History of Musical Theatre





History of Musical Theatre

Musical theatre is characterized by combination of songs, dance, acting and spoken dialogue. This takes an integration of a story and the emotional content through musical representation in form of love, anger, humor communicated in music and words for the purpose of entertainment. It has a resemblance with theatrical forms like dance and opera but its major distinguishing factor is with its importance to music when compared with the movement and dialogue elements. Musicals are presented in large venues and performed all over the world. Musical theatre has gradually transformed through history while remaining relevant to society.

The history of Musical theatre can be traced back from the antecedents through theatre of ancient Greece (McLamore 14). This was during the fifth century where dance and music were included in stage tragedies and comedies. Notable artistes include Sophocles and Aeschylus who composed their own music and choreographed the plays that accompanied the performance. McLamore (16) agrees that in the third century, Plautus used dance and song routines with orchestrations in Roman comedies. Songs and slapstick comedies were a major highlight of theatres in Europe during the middle ages. Religious dramas were used in the 12th and 13th century and this helped society on understanding religion and its importance.

During the renaissance of Europe, older forms of stories were improvised from commedia dell’arte into opera buffa characterized by the Italians. In England, music and instruments played a role in the Jacobean and Elizabethan plays (Mclamore 18). Singing, dancing and acting in expensive costumes was utilized in particular complex stage designs. Famous artistes, poets and literary artisans included William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Ballad operas and comic operas were the two popular musical theatres in Britain. Tunes of songs that were popular and stories with romantic plot lines that included lyrics were used in the musical theatres. This gave the society a new approach in expressing emotions.

Development of musical comedy between 1850s and 1880s had a great impact on musical theatres development (McLamore (14). The significant form of comic musical theatre was called the operette. The famous composers were Jacques Offenbach and John Straus III. They combined witty satire with fertile melodies. Around mid-19th century, music hall was common in England. This was adaptations of the operettas by the French. The first premier of English theatre piece in America was called The Black Crook in 1866. various comedians participated in musical broadways as emergence of modern musicals was established.

Maslon (9) states that African Americans were involved in Broadway’s running performances in 1898. a major hallmark of the New York’s production was the short length in the runs. Meanwhile in London there was a shift in style of the musicals. This was a change to the intellectual, absurdist satire, political and Savoy-style operas of comedy into family­-friendly,  modern-dress musical theatre style that employed popular songs, romantic banter and snappy style. The musical comedies set stage and tone for the generations that proceeded. Various artists took time to produce slightly more complex comedy hits accompanied with lyrics and musical theatre performances.

At the time of world war one, operettas were commonly used in musical theatres across Europe and America. Operettas in German language had lost its popularity at the time of the war in countries that spoke English (McLamore 15). During the musical theatre performances, comical relief was drawn from the characterization and situations depicted when performing. Flowing melodies helped the characterization and accompaniment of the artistry. The society needed sometime to escape from the effects and moods of the world war, and musical theatre provided for solace and an escape from all that. The changing social background in America created a more direct style and less hidebound society over the Europeans’ work.

According to Kenrick (11), in the 1920s, musical theatre saw a change in the emphasis of musical theatre appropriateness. Popular songs, big dance routines and emphasis on the stars of performers came at the expense of the plays plot. Musical lyricists and composers dominated the popular music. The standards set on the musicals and productions were popular in both Europe and America. Broadway featured elaborate costumes, extravagant sets and chorus girls who were beautiful. Operettas by now had lost popularity. A skillful Oscar Hammerstein II combined lyrics of Kern and wrote numerous acclaimed shows (McLmore 22). Integration of song, production numbers and humor was appreciated with the social themes that they carried along.

The great depression had affected audiences in theatre all over the world. The light-hearted style of song and dance was carried through to the 1930s. Famous writers still stuck to sentimental musicals and old-fashioned themes of the artwork. Babes in Arms was the first musical of Broadway to use drama in classical dance. Subsequent creative teams began utilizing innovations with topical books, musical satire and operatic scope. Political influence began finding its way into the musicals through incorporation with music and lyrics. Artists who managed to use political satire in the then United States Presidents include Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart.

The golden ages of 1940 to 1960 witnessed the artistic changes in musical theatre. Artists like Hammerstein and Rodgers successfully integrated musical theatre aspects like cohesive plot, use of dream ballet and several other dances, songs that enhanced the story action and development of characters rather than relying on dances alone. Other artistes created vital plays with rich social thought that gave encouragement to gifted writes in creating personal music plays. The society learnt on family values, the essence of love, the role of a woman as a wife and homemaker and the ultimate lesson of success.

In 1950s and 1960s, The Three penny Opera showed that musicals could be more profitable in small-scale  or small format of orchestra off-Broadway (Maslon 36). Choreographers and directors had had a major influence in the 19th century on style of musical theatre. During this period of golden age, large corporations and companies started to hire for their employs, talent who could write corporate musicals for private shows. The longest running musical, The Fantastiks  was produced in the 1960s. this period also saw the birth of rock music being used in the musicals and divergence from narrow confines. Several controversies were also marked, race relations, nudity and use of hair.

More genres of music and their incorporations into musicals were witnessed in the 1970s. real-life stories were characteristic of the musical sessions with variations from individual performances. Musicals that had variations from usual substance and styles were welcomed in Broadway. This period witnessed musicals with bigger budgets and depended on sweeping scores, spectacular effects and dramatic stories. I980s had European influence through mega-musicals or as they were referred to, pop operas. Major poets and musicals producer included the likes of Stephen Sondheim. They were characterized by larger casts and sets, big budgets, notable effects such as chandeliers and landing helicopters on stage. Most musicals were based on works of literature and novels.

1990s saw the emergence of theatrical composers of a new generation such as Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa. Many theatergoers at the time faced escalating prices to attend the musicals. However, it was noted that a younger audience had been greatly influenced and included younger casts among its members of performers. Larger corporations were also incorporated into musicals production. A great example of this was the Walt Disney Company that adapted some of its animation films onto the stage of musicals. During this period of 1980 and 1990, musicals of smaller-scale stature managed to get financial and critical success despite the challenge posed by the large-scale musicals (Maslon 82). The society responded to the musicals in a more positive manner as all-round society issues were addressed besides being entertained .

From the year 2000 to the present, diversification has been witnessed in the theatrical musicals. Familiarity has been clinched as investments made by the investors and producers are being sought to gain healthy profits. The subsequent re-use of film plots have been critically described as more of a tourist attraction than a source of creative outlet. Nowadays it is hard for a sole producer to back a specific production on his own. This is because of the enormous budget and expenses that production costs. In order to stage musicals, several alliances are formed due to the huge investment required. Regional theatres in hand with off-Broadway produce lesser expensive and smaller musicals. Development of these has shifted from the main hubs of London and New York into smaller venues. This is also characterized by a shift in setting, in that the stage is set and takes place within and around the audience itself.






Works Cited:

Kenrick, John. Musical Theatre: A History. New York: Continuum, 2008. Print.

Maslon, Laurence . Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Bulfinch Press, 2010. Print.

McLamore, Alyson. Musical Theater: An Appreciation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. Print.


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