Musical Theater

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Musical theater is a form of theater combining music, songs, spoken dialog, and dance. The varied emotional aspects of the production—humor, pathos, love, anger—as well as the story itself, are communicated through the words, music, dance, and staging of the entertainment as an integrated whole.

Musical theater works, usually referred to as "musicals," are performed around the world. They may be presented in large venues, such as big budget West End and Broadway theater productions in London and New York City, or in smaller off-Broadway or regional productions, on tour, or by amateur groups in schools, theaters, and other informal stages. In addition to Britain and the United States, there are vibrant musical theater scenes in Germany, Austria, the Philippines, France, Canada, Japan, Eastern Europe, Australia, and many other countries.

Some of the best-loved musicals, such as Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and Fiddler on the Roof, provide uplifting, optimistic messages and memorable songs that have established them as standards for both professional and amateur theater companies.

Introduction and definitions

The three main components of a musical are the music, the lyrics, and the "book." The "book" refers to the "play" or plot of the show. The music and lyrics together form the score of the musical. The interpretation of the musical by the creative team heavily influences the way that the musical is presented. The creative team includes a director, a musical director, and usually a choreographer. A musical production is also creatively characterized by technical aspects, such as set, costumes, stage properties, lighting, etc. that generally change from production to production.

Poster advertising Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado

There is no fixed length for a musical, and it can range from a short, one-act entertainment to several acts and several hours in length (or even a multi-evening presentation); however, most musicals range from one and a half hours to three hours. Musicals today are typically presented in two acts, with one intermission 10 to 20 minutes in length. The first act is almost always somewhat longer than the second act, and generally introduces most of the music. A musical may be built around four to six main theme tunes that are reprized throughout the show, or consist of a series of songs not directly musically related. Spoken dialog is generally interspersed between musical numbers, with some exceptions.

Types of musical theater include: "comic opera" (or "light opera," denoting a sung dramatic work, usually with a happy ending); "operetta" (a genre of light opera which is "light" in terms both of music and subject matter); "musical play," "musical comedy," "burlesque" (theatrical entertainment usually consisting of comic skits and sometimes a striptease); "music hall" (variety entertainment involving a mixture of popular song, comedy, and specialty acts); and "revue" (multi-act theatrical entertainment that combines music, dance, and sketches). Some works can be described by more than one of the above categories.

A show often opens with a song that sets the tone of the musical, introduces some or all of the major characters, and shows the setting of the play. Within the compressed nature of the musical, the writers must develop the characters and the plot. Music provides a means to express emotion.

Many familiar musical theater works have been the basis for popular musical films. Conversely, there has been a trend in recent decades to adapt musicals from the screen to the stage, both from popular animated film musicals.



Musical theater in Europe dates back to the theater of the ancient Greeks, who included music and dance in their stage comedies and tragedies as early as the fifth century B.C.E. Aeschylus and Sophocles even composed their own music to accompany their plays. The third century B.C.E. Roman comedies of Plautus included song and dance routines performed with orchestrations. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, religious dramas taught the liturgy, set to church chants. By the Renaissance, these forms had evolved into commedia dell'arte, an Italian tradition where raucous clowns improvised their way through familiar stories. Molière turned several of his comedies into musical entertainments with songs in the late 1600s.

Painting based on The Beggar's Opera, Scene V, William Hogarth, c. 1728

By the 1700s, two forms of musical theater were popular in Britain, France, and Germany: ballad operas, such as 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. The opera buffa, a form of comic opera, emerged in Naples in the mid-eighteenth century. In addition to these sources, musical theater traces its lineage to vaudeville, British music hall, melodrama and burlesque.

New York did not have a significant theater presence until 1752, when William Hallam sent a company of 12 actors to the colonies with his brother Lewis as their manager. They established a theater first 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. Broadway's first "long-run" musical record 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 Seven Sisters (1860) shattered previous New York records with a run of 253 performances.

Development of musical comedy

Poster for The Black Crook

The first theater piece that conforms to the modern conception of a musical 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. These musical comedies featured characters and situations taken from the everyday life of New York's lower classes and represented a significant step away from vaudeville and burlesque, and towards a more literate form. They starred high-quality singers (Edna May, Lillian Russell, Vivienne Segal, and Fay Templeton) instead of the earlier ladies of questionable repute.

Poster for an early production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore

The length of runs in the theater 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 theaters increased enormously. Plays could run longer and still draw in 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 a new record of 1,362 performances.

Musical theater 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. In addition, Gilbert and Sullivan produced 13 of the best-known comic operas between 1871 and 1896, including The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. Gilbert, who wrote the words, also created the fanciful topsy-turvy worlds for these operas, where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion. Sullivan composed the music, contributing memorable melodies that could convey both humor and pathos. Producer Richard D'Oyly Carte brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and nurtured their collaboration. He built the Savoy Theater in 1881 to present their works—which came to be known as the Savoy Operas. The collaboration introduced innovations in content and form that directly influenced the development of musical theater through the twentieth century.

Alfred Cellier and B. C. Stephenson's 1886 hit Dorothy had a record-breaking 931 performances. The most popular of these London shows also enjoyed profitable New York productions and tours of Britain, America, Europe, Australasia, and South Africa.

Charles Hoyt's A Trip to Chinatown (1891) was Broadway's long-run champion in the nineteenth century, running for 657 performances. Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas were imitated in New York by productions such as Reginald DeKoven's Robin Hood (1891) and John Philip Sousa's El Capitan (1896).

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. Still, New York runs continued to be relatively short compared with London runs, until World War I.

George Edwardes

Meanwhile, in London George Edwardes perceived that theatergoers' tastes had turned away from Savoy-style comic operas typified by Gilbert and Sullivan, with their intellectually sophisticated, and absurdest satire. He saw that audiences wanted breezy music, snappy, romantic banter, and stylish spectacle. He revolutionized the London stage by presenting musical comedies at the Gaiety Theater, Daly's Theater, 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 the first of these, In Town in 1892 and A Gaiety Girl in 1893, 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. These shows were immediately widely copied at other London theaters (and soon in America), and the Edwardian musical comedy swept away the earlier musical forms of comic opera and operetta.

The British musical comedy Florodora (1899) made a splash on both sides of the Atlantic, as did A Chinese Honeymoon (1901), which ran for a record-setting 1,074 performances in London and 376 in New York. 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.

Operetta and World War I

Among the best-known composers of operetta, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, were Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II. 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 America in the 1870s and 1880s. Although British and American musicals of the 1890s and the first few years of the twentieth 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 theater going public, who needed escapist entertainment during the dark times of World War I and flocked to theaters for musicals like Maid of the Mountains and Irene.

Victor Herbert

In the early twentieth century, translations of nineteenth-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 of the 1910s (the "Princess Theater" 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, and Naughty Marietta (1910). These all owed much to Gilbert and Sullivan and the composers of the 1890s.

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 theaters filled with lively musical entertainments, as the Shubert Brothers began to take control of the Broadway theaters.

The Roaring Twenties

By the end of the 1920s, motion pictures like The Jazz Singer could be presented with synchronized sound, and critics wondered if the cinema would replace live theater altogether. The musicals of the Roaring Twenties, borrowing from vaudeville, music hall, and other light entertainments, tended to ignore the plot in favor of emphasizing star actors and actresses, big dance routines, and popular songs.

George Gershwin

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 no common theme tying the various numbers together. In London, the Aldwych Farces were similarly successful.

Typical of the decade were lighthearted productions like, Lady Be Good; No, No, Nanette; and Funny Face. Their "books" may have been forgettable, but they produced enduring standards in music from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, among others. Audiences attended these musicals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean while continuing to patronize the popular operettas that were continuing to come out of continental Europe and also from composers like Noel Coward in London and Sigmund Romberg in America. Clearly, cinema had not killed live theater.

Show Boat, which premiered on December 27, 1927 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York, took a giant step beyond the sentimental operetta. The show represented a complete integration of book and score, with dramatic themes, as told through the music, dialog, setting and movement, woven seamlessly together. 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—interracial love among them—the original production ran a total of 572 performances. Still, Broadway runs lagged behind London's in general.

The 1930s

Fred and Adele Astaire

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), with a score by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, starred dancing partners Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. While it was primarily a revue, it served as the basis for two subsequent film versions that were book musicals in the truest sense. Porter's Anything Goes (1934) affirmed Ethel Merman's position as the First Lady of musical theater—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, 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 satirizing the good intentions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Great Depression affected theater audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, as people had little money to spend on entertainment. 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 theater. The musical had finally evolved beyond the gags-and-showgirls musicals of the Gay Nineties and Roaring Twenties, integrating dramatic stories into the earlier comic forms (e.g., burlesque and farce), and building on the romantic and musical heritage that it had received from operetta.

The Golden Age (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).


The career of Annie Oakley inspired Irving Berlin's hit musical, Annie Get Your Gun

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! had a cohesive plot, songs that furthered the action of the story, and featured ballets which advanced the plot and developed the characters. 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 Morning. It was the first "blockbuster" Broadway show, running a total of 2,212 performances, and remains one of the most frequently produced of the team's projects. The two collaborators created an extraordinary collection of some of musical theater'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 24-hour shore leave in New York.

The success of 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).


Leonard Bernstein made modern dance an integral part of West Side Story.

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. Popular Hollywood movies were made of these musicals.

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 was not as popular as Meredith Willson's The Music Man which won that year's Tony Award. West Side Story had a respectable run of 732 Broadway performances, while The Music Man ran nearly twice as long, with 1,375. 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, but proved to be a bigger hit in its three subsequent revivals, with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Bernadette Peters tackling the role made famous by Ethel Merman.


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), 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, Company (1970), Follies (1971), and A Little Night Music (1973).

Jerry Herman's first Broadway production was Milk and Honey (1961, 563 performances), about the founding of the state of Israel. He followed this with the smash hits Hello, Dolly! (1964, 2,844 performances), Mame (1966, 1,508 performances), and La Cage aux Folles (1983, 1,761 performances).

The musical had 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 writers were emboldened to create musicals which promoted religious toleration and racial harmony. Early Golden Age works that focused on racial tolerance included Finian's Rainbow, South Pacific, and the The King and I. Toward the end of the Golden Age, several shows tackled Jewish subjects and issues, such as Fiddler on the Roof, Blitz!, and later Rags. West Side Story provided a message of racial tolerance. By the end of the 1960s, the casts of musicals became integrated, with black and white cast members even covering each others' roles, as they did in Hair. Homosexuality was explored in some musicals, beginning with Hair and more overtly in La Cage aux Folles.

More recent eras


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. Increasingly, different musical genres were turned into musicals either on or off-Broadway.

In 1976, A Chorus Line emerged from recorded group therapy-style sessions Michael Bennett conducted with performers who sing and dance in support of the leading players from the Broadway community. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line first opened at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in lower Manhattan.

Evita Peron, inspiration of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical Evita

What initially had been planned as a limited engagement eventually moved to the Shubert Theater uptown for a major run. The show swept the Tony Awards, won the Pulitzer Prize, and its hit song "What I Did for Love" became a standard.

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 the 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 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. But during this same period, old-fashioned musical-theater values were still embraced in such hits as Annie, 42nd Street, My One and Only, and popular revivals of No, No, Nanette and Irene.

1980s and 1990s

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 and, in collaboration with Richard Maltby, Jr., Miss Saigon (inspired by Madame Butterfly); and the British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote 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 1990s 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 theaters, most recently with its adaptation of its 1999 animated feature, Tarzan.

Recent trends

Corporate sponsors dominate Broadway today, 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 10 producers.

Typically, off-Broadway and regional theaters 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. Wicked, for example, first opened in San Francisco, and its creative team relied on the critical reviews there to assist them in retooling the show before it reached Broadway, where it ultimately became a major success. Indeed, the 1990s and 2000s have seen many writers create smaller-scale musicals (Falsettoland, Passion, Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy: The Musical, and Blood Brothers).

On Broadway, some production companies have risked creating new musicals such as Urinetown (2001), Bombay Dreams (2002), Avenue Q (2003), and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005). However, the majority prefer to hedge their bets by sticking with revivals of familiar fare and proven hits like Wonderful Town, Fiddler on the Roof, or La Cage aux Folles.

The Lion King attracts many tourists in New York.

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), etc. This style is often referred to as "jukebox musicals." 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) and We Will Rock You (based on the works of Queen).

Films provide another source for today's composers; for example: Hairspray, The Lion King, and The Color 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. 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.

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, billed as the biggest stage production in musical theater history.

Despite concern that the musical had lost touch with the tastes of the general public and that the cost of musicals was escalating beyond the budget of many patrons, in the 2006-2007 season, 12 million tickets were purchased on Broadway for a gross sale amount of almost $1 billion. The League of American Theaters and Producers announced that more than half of those tickets were purchased by tourists (five million domestic and 1.3 million foreign). This does not include off-Broadway and smaller venues. These statistics were near historic records.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bloom, Ken. Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. London: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2004. ISBN 1579123902
  • Botto, Louis. At This Theatre. London: Applause Books, 2002. ISBN 1557835667
  • Kantor, Michael, & Laurence Maslon. Broadway: The American Musical. reprint ed. New York: Bulfinch Press, 2004. ISBN 0821229052
  • Mordden, Ethan. Beautiful Mornin': The Broadway Musical in the 1940s. Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0195128516

External links

All links retrieved November 10, 2022.


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