The American musical theater of the twentieth century is a widely diverse genre that encompasses a variety of styles. From traditional operettas and musical comedies by composers such as Sigmund Romberg and George Gershwin in the early part of the century, through mid-century dramatic works by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and their contemporaries, to shows that expand the boundaries of the genre by creators such as Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical has been immensely popular with audiences worldwide for over one hundred years. A work in which music and drama are combined in various ways, the Broadway musical adds dance, costumes, sets, orchestration, and musical style to the basic duality of music and drama to create a singular contribution to both American and global popular culture.
Works for the musical stage appeared in the United States prior to the twentieth century, thus establishing important precedents for the Broadway musical. Important genres included European-style opera, ballad opera, minstrel shows, and vaudeville. The first Broadway musical is generally acknowledged to be The Black Crook (1866). This show was significant for two reasons: it established New York City as a center for musical theater; and it played for 475 performances, instituting a defining goal of the successful Broadway musical—a long commercial run.
During the first third of the twentieth century, three distinct types of musical theater co-existed on Broadway stages: revue, musical comedy, and operetta. The revue was a performer-based genre and included comic skits and songs, often on a central topic. Ziegfeld's Follies, Shubert's Passing Shows, George White's Scandals, and Irving Berlin's Music Box Revues were among the most popular series of revues. Significant composers for the revue included Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Fannie Brice, Marilyn Miller, Will Rogers, and Al Jolson were just a few of the stars whose fame was established in the genre.
The musical comedy was similar to a revue but included a dramatic plot. It featured everyday characters in everyday, albeit comic, situations. The emphasis was on individual musical numbers and star performers. George M. Cohan, Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Cole Porter, and the collaborative team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were important contributors to the genre. Among Gershwin's most important shows were Lady, Be Good! (1924); Oh, Kay! (1926); and Girl Crazy (1930). These works, along with Youmans's No, No, Nanette (1925); Porter's Anything Goes (1934); and Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee (1927); Babes in Arms (1937); and Pal Joey (1940) virtually defined the musical comedy. Ethel Merman, Fred and Adele Astaire, and Gertrude Lawrence were but three of the many stars associated with the genre.
The third style of musical theater, operetta, consisted of works which were set in a time and place other than the present. The genre was dominated by the entire musical score, rather than by individual musical numbers and star performers. Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml were the principal composers of operetta during the 1920s. Romberg's The Student Prince (1924); The Desert Song (1926); and The New Moon (1928); and Friml's Rose-Marie (1924) and The Three Musketeers (1928) were among the era's most popular Broadway shows. With the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the operetta generally lost favor—audiences in the 1930s preferred the brash musical comedy to the sentimental operetta. They preferred laughter to tears.
The era of the modern musical began with Show Boat (1927, music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). In this seminal work, character development and dramatic plot took precedence over music and performers. Music, superb as it was, was intended to serve the plot. Songs such as "Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," and "You Are Love" were integral to the storyline of Show Boat. They were not mere decoration or entertainment. The creators of Show Boat addressed serious issues such as racial intolerance, alcoholism, and desertion in their plot. No longer was the musical theater the domain of only effervescent musical comedy and revue and romantic operetta.
The "mature" musical, in which music and lyrics were integrated into the plot, continued in the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Their historic collaboration began with Oklahoma! (1943) and ended with The Sound of Music (1959). Their nine shows included Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951). Rodgers and Hammerstein used song as a means of defining a character. Numbers such as "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" from Oklahoma!, "Soliloquy" from Carousel, "Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific, and "Something Wonderful" from The King and I humanized and personalized the characters who sang them in ways which were virtually unprecedented in the Broadway musical. Songs now revealed the emotions and situations of the character rather than those of the songwriter. Rodgers and Hammerstein were often criticized for being "preachy" in their shows. They addressed serious social concerns in their shows, including racial prejudice, the role of children in society, and the victory of good over evil in war. In addition to an emphasis on dramatic content, the team established a form for the musical—a long first act which culminated in a dramatic climax followed by a much shorter second act in which the dramatic conflict was resolved as quickly as possible.
Contemporaries of Rodgers and Hammerstein who adopted their basic approach to the musical included Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (Brigadoon , My Fair Lady , and Camelot ), and Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls , The Most Happy Fella , and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying ). Other popular shows from mid-century which followed the general plan established by Rodgers and Hammerstein included Finian's Rainbow (1947, music by Burton Lane, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg); Kiss Me, Kate (1948, music and lyrics by Cole Porter); Damn Yankees (1955, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross); West Side Story (1957, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim); The Music Man (1957, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson); Gypsy (1959, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim); Hello, Dolly! (1964, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman); Fiddler on the Roof (1964, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick); and Man of La Mancha (1965, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion). The creators of these shows took the Rodgers and Hammerstein model and expanded it in a variety of ways. Shakespeare provided the inspiration for Kiss Me, Kate (a show which incorporated The Taming of the Shrew) and West Side Story (a transformation of Romeo and Juliet), while his Spanish contemporary Cervantes actually appeared as a character in Man of La Mancha. Myth and legend materialized on stage in Brigadoon, Camelot, and Finian's Rainbow.
The mid-century produced a number of significant musical theater stars. Among the most famous female performers were Julie Andrews, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Chita Rivera, and Gwen Verdon. Male stars included Alfred Drake, Zero Mostel, Robert Preston, and John Raitt. Occasionally, male stars on Broadway were true opera singers, as in the cases of Ezio Pinza and Robert Weede.
During the final third of the century, creators for the Broadway stage made attempts to expand the boundaries of the musical theater in various ways. The concept musical, developed by Stephen Sondheim in works such as Company (1970) and Follies (1971), was a type of show in which narrative plot in the traditional sense did not exist. Composer Marvin Hamlisch, lyricist Edward Kleban, and director-choreographer Michael Bennett chose this approach for A Chorus Line (1975), a show in which each auditionee for a chorus line tells his or her life story. John Kander and Fred Ebb also used the general principle of the concept musical in Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975). In these shows, the team used song to comment on plot developments rather than to present the narrative in a purely linear fashion. Cabaret featured the song "Willkomen" (sung by Joel Grey), and Chicago's opening number was "All That Jazz" (per-formed by Gwen Verdon).
Musicals that eschewed the traditional lyrical style of Broadway song and replaced it with rock numbers included Hair (1968, music by Galt MacDermot); Godspell (1971, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz); Jesus Christ Superstar (1971, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice); The Who's Tommy (1993); and Rent (1996, music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson). These shows demonstrate the ability of a Broadway show to incorporate current popular music styles; however, this style of show has yet to enter the mainstream American musical theater. Even at the end of the twentieth century, shows with traditional-sounding scores, generally with soft-rock influences, are those that achieve the greatest popularity with audiences and critics.
Catalog musicals—those that feature the music of a particular composer or performer—are another type of Broadway musical that does not include typical Broadway music. Some shows based on this formula are Ain't Misbehavin' (1978, based on Fats Waller); Sophisticated Ladies (1981, based on Duke Ellington); Five Guys Named Moe (1992, based on Louis Jordan); and Jelly's Last Jam (1992, based on Jelly Roll Morton).
During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, composers continued to write traditional-style shows in the wake of these other developments. Musicals such as Annie (1977, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin); Barnum (1980, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart); Big River (1985, music and lyrics by Roger Miller); City of Angels (1989, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by David Zippel); Once on this Island (1990, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens); The Secret Garden (1991, music by Lucy Simon, book and lyrics by Marsha Norman); and Ragtime (1998, music by Flaherty, lyrics by Ahrens) took the traditional style of musical and proved that it could be adapted for stories as diverse as the comic book world of Annie, the 1940s spy world of City of Angels, and a Caribbean island in Once on this Island. Literature was musicalized in the cases of Big River (Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), The Secret Garden (novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett), and Ragtime (novel by E. L. Doctorow) to great success.
Film became an important source for musical theater works in the last quarter of the century. Musicals based on motion pictures included 42nd Street (1980, music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin); The Goodbye Girl (1993, music by Marvin Hamlisch); Sunset Boulevard (1994, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton); and Passion (1994, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). Perhaps the most significant shows in this genre, however, are the Disney productions of Beauty and the Beast (1994, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice) and The Lion King (1997, songs by Elton John and Tim Rice).
Earlier genres made their reappearance on Broadway in the final decades of the century either through original works or bona fide revivals. The revue reasserted itself in Cats (1982, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics based on T. S. Eliot) and The Will Rogers Follies (1991, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). Significant revivals during the 1990s included Guys and Dolls (1992), Show Boat (1994), Carousel (1994), Damn Yankees (1994), How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1995), The King and I (1996), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1996), and Chicago (1996). Revivals have come to be so important on Broadway that the Tony Awards now include the category Best Revival.
Other changes in the overall concept of the Broadway musical took place during the final decades of the century as well. Chief among these was the move toward a totally sung musical. Drama was no longer to be exclusively in the domain of spoken language. Plot could be advanced largely through music, as in opera. Although shows such as The Most Happy Fella were groundbreaking in this approach, it became much more mainstream in works such as Lloyd Webber's Evita and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979).
When the sung-through (or nearly so) musical was infused with spectacular sets, stage effects, and costumes, the so-called "mega-musical" emerged. These shows are meant to dazzle the audience with visual effects which at least match, if not surpass, the aural ones. Theatricality is paramount. Shows such as Cats, Les Miserables (1987, music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg, lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer); The Phantom of the Opera (1988, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe); Miss Saigon (1991, music by Schoenberg, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Boublil); and Sunset Boulevard are prime examples of this approach. Sets are as important as the characters. The tire in Cats (as well as the entire theater), the barricade in Les Miserables, the ghostly candelabra and huge chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera, the helicopter in Miss Saigon, and the staircase in Sunset Boulevard are as central to each of the shows as are the human characters. These mega-musicals have their roots in London's West End (the British equivalent of Broadway, which has a fascinating heritage of its own), where directors such as Cameron Mackintosh apply their lavish treatment to the genre.
In the course of the twentieth century, the Broadway musical has developed from an entertainment, whether comic (musical comedy and revue) or romantic (operetta), into a substantial artistic genre. Shows from as early as 1927 (Show Boat) included moral and social messages, a trend which continued through the middle part of the century with Rodgers and Hammerstein and into the latter years of the century. Many shows from the 1980s and 1990s included a "song of social injustice" in which there is a call for popular response to a particular issue. "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miserables, "Anthem" from Chess (1988, music by Benny Andreson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice); "Bui Doi" from Miss Saigon ; and "The Day after That" from Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb) are significant examples of such songs.
The final part of the twentieth century has also produced a number of significant musical theater stars. Actresses include Judy Kuhn, Angela Lansbury, Rebecca Luker, Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, and Bernadette Peters. Actors include Michael Crawford, Nathan Lane, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Mandy Patinkin.
The Broadway musical has contributed to both the popular music and film industries. Many songs from Broadway shows have gone on to achieve popularity outside of the theater. Broadway was tied closely to Tin Pan Alley (the American popular music style) until World War II. Gershwin standards such as "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me" were introduced in Broadway shows, as were many Porter and Rodgers and Hart songs. This trend has continued through the century, with Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" (from A Little Night Music); Schoenberg-Boublil's "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" (from Les Miserables, the latter of which has become an anthem for AIDS research); and Lloyd Webber's "Music of the Night" (from The Phantom of the Opera) being relevant examples from the last decades of the century. Singers ranging from opera stars Kiri TeKanawa and Bryn Terfel to popular singers Barbra Streisand (who got her start on Broadway), Judy Collins, and Frank Sinatra have included Broadway songs in their repertoires. Conversely, pop singers such as Paula Abdul appeared on Broadway musical stages during the 1990s.
The Broadway musical is not limited to Broadway, however. Film versions of Broadway musicals have appeared since the late 1920s. The Desert Song (1929, Warner Brothers) was the first of a long line of film adaptations which continued through the mid-century with a string of Rodgers and Hammerstein films, among others, to the end of the century with Evita (1996, Cinergi Pictures). Touring productions, resident companies, and amateur and school productions of Broadway musicals have also done much to promote the genre outside of New York City. The musical is certainly one of the popular forms of theatrical entertainment with the American—and world—public.
The American musical theater is a widely diverse form of popular entertainment. Its many guises range from pure entertainment to tales with strong moral messages. The Broadway musical has had a dramatic impact on American popular culture not only because of the shows themselves but also because of the individual hit songs that were introduced in the shows. Furthermore, a number of the century's most popular musical personalities established their professional careers on Broadway's musical stages.
—William A. Everett
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