History of Musical Theatre
Musical theatre, the art of telling stories through or with songs, goes back to ancient India, or at least to the ancient Greeks, who included music and dance in their comedies and tragedies as early as the 5th century B.C. The Roman comedies of Plautus in the 3rd century B.C. included songs and dance routines with orchestrations.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, liturgy was taught through religious dramas that sometimes alternated dialogues in prose and liturgical chants. Near the Renaissance, these forms had evolved into the commedia dell’arte, an Italian tradition where stentorian clowns improvised their art through family stories, and from there, into the opera buffa.
By the 1700s, two forms of musical theatre were popular in Britain, France and Germany: ballad operas, such as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), with popular songs and new lyrics, and comic operas, with original music and lyrics.
In addition to these sources, musical theatre traces its lineage back to vaudeville, the British music hall, melodrama and burlesque.
The first long-term work of any kind recorded was The Beggar’s Opera, which had 62 successive performances in London (1728).
According to the best contemporary studies, the first musical work of long duration in America was Flora or The Hob on the Wall, a ballad opera presented in Charleston around 1735.
New York did not have a significant theatrical presence until about 1750, and the first recorded Broadway “lasting” musical with 50 performances was The Elves in 1857.
Development of the modern musical
It is thought that the first play subject to the modern conception of a musical was The Black Crook, which premiered in New York on September 12, 1866. The production was an astonishing five-and-a-half hours in length, but despite this, it reached an exceptional 474 performances.
Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart produced musicals on Broadway between 1878 and 1884 with characters and situations taken from the daily life of New York’s lower classes.
Hundreds of musical comedies were brought to the Broadway stage in the 1890s and early 1900s but, between 1875 and World War I, the longest-running musicals were predominantly British: works by Gilbert and Sullivan, Alfred Cellier and B. C.
Stephenson, George Edwardes, Paul Rubens, George Dance with American composer Howard Talbot, Seymour Hicks (with American producer Charles Forman) with composer Charles Taylor and others.
Musicals were initially under the influence of light opera and operetta and then competed with the latter. In England, Gilbert and Sullivan created an English equivalent of French operetta, then designed simply as a comic opera. The works of these composers in the 1870s and 1980s (together with the existing forms of burlesque, vaudeville and music hall) influenced the development of the musical.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the sentimental operettas of a new generation of specialists spread from Europe throughout the English-speaking world, displacing the first light British and American musicals.
They influenced the later work of other composers such as Kern and Hebert, also influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan and earlier composers, showing that a musical could combine a light popular touch with the true continuity between history and musical numbers, as well as in the next generation of composers.
The Roaring Twenties
At first, the films were silent and represented only a limited challenge to the theatre. But in the late 1920s, films like the Jazz Singer made critics wonder if cinema would replace live theater.
The musicals of the 1920s, which borrowed from vaudeville, music hall and other similar shows, tended to accentuate the stars, the great routines of popular dances and songs, and not the plot. Many shows were magazines with little argument.
Typical of the decade were joyful productions such as Sally, Lady Be Good, Sunny, Tip Toes, No, No, Nanette, Oh, Kay! and Funny Face.
Their libretti may have been forgettable, but they produced memorable music by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, among others.
Leaving these joyful shows, the Show Boat was premiered in New York on December 27, 1927, with a complete integration of libretto and music, with dramatic themes, said both through music and dialogue.
With a script and lyrics adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel by Oscar Hammerstein II and P. G. Wodehouse, with music by Jerome Kern, he presented a new concept that was immediately embraced by the audiences. The original production reached a total of 572 performances.
Encouraged by the success of Show Boat, the creative teams continued with this popular “format”. Of Thee I Sing (1931), with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin and M. Ryskind.
The Band Wagon (1931), with music by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, rather a magazine that originated two film versions with musical “libretti” in the true sense.
Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) affirmed Ethel Merman’s position as the First Lady of musical theater. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), a step closer to opera, in some respects foreshadowed other “opera” musicals such as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd.
The musical had finally evolved beyond the gags and chorus musicals of the happy nineties and crazy twenties, integrating dramatic stories into the earliest comic forms by adding the romantic and musical heritage it had received from operetta.