How musicals came to dominate theatre for 90 years
Musical theatre has dominated Broadway and West End stages for nearly a hundred years but there are five musicals that shaped the modern musical. In choosing these five musicals what I’ve tried to look at is not their quality or success at the box office but the way each one brought something innovatory to the musical.
The modern musical followed the footsteps of the European tradition of opera and Gilbert & Sullivan style operetta but it was born in America.
Song-and-dance shows in one guise or another had been produced in New York since the 19th century. These included the racist Minstrel Shows, popular variety shows in which white entertainers ‘blacked up’.
By the late 19th and the early part of the 20th century, Broadway was awash with revues. Many of these spectacular song and dance entertainments were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld under the recurring title of The Ziegfeld Follies. It was an era immortalised by films like 42nd Street and revisited by Stephen Sondheim in his musical Follies.
There were also Musical Comedies. Successors to and to some extent popular rivals to the more middle class operetta, this genre originated in late Victorian London but soon became a staple of the New York stage. They offered lightweight, often banal plots punctuated by brilliant singing and dancing. Think Fred & Ginger movies. It’s a format that’s never completely gone away.
In the Twenties The Jazz Age took hold, inspiring a range of talented composers. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and, perhaps the greatest of all, George Gershwin were all part of the Broadway scene, penning songs for revues and comedies. It was probably the most prolific period in Broadways’s history. In 1927 alone, fifty musicals were launched.
One of them launched what we know as the modern musical, or musical theatre. It was the first major musical show to feature a proper drama- and incidentally it was Florenz Ziegfeld who brought it to Broadway.
1. Show Boat
From 1912 onwards, Jerome Kern had written many musical comedies into which he brought more complex believable plots, but what he needed was a lyricist to match his vision. Then he met Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1927 they wrote Show Boat and set the template for the next 90 years of so-called ‘book musicals’, that is to say, musicals with a believable narrative and realistic dialogue. And this certainly was a serious story: it encompassed alcoholism, racism and marital conflict.
Thus the musical became a vehicle to support and enhance drama, just as opera does. As Leonard Bernstein said: ‘Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.’ As well as covering racial themes, Show Boat was the first musical show in which both black and white performers appeared and sang on stage together. And the first to feature an inter-racial marriage.
Songs drove the drama and included Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.
Other weighty musicals followed. Of Thee I Sing, a political satire from 1931 by George and Ira Gershwin, won the Pulitzer Prize. Four years later, the Gershwins along with librettist Dubose Hayward created Porgy And Bess. George Gershwin decided it would be appropriate to use African-American folk music- spirituals and folk songs with a jazz-like feel. The use of popular music and the way the music ran continuously through the work meant, although it was technically an opera, Porgy And Bess had a significant influence on musicals. And, unusually for Broadway, it featured an all African-American cast.
Oscar Hammerstein had some fallow years after Show Boat but when Jerome Kern turned down an idea he had to make a musical from a play called Green Grow The Lilacs, he got together with Richard Rodgers. Rodgers had been looking for a new lyricist to replace the unreliable Lorenz Hart and, coincidentally, had also been interested in Green grow The Lilacs. Together they produced a revolutionary musical, possibly the greatest of all time: and the first to fully integrate music, drama and dance.
It was 1943 and, in the midst of war, Americans were ready for a celebration of American values. They found it in Oklahoma! When Alfred Drake sang those opening lines Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ unaccompanied off stage, musical theatre changed forever.
First, there was the music. Nothing said ‘the music element matters’ more than by giving the parts to singers who could act rather the common practice of actors who could sing.
Then, there was the drama. Oklahoma! was the first musical in which every element served the characters and furthered the story. And, for the first time, that included the dance sequences. Agnes de Mille choreographed expressive dances so challenging that professional dancers were required for some of them. Songs included People Will Say We’re in Love, Surrey With A Fringe On Top and the rousing title song.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were the perfect partnership: contrary to the usual pattern, both liked to get the lyrics first and set them to music. There followed a succession of great musicals: Carousel, The Sound Of Music, The King and I, South Pacific and doznes more. Other composers took inspiration from them and created a Golden Age of the Musical with Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls…. the list goes on and on. And all these shows made the journey from stage to the big screen to create the so-called ‘Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical’.
Dance played a part in enhancing the drama of Oklahoma! and many subsequent musicals but the final building block of the modern musical came in 1957 when dance came into its own.
3. West Side Story
The musical’s credentials were great: the book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, the music was by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but it was the role of Jerome Robbins as the director that was crucial. He was the preeminent stage choreographer of his time, which meant West Side Story not only incorporated dance into the narrative but let it take the lead. The famous finger snaps say it all.
A writer in Time magazine found the dance and gang warfare more compelling than the love story and noted that the show’s ‘putting choreography foremost, may prove a milestone in musical-drama history.’ He was right. That the show ended tragically was also groundbreaking. Memorable songs included Maria and Tonight.
Many more musicals followed as the Golden Age rolled on, not least another contender for greatest musical of all time, Julie Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurent’s Gypsy. The longest running musical ever, The Fantasticks by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the singer) opened in New York in 1960 and closed 42 years later.
Tastes in music changed: rock rather than jazz now dominated the charts and perhaps audiences were getting bored with the formula of the book musical. Whatever the reason, by the mid-1960s the first Golden Age of the Musical came to an end. Musicals continued to be written and performed but not so frequently or spectacularly as before.
The time was ripe for the arrival of the concept musical, in other words, a musical where the idea or theme takes precedence over the narrative.
Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1970 wasn’t the first concept musical. As early as 1947, Rodgers and Hammerstein created Allegro. Interestingly, a very young Stephen Sondheim worked as a production assistant on this musical. A year later, Alan Lerner of Lerner and Lowe fame teamed up with Kurt Weill who wrote The Threepenny Opera and they created Love Life. Both shows had linear plots but these were disrupted by songs that commented on a theme.
However Company was the first significant concept musical where the narrative was virtually abandoned in favour of a theme, in this case, an exploration of relationships in songs like The Ladies who Lunch and Being Alive. Other concept musicalss followed including Chicago, A Chorus Line and Cats, as well as many more by Sondheim such as Follies and Sunday in The Park With George.
Hair was another concept musical of sorts but it’s more memorable for bringing rock music into the previously jazz-based world of musicals. It’s arguable that rock is a genre better suited to the individual song than to carrying a whole narrative or theme but there’s no arguing with the success of Hair, Godspell and the early Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice collaborations like Jesus Christ Superstar.
One trend of the last few years has been the jukebox musical which recycles existing popular songs around a story: it’s not exactly new- the film musical Singin’ In The Rain uses an existing songbook but the genre has been unstoppable in the last few decades- the most successful is Mamma Mia! featuring the music of ABBA. Early examples were Return To The Forbidden Planet and Buddy- The story of Buddy Holly. Others include We Will Rock You featuring the music of Queen, Jersey Boys which tells the story of the Four Seasons and, last year, the wonderful & Juliet showcasing the songs of Max Martin.
And, having made films out of so many stage musicals, Hollywood has repaid the compliment in recent years by providing the inspiration for Little Shop Of Horrors, Disney’s The Lion King, The Producers, Spamalot, Billy Elliott and many more.
Talented writers have created musicals that continue the tradition of exploring serious themes: Rent, Blood Brothers and The Book Of Mormon to name but a few.
The mid 1980s saw the arrival of the mega musicals where the sets became as or more important than the content- and Britain led the way, revitalising this great American genre, just as The Beatles had revitalised American rock’n’roll in the sixties. In what could be described as a second Golden Age, there are two landmarks – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s almost operatic Phantom Of The Opera and Cameron Macintosh’s production of Les Misérables.
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical may be, as The Observer put it when it opened, “a witless and synthetic entertainment” but its popular appeal is undeniable. With its rousing story of doomed revolutionaries and its uplifting tale of a man who pays back a debt with heroic charity, Les Misérables is now the second longest running musical ever. It’s certainly a musical I could see again and again. However, although this musical is about revolutionaries, it’s not actually revolutionary.
We had to wait 45 years after Company before we got another genuinely revolutionary musical. In fact, in 2015, you could argue we got two in one year.
Fun Home was the first show on Broadway to have a lesbian protagonist- some 30 years after La Cage Aux Folles focussed on male homosexuality. It showed that musicals can tell complex stories about women and indeed lesbian women, who are not often represented in the mainstream, and that musicals written by women can be successful on Broadway.
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first all-female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Score, as well as Best Musical. But is it revolutionary simply because women take centre stage? I would argue, in the male dominated world of musical theatre, that it is, but I have to admit there is no new musical form here.
However there was another musical that also started off-Broadway in 2015 that has found a new form.
Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (streaming on Disney+ channel from 3 July 2020) does everything the best musicals do in terms of taking an engaging subject and combining it with music and dance. Miranda plundered a number of musical genres but what makes Hamilton look like the future of the musical is its use of hip hop or rap music in songs like Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down) or Right Hand Man. Rap is the music of revolution, because it expresses the angry feeling of the underprivileged. But more than that, just as the jazz sound was used by Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein and the other greats of the first Golden Age of the musical to create dance tunes and complex lyrics, hip hop rhythm is great for dance and rap’s poetic use of language make it the perfect music for lyrics.
Stephen Sondheim put it this way: “Of all the forms of contemporary music, rap is the closest to traditional musical theater… both in its vamp-heavy rhythmic drive and in its verbal playfulness.”
Ninety years previously Show Boat was the first musical to put black and white performers on stage together. In 2015, there has been deliberate casting of non-white actors in Hamilton as the mainly white Founding Fathers and other historical figures. It is, as Miranda put it, ‘the story of America then told by America now’. Hamilton has found a way of making what we’ve been calling the ‘modern’ musical for nearly a hundred years actually work for a modern audience.
It remains to be seen whether more rap-based musicals with such wide appeal will emerge but the signs are good. One of the best new British musicals I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Poet In Da Corner by Debris Stevenson which features grime music.
What Stephen Sondheim said about Hamilton could apply to any of the five musicals I’ve chosen: “What it does is empower people to think differently. There’s always got to be an innovator, somebody who experiments first with new forms.”