and the effects of World War I on Musical Theatre:
Probably the best known composers of operetta, beginning in the second half of the 19th century, were Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II (usually played in bad, bawdy translations in London and New York). In England, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan created an English answer to French operetta, styled British comic opera, that became family-friendly hits in Britain and the U.S. in the 1870s and ’80s. Although British and American musicals of the 1890s and the first few years of the 20th century had virtually swept operetta and comic opera from the stage, operettas returned to the London and Broadway stages in 1907, and operettas and musicals became direct competitors for a while. The winner of this competition was the theatre going public, who needed escapist entertainment during the dark times of World War I and flocked to theatres for musicals like Maid of the Mountains, Irene (still going strong!), and the astonishing hit Chu Chin Chow, as well as popular revues like The Bing Boys Are Here. tIn the early years of the 20th century, translations of 19th century continental operettas, as well as operettas by a new generation of European composers, such as Franz Lehár and Oscar Straus, among others, spread throughout the English-speaking world. They were joined by British and American operetta composers and librettists of the 1910s (the “Princess Theatre” shows) by P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Harry B. Smith, who paved the way for Jerome Kern’s later work by showing that a musical could combine a light popular touch with real continuity between story and musical numbers, and Victor Herbert, whose work included some intimate musical plays with modern settings as well as his string of famous operettas (The Fortune Teller (1898), Babes in Toyland (1903), Mlle. Modiste (1905), The Red Mill (1906), and Naughty Marietta (1910)). These were all owed much to Gilbert and Sullivan and the composers of the 1890s.
The Post War Musical Theatre Experience
The legacy of these operetta composers continued to serve as an inspiration to the next generation of composers of operettas and musicals in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Rudolf Friml, Irving Berlin, Sigmund Romberg, George Gershwin, and Noel Coward, and these, in turn, influenced the Rodgers, Sondheim, and many others later in the century.At the same time, George M. Cohan kept the theatres filled with lively musical entertainments, as the Shubert Brothers began to take control of the Broadway theatres. The motion picture was beginning to mount a challenge to the stage. At first, films were silent and presented only a limited challenge to theatre. But by the end of the 1920s, films like The Jazz Singer could be presented with synchronised sound, and critics wondered if the cinema would replace live theatre altogether. The musicals of the Roaring Twenties, borrowing from vaudeville, music hall and other light entertainments, tended to ignore plot in favour of emphasising star actors and actresses, big dance routines, and popular songs. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, popular music was dominated by theatre writers. Many shows were revues with little plot. For instance, Florenz Ziegfeld produced annual spectacular song-and-dance revues on Broadway featuring extravagant sets and elaborate costumes, but there was little to tie the various numbers together. In London, the Aldwych Farces were similarly successful, and stars such as Ivor Novello were popular. These spectacles also raised production values, and mounting a musical generally became more expensive. Typical of the decade were lighthearted productions like Sally; Lady Be Good; Sunny; No, No, Nanette; Oh, Kay!; and Funny Face. Their books may have been forgettable, but they produced enduring standards from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, among others, and stars like Marilyn Miller and Fred Astaire. Audiences tapped their toes to these musicals on both sides of the Atlantic ocean while continuing to patronise the popular operettas that were continuing to come out of continental Europe and also from composers like Noel Coward in London and Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml in America. Clearly, cinema had not killed live theatre.
Leaving these comparatively frivolous entertainments behind, and taking the drama a giant step beyond Victor Herbert and sentimental operetta, Show Boat, which premiered on December 27, 1927 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, represented a complete integration of book and score, with dramatic themes, as told through the music, dialogue, setting and movement, woven together more seamlessly than in previous musicals. Show Boat, with a book and lyrics adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel by Oscar Hammerstein II and P. G. Wodehouse, and music by Jerome Kern, presented a new concept that was embraced by audiences immediately. Despite some of its startling themes—miscegenation among them—the original production ran a total of 572 performances. Still, Broadway runs lagged behind London’s in general. By way of comparison, in 1920, The Beggar’s Opera began an astonishing run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, England.
Americas Great Depression
The Great Depression affected theatre audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, as people had little money to spend on entertainment. In addition, “talkie” films at low prices presented a strong challenge to theatre of all kinds. Only a few shows exceeded a run on Broadway or in London of 500 performances. Still, for those who could afford it, this was an exciting time in the development of musical theatre. Encouraged by the success of Show Boat, creative teams began following the “format” of that popular hit. Of Thee I Sing (1931), a political satire with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Morrie Ryskind, was the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The Band Wagon (1931), starred dancing partners Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) affirmed Ethel Merman’s position as the First Lady of musical theatre – a title she maintained for many years. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935) was a step closer to opera than Show Boat and the other musicals of the era, and in some respects it foreshadowed such “operatic” musicals as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. The Cradle Will Rock (1937), with a book and score by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles, was a highly political piece that, despite the controversy surrounding it, managed to run for 108 performances. Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday brought to the musical stage New York City’s early history, using as its source writings by Washington Irving, while good-naturedly satirising the good intentions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
British writers such as Noel Coward and Ivor Novello continued to deliver old fashioned, sentimental musicals, such as The Dancing Years. Similarly, Rodgers & Hart returned from Hollywood to churn out a series of lighthearted Broadway hits, including On Your Toes (1936, with Ray Bolger, the first Broadway musical to make dramatic use of classical dance), Babes In Arms (1937), I’d Rather Be Right, a political satire with George M. Cohan as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and The Boys From Syracuse (1938), and Cole Porter wrote a similar string of hits, including Anything Goes (1934) and DuBarry Was a Lady (1939) and despite the economic woes and the competition from film, the musical survived. In fact, the move towards political satire in Of Thee I Sing, I’d Rather Be Right and Knickerbocker Holiday, together with the musical sophistication of the Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Weill musicals and the fast-paced staging and naturalistic dialogue style created by director George Abbott showed that musical theatre was finally evolving beyond the gags and showgirls musicals of the Gay Nineties and Roaring Twenties and the sentimental romance of operetta.
The Golden Age of Musical Theatre (1943 to 1968)
The Golden Age of the Broadway musical is generally considered to have begun with Oklahoma! (1943) and to have ended with Hair (1968).
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! had a cohesive (if somewhat slim) plot, songs that furthered the action of the story, and featured dream ballets which advanced the plot and developed the characters, rather than using dance as an excuse to parade scantily-clad women across the stage. Rodgers and Hammerstein hired ballet choreographer Agnes de Mille, who used everyday motions to help the characters express their ideas. It defied musical conventions by raising its first act curtain not on a bevy of chorus girls, but rather on a woman churning butter, with an off-stage voice singing the opening lines of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. It was the first “blockbuster” Broadway show, running a total of 2,212 performances, and was made into a hit film. It remains one of the most frequently produced of the team’s projects. The two collaborators created an extraordinary collection of some of musical theatre’s best loved and most enduring classics, including Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Americana was displayed on Broadway during the “Golden Age”, as the wartime cycle of shows began to arrive. An example of this is On The Town (1944), written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composed by Leonard Bernstein and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The musical is set during wartime, where a group of three sailors are on a 24 hour shore leave in New York. During their day, they each meet a wonderful woman. The women in this show have a specific power over them, as if saying, “Come here! I need a man!” The show also gives the impression of a country with an uncertain future, as the sailors also have with their women before leaving. Oklahoma! inspired others to continue the trend. Irving Berlin used sharpshooter Annie Oakley’s career as a basis for his Annie Get Your Gun (1946, 1,147 performances); Burton Lane, E. Y. Harburg, and Fred Saidy combined political satire with Irish whimsy for their fantasy Finian’s Rainbow (1944, 1,725 performances); and Cole Porter found inspiration in William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew for Kiss Me, Kate (1948, 1,077 performances). The American musicals overwhelmed the old-fashioned British Coward/Novello-style shows, one of the last big successes of which was Novello’s Perchance to Dream (1945, 1,021 performances).
From Theatre to Screen
The 1940s and 1950s saw the Musical Theatre Traditions transfer to the silver screen and every broadway and was soon turned into a major movie blockbuster. Damon Runyon’s eclectic characters were at the core of Frank Loesser’s and Abe Burrows’ Guys and Dolls, (1950, 1,200 performances); and the Gold Rush was the setting for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1951). The relatively brief run—289 performances—of that show didn’t discourage Lerner and Loewe from collaborating again, this time on My Fair Lady (1956), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, which at 2,717 performances held the long-run record for many years. As in Oklahoma!, dance was an integral part of West Side Story (1957), which transported Romeo and Juliet to modern day New York City and converted the feuding Montague and Capulet families into opposing ethnic gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. The book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by newcomer Stephen Sondheim. It was embraced by the critics but failed to be a popular choice for the “blue-haired matinee ladies,” who preferred the small town River City, Iowa of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man to the alleys of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Apparently Tony Award voters were of a similar mind, since they favoured the former over the latter. West Side Story had a respectable run of 732 performances (1,040 in the West End, possibly due to the love of anything american in Britain at the time), while The Music Man ran nearly twice as long, with 1,375 performances. However, the film of West Side Story was extremely successful. Laurents and Sondheim teamed up again for Gypsy (1959, 702 performances), with Jule Styne providing the music for a backstage story about the most driven stage mother of all-time, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Rose. The original production ran for 702 performances, and was given three subsequent revivals, with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Bernadette Peters tackling the role made famous by Ethel Merman. The 1950s ended with a big bang, however, with The Sound of Music, the last musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which became another hit for Mary Martin and, especially after the release of its extremely successful 1965 film version, has become one of the most popular musicals in history.
Watch out, here come those long haired hippies!
In 1960, The Fantasticks was first produced off-Broadway. This intimate allegorical show would quietly run for over 40 years at the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, becoming by far the longest-running musical in history. The 1960s would then see a number of traditional blockbusters like Fiddler on the Roof and Hello, Dolly! before moving to more risqué pieces like Cabaret and ending with the emergence of the rock musical. Two men had considerable impact on musical theatre history beginning in this decade: The first project for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, 964 performances), with a book based on the works of Plautus by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and starring Zero Mostel. Sondheim moved the musical beyond its concentration on the romantic plots typical of earlier eras; his work tended to be darker, exploring the grittier sides of life both present and past. Some of his earlier works include Anyone Can Whistle (1964, which—at a mere nine performances, despite having star power in Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury — is an infamous flop), Company (1970), Follies (1971), and A Little Night Music (1973). He has found inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources — the opening of Japan to Western trade for Pacific Overtures, a legendary murderous barber seeking revenge in the Industrial Age of London for Sweeney Todd, the paintings of Georges Seurat for Sunday in the Park with George, fairy tales for Into the Woods, and a collection of individuals intent on eliminating the President of the United States in Assassins. While some critics have argued that some of Sondheim’s musicals are less popular with the public because of their unusual lyrical sophistication and musical complexity, others have praised these features of his work, as well as the interplay of lyrics and music in his shows. Some of Sondheim’s notable innovations include a show presented in reverse (Merrily We Roll Along) and the above-mentioned Anyone Can Whistle, in which Act 1 ends with the cast informing the audience that they are mad.
Jerry Herman played a significant role in American musical theatre, beginning with his first Broadway production, Milk and Honey (1961, 563 performances), about the founding of the state of Israel, and continuing with the smash hits Hello, Dolly! (1964, 2,844 performances), Mame (1966, 1,508 performances), and La Cage aux Folles (1983, 1,761 performances). Even his less successful shows like Dear World (1969) and Mack & Mabel (1974) have had memorable scores (Mack & Mabel was later reworked into a London hit). Writing both words and music, many of Herman’s showtunes have become popular standards, including “Hello, Dolly!”, “We Need a Little Christmas”, “I Am What I Am”, “Mame”, “The Best of Times”, “Before the Parade Passes By”, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “It Only Takes a Moment”, “Bosom Buddies”, and “I Won’t Send Roses”, recorded by such artists as Louis Armstrong, Eydie Gorme, Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark and Bernadette Peters. Herman’s songbook has been the subject of two popular musical revues, Jerry’s Girls (Broadway, 1985), and Showtune (off-Broadway, 2003).
The musical started to diverge from the relatively narrow confines of the 1950s. Rock music would be used in several Broadway musicals, beginning with Hair, which featured not only rock music but also nudity and controversial opinions about the Vietnam War. After Show Boat and Porgy and Bess, and as the struggle in America and elsewhere for minorities’ civil rights progressed, Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and others were emboldened to write more musicals and operas which aimed to normalise societal toleration of minorities and urged racial harmony. Early Golden Age works that focused on racial tolerance included Finian’s Rainbow, South Pacific, and the The King and I. Towards the end of the Golden Age, several shows tackled Jewish subjects and issues, such as Fiddler on the Roof, Blitz! and later Rags. The original concept that became West Side Story was set in the Lower East Side during Easter-Passover celebrations; the rival gangs were to be Jewish and Italian Catholic. Tolerance as an important theme in musicals has continued in recent decades. The final expression of West Side Story left a message of racial tolerance. By the end of the ’60s, musicals became racially integrated, with black and white cast members even covering each others’ roles, as they did in Hair. Casting in some musicals is an attempt to represent the community at the subject of the drama, as in Rent. Homosexuality has been explored in such musicals, beginning with Hair, and even more overtly in La Cage aux Folles and Falsettos. Parade is a sensitive exploration of both anti-Semitism and historical American racism.
The Musical Moves into the 1970s and the budgets explode (and implode!)
After the success of Hair, rock musicals flourished in the 1970s, with Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Grease and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Some of these rock musicals began with “concept albums” and then moved to film or stage, such as Tommy. Others had no dialogue or were otherwise reminiscent of opera, with dramatic, emotional themes; these were referred to as rock operas. The musical also went in other directions. Shows like Raisin, Dreamgirls, Purlie, and The Wiz brought a significant African-American influence to Broadway. More and more different musical genres were turned into musicals either on or off-Broadway. Automotive companies and other types of corporations hired Broadway talent to write corporate musicals, private shows which were only seen by their employees or customers. 1976 brought one of the great contemporary musicals to the stage. A Chorus Line emerged from recorded group therapy-style sessions Michael Bennett conducted with Gypsies — those who sing and dance in support of the leading players —from the Broadway community. From hundreds of hours of tapes, James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nick Dante fashioned a book about an audition for a musical, incorporating into it many of the real-life stories of those who had sat in on the sessions — and some of whom eventually played variations of themselves or each other in the show. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line first opened at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in lower Manhattan. Advance word-of-mouth— that something extraordinary was about to explode – boosted box office sales, and after critics ran out of superlatives to describe what they witnessed on opening night, what initially had been planned as a limited engagement eventually moved to the Shubert Theatre uptown for a run that seemed to last forever. The show swept the Tony Awards and won the Pulitzer Prize, and its hit song, What I Did for Love, became an instant standard. Clearly, Broadway audiences were eager to welcome musicals that strayed from the usual style and substance. John Kander and Fred Ebb explored pre-World War II Nazi Germany in Cabaret and Prohibition-era Chicago, which relied on old vaudeville techniques to tell its tale of murder and the media. Pippin, by Stephen Schwartz, was set in the days of Charlemagne. Federico Fellini’s autobiographical film 8½ became Maury Yeston’s Nine. At the end of the decade, Evita gave a more serious political biography than audiences were used to at musicals, and Sweeney Todd was the precursor to the darker, big budget musicals of the 1980s like Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and The Phantom of the Opera, that depended on dramatic stories, sweeping scores and spectacular effects. But during this same period, old-fashioned values were still embraced in such hits as Annie, 42nd Street, My One and Only, and popular revivals of No, No, Nanette and Irene.
Time for World-Wide Phenomenon’s
The 1980s and 1990s saw the influence of European “mega-musicals” or “pop operas,” which typically featured a pop-influenced score and had large casts and sets and were identified as much by their notable effects — a falling chandelier (in Phantom), a helicopter landing on stage (in Miss Saigon) — as they were by anything else in the production. Many were based on novels or other works of literature. The most important writers of mega-musicals include the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, responsible for Les Misérables, which became the longest-running international musical hit in history. the team, in collaboration with Richard Maltby, Jr., continued to produce hits with Miss Saigon (inspired by Madame Butterfly). The British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, saw similar mega-success with Evita, based on the life of Argentina’s Eva Perón; Cats, derived from the poems of T. S. Eliot; The Phantom of the Opera, derived from the novel “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” written by Gaston Leroux; and Sunset Boulevard (from the classic film of the same name). Several of these mega-musicals ran (or are still running) for decades in both New York and London. The 90s also saw the influence of large corporations on the production of musicals. The most important has been The Walt Disney Company, which began adapting some of its animated movie musicals—such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King—for the stage, and also created original stage productions like Aida, with music by Elton John. Disney continues to create new musicals for Broadway and West End theatres, most recently with its adaptation of its 1999 animated feature, Tarzan. lThe growing scale (and cost) of musicals led to some concern that musicals were eschewing substance in favour of style. In contrast, the last two decades of the 20th century saw many writers create smaller scale, but critically-acclaimed and financially successful musicals (Falsettoland, Passion, Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy: The Musical, Blood Brothers). The topics vary widely, and the music ranges from rock to pop, but they often are produced off-Broadway (or for smaller London theatres) and feature smaller casts and generally less expensive productions. Some of these have been noted as imaginative and innovative. There also had been a concern that the musical had lost touch with the tastes of the general public, that the cost of musicals was escalating beyond the budget of many theatregoers, and that the musical was increasingly doomed to be viewed by a smaller and smaller audience. Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent (based on the opera La Bohème) attempted to increase the popularity of musicals among a younger audience. It features a cast of twenty somethings, and the score is heavily rock-influenced. The musical became a hit, even with its composer dying of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop, before he could see it reach Broadway. A group of young fans, styled RENT-heads, line up at the Nederlander Theatre hours early in hopes of winning the lottery for $20 front row tickets, and some have seen the show more than 50 times. Other writers who have attempted to bring a taste of modern rock music to the stage include Jason Robert Brown.
Another trend has been to create a minimal plot to fit a collection of songs that have already been hits. These have included Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story (1995), Movin’ Out (2002, based on the tunes of Billy Joel), Good Vibrations (the Beach Boys), All Shook Up (Elvis Presley), Jersey Boys (2006, The Four Seasons), Daddy Cool—The Boney M Musical, and many others. This style is often referred to as the “jukebox musical”. Similar but more plot-driven musicals have been built around the canon of a particular pop group including Mamma Mia! (1999, featuring songs by ABBA), Our House (based on the songs of Madness), and We Will Rock You (based on the works of Queen). In recent years, familiarity has been embraced by producers anxious to guarantee that they recoup their considerable investments, if not show a healthy profit. Some are willing to take (usually modest-budget) chances on the new and unusual, such as Urinetown (2001), Bombay Dreams (2002; about the “Bollywood” musicals churned out by Indian cinema), Avenue Q (2003; utilises puppets to tell its adult-themed story), and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005; people watching the show can become “spellers” in the show). But the majority prefer to hedge their bets by sticking with revivals of familiar fare like Wonderful Town or Fiddler on the Roof or proven hits like La Cage aux Folles. Today’s composers are finding their sources in already proven material, such as films (The Producers, Spamalot, Hairspray, Billy Elliot, and The Colour Purple – roughly one-third of the current Broadway musicals are based on films); or classic literature such as Little Women, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Dracula — hoping that the shows will have a built-in audience as a result. The reuse of plots, especially those from The Walt Disney Company, has been considered by some critics to be a redefinition of Broadway: rather than a creative outlet, it has become a tourist attraction. The lack of new concept shows like Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods further underlines this.
The musical is being pulled in a number of different directions. Gone are the days when a sole producer – a David Merrick or a Cameron Mackintosh — backs a production. Corporate sponsors dominate Broadway, and often alliances are formed to stage musicals which require an investment of $10 million or more. In 2002, the credits for Thoroughly Modern Millie listed ten producers, and among those names were entities comprised of several individuals. Typically, off-Broadway and regional theatres tend to produce smaller and therefore less expensive musicals, and development of new musicals has increasingly taken place outside of New York and London or in smaller venues. Spring Awakening was developed off-Broadway before being launched on Broadway in 2006.
It also appears that the spectacle format is on the rise again, returning to the times when Romans would have mock sea battles on stage. This was true of Starlight Express and is most apparent in the musical adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that ran in Toronto, Canada in 2006, and opened for previews in May 2007 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London, billed as the biggest stage production in musical theatre history. The expensive production lost money in Toronto. Conversely, The Drowsy Chaperone, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Xanadu and others are part of a Broadway trend to present musicals uninterrupted by an intermission, with short running time of less than two hours. The latter two, together with works like Avenue Q, also represent a trend towards presenting smaller-scale, small cast musicals that are able to show a good profit in a smaller house.
Is it a Theatre Production of a Film or a Film Production of a show???
With Moulin Rouge! (2001), Baz Luhrmann revived the moribund movie musical. This was followed by a string of film successes, including Chicago in 2002, Phantom of the Opera in 2004, Dreamgirls in 2006 and Hairspray in 2007. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000) and The Cat in the Hat (2003), made the children’s book into live-action musicals. Disney and other animated musicals and more adult animated musical films, like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999), paved the way for the revival of the movie musical. In addition, India is producing numerous “Bollywood” film musicals, and Japan is producing “Anime” film musicals. Occasionally, “made for TV” movies, such as High School Musical (2006), are made in musical format. Some recent television shows have set an episode as a musical as a play on their usual format (examples include episodes of Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s episode Once More, with Feeling, Oz’s Variety, or Space Ghost Coast to Coast’s O Coast to Coast!/Boatshow) or have included scenes where characters suddenly begin singing and dancing in a musical-theatre style during an episode, such as in several episodes of The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy. Scrubs also featured a recent musical episode, which was written by the creators of Broadway hit Avenue Q. The television series Cop Rock, which extensively used the musical format, was not a success, while the series The Mighty Boosh regularly features musical sequences and has had some acclaim.
Musicals not from the West-end or Broadway????
The U.S. and Britain were the most active sources of book musicals from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century (although Europe produced various forms of popular light opera and operetta, for example Spanish Zarzuela, during that period and even earlier). However, the light musical stage in other countries has become more active in recent decades. Musicals from other English speaking countries (notably Australia) often do well locally, and occasionally even reach Broadway or the West End (e.g., The Boy from Oz). Successful musicals from continental Europe include shows from (among other countries) Germany (Elixier and Ludwig II ), Austria (Dance of the Vampires and Elisabeth), France (Notre Dame de Paris, Les Misérables and Romeo & Juliette) and Spain (Hoy No Me Puedo Levantar). Japan has recently seen the growth of an indigenous form of musical theatre, both animated and live action, mostly based on Anime and Manga, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Tenimyu). The popular Sailor Moon metaseries has had twenty-nine Sailor Moon musicals, spanning thirteen years. Beginning in 1914, a series of popular revues have been performed by the all-female Takarazuka Revue, which currently fields five performing troupes. The Indian Bollywood musical, mostly in the form of motion pictures, is tremendously successful and South Africa has an active musical theatre scene, with revues like African Footprint and Umoja and book musicals, such as Kat and the Kings by David Kramer and Taliep Petersen and Sarafina! by Mbongeni Ngema touring internationally. Locally, musicals like Vere, Love and Green Onions, Over the Rainbow: the all-new all-gay… extravaganza and Bangbroek Mountain are recent original musical theatre projects.