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A Brief History of Musical Theatre

Young actor on stage in front of empty theater
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Musical theatre is a relatively new art form, having emerged only within the last century. Here’s what you should know about the origins and development of musical theatre, from its fascinating roots in older styles of entertainment to likely projections for its future.

Operetta and Vaudeville

Musical theatre as we know it largely grew out of two 20th-century traditions: operetta and vaudeville. Operetta, or “light opera,” used music to tell comic, often romantic stories (think Gilbert and Sullivan). Meanwhile, vaudeville was something of a variety show that incorporated dance and music into comic situations or sketches. As a result, the earliest musicals were, as Jack Viertel puts it in The Secret Life of the American Musical:

“In its earliest phases of operetta and musical comedy, the American musical promoted romance in a somewhat unlikely context. The operetttas of the teens and ’20s were grandly ridiculous, wonderfully melodic spectaculars whose plots concerned exotic locales, and remote, romantic figures… The ‘modern’ musical comedies of Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, and Cole Porter used the emerging sounds of the Jazz Age to domesticate things. Suddenly couples were succumbing at Long Island garden parties and on college campuses.”

However, two pivotal shows must be discussed as precursors to the modern musical. In 1866, an “extravaganza” called The Black Crook was reworked to feature story, music, and dance after two producing companies chose to collaborate (after a fire left one of them without a performance venue). With elements of music and dance plus a coherent story, many argue that the piece was the precursor to the classic musical comedy—but notably, it lacked many of the corresponding attributes (such as modern language and musical vernacular) that define the genre.

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 Show Boat is closer to the story-driven musicals that grace our screens today—and it also eschewed the frivolous, light rom-com structure in favor of adopting Edna Ferber’s thought-provoking novel about race and class. Alongside the requisite love story that takes place between an innocent captain’s daughter and a rakish gambler, the show deals with issues of race and miscegenation in the segregated South. Rather than existing just for show, the songs are mostly relevant to the plot and characters, paving the way for the structure that later came to define musical theatre: the book musical.

The Book Musical

When you hear the word “musical,” odds are you immediately start thinking about what’s known as a “book musical” or an “integrated musical,” a performance in which the songs are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling and character development. In Studying Musical Theatre: Theory and Practice, Millie Taylor and Dominic Symonds offer a succinct definition:

“This type of musical tells a story using song and scene in a way that makes dramatic sense, with musical numbers appearing as apparently naturalistic extensions of spoken scenes… The protagonist expresses a need in an ‘I Want’ song near the beginning… and the rest of the show plays out the fulfilment of that need, through a series of obstacles… which are eventually resolved.”

Popular culture usually marks Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 Oklahoma as the dawning of the book musical age. The plot itself is standard-issue romantic comedy, revolving around questions such as: Which man will take Laurey to the box social? Will the town flirt Ado Annie finally settle down? But, as Viertel says, “it had a subject,” which is the key to distinguishing the book musical from the “light” shows that came before:

“It placed its rather routine romantic story against the context of impending statehood. It asked audiences to consider courtship (and marriage, and the inevitable next generation) in the light of what it meant to be an American… Suddenly, sexual love was joined to responsibility to the land, to fellow feeling and patriotism, to an implied critical review of the democratic process itself.”

The shows you picture when you hear the word “musical” are probably book musicals. Rodgers and Hammstertein were, in fact, the masters of the form. Shows like My Fair Lady, Camelot, Gypsy, and West Side Story are all book musicals. Even the animated musicals you remember from childhood are based on the book musical form, with songs relevant to the plot and characters. These include The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Anastasia.

Modern Developments

The marquee of Hamilton, An American Musical, playing at the Richard Rogers Theater
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The form of the musical has only continued to develop and evolve over the years. One such evolution is the dawn of the “sung-through musical,” which came into vogue with the “megamusicals” of the 1980s: epic musicals that are often set in a previous time period, with massive production values but little to no spoken dialogue. The “dialogue” is instead sung like recitatives in opera, but with a more modern score with obvious pop and rock influences. Andrew Lloyd Weber is the composer most often associated with this style, with titles like The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Evita under his belt. Also listed among the hits of this era is Les Misérables, a popular piece adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel.

Like the old-school book musicals, modern musicals have also incorporated the musical styles of their era into the scores. Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Rent—loosely adapted from the opera La Boheme—uses rock idioms of the ‘90s, along with the sung-through musical form and the structure of a book musical. In the Heights, the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, is structured like a classic, Oklahoma-esque book musical that sets small-stakes conflicts of individuals’ lives against the backdrop of a changing society—and it does so with a rap, a hip-hop, and a salsa score. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s composer, went on to break new ground in Hamilton, using those same rap and hip-hop idioms to deconstruct American history.

While most Broadway shows still use the traditional book structure for musicals—albeit often with pop-infused scores—experimentation continues in the theatrical pipeline. Dave Malloy, who penned the cult favorite Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, delights in strange and nonlinear works like Ghost Quartet. The 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop is a nonlinear depiction of its protagonist’s inner thoughts. As creators continue to push the boundaries, it’s all but certain that the musical will continue to evolve and expand into new creative territory.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to MindBounce. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Over the past several years, she's researched and authored a wide range of articles centered on the arts, humanities, history, and pop culture. Read Full Bio »