A significant and truly wonderful aspect of the entertainment scene in America is the American Musical Theater. Gifted and creative composers and lyricists have created many memorable shows over decades bringing joy, excitement, fantasy and the love of music to millions.
Dating back many centuries, even before Christ, the musical drama or musical theater was a part of ancient Greek life, as evidenced by their tragedies and comedies. However, the American Musical Theater had its beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in England.
Progenitors of the American Musical were music dramas and comedies by British composers and writers such as Gilbert and Sullivan and others. The French composer, Jacques Offenbach, composer of the “Can-Can,” was very popular. Most of the early musicals came from Europe. Our American composers had many models to study and improve upon when writing their own musicals. The first successful original American show was the Black Crook which premiered in New York in 1866. it included what was to become part of the American Musical—chorus girls, production numbers, costuming, dance numbers and songs.
Not withstanding the European influences, Americans wanted to create their own style of original musical theater. Early examples of this expression were somewhat similar to the British models. The March King, John Philip Sousa, penned an operetta El Capitan in 1896. George M. Cohan (1878-1942) in 1904 produced Little Johnny Jones. Cohan was an important contributor in the early 20th century to a uniquely adaptation of the British style. He believed that almost any storyline will work if the proper songs, dances, routines and comic episodes were present.
Victor Herbert (1859-1924) was a giant in terms of early American Operettas. His most famous were the Fortune Teller produced in 1898, Babes in Toyland in 1903, The Red Mill in 1906 and Naughty Marietta in 1910. Jerome Kern (1885-1945) was another influential composer after the turn of the century. “Kern’s later works demonstrated that a musical could combine light, popular entertainment with continuity between its story and songs” said John Jones in his book Our Musicals, Our Selves. Kerns influence on musical theater can still be felt to this day.
In 1927, the production of Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II was a breakthrough in the development of musical theater. This show was termed a musical play where book and music were equal partners thus distinguishing it from musical comedy.
The 1930’s brought the musical to a different type of storyline. In 1935 George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess setting the stage for a new era of political and social storylines. These plots were later developed in West Side Story in 1957 by Leonard Bernstein and Sweeney Todd in 1979 by Stephen Sondheim.
The 1940’s through the 1960’s ushered in what is known as the Golden Age of Musicals. Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma in 1943 is still considered a blockbuster musical today. With this show, a significant American art form was born. After Oklahoma ran for 2,212 performances it was made into a film. Other smash hits by Rogers and Hammerstein followed: Carousel in 1945, South Pacific in 1949, The King and I in 1951 and The Sound of Music in 1959. Many other great shows were produced during this period including Guys and Dolls, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Music Man.
In the 1960’s Fantastics was first produced off-Broadway. Hit shows from this era include Funny Girl, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Hello Dolly, Mame, and Hair.
The 1970’s saw the rock musical rise in number and popularity. Notable shows were Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Rocky Horror Show, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Chorus Line, and Chicago.
Mega musicals and pop operas emerged in the 80’s and 90’s with smash hits such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Miserables is still a long-running international hit. The Disney Company produced the popular Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
John Kenrick in his book, History of Stage Musicals, sums up this genre of music very well when he writes, “Is the musical dead? Absolutely not. Changing? Always! Change is the clearest sign that the musical is still a living, growing genre. Will we ever return to the so called ‘Golden Age’ with musicals at the center of popular culture? Probably not. Public taste has under gone fundamental changes, and the commercial arts can only flow where the paying public allows.”
We, the fortunate public, have been blessed by the plethora of outstanding musicals in our lifetime to enjoy and preserve for future generations of theater-goers.