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Musical Theatre

What is Musical Theatre?

Musical theatre (comedy) is a type of play that tells a story through a combination of spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. They are often just called musicals. Usually they have a light tone and also have some humor. There can be many different stories told from love stories to murder stories. In several ways, musical theatre differs in comparison to other types of stage work.

A revue has song and dance but no story, while operas can resemble musical theatre but have less dialogue plus they use classical music. It is common for a musical to use more “popular” music. Altogether, a musical is a play that includes songs but would be able to be dramatically complete if the music was removed. Most often, musicals contain four basic elements: the book, the music, the lyrics, and the dancing.

The book is the story and also is known as the libretto. What the book provides is structure and stability for the basis of the musical. Dance, music, dialogue and lyrics are integrated to produce the musical, sometimes with adaptations. Often, the books have been written previously by playwrights or professional writers. However, in some cases the books have been written by composers for the show. In the case of music it can be instrumental, vocal, or both. At first, in musical theatre, the music that was included was familiar to the audience, plus it also served to display the talents of the performers. Talked about further in the essay, through time and composer influence, music began to serve more dramatic purposes. Now, music helps create characterization, advances the plot, develops important situations or develops action. Music has allowed for shows to achieve great effectiveness in telling their stories.

Another important distinctive aspect of musical theatre can be the involvement of dancing. Some dances are used just for entertainment, while other dances are used to help tell the story or to set a mood. A choreographer is usually the person who creates dances especially for the show. In musical theatre, dances most often are light and rhythmic to enhance the effect of the musical but also can include long dance pieces to achieve the same effects.

Lyrics are written by the composer and lyricist to fit the music. Their purpose is usually to contribute to the telling of the story or explaining of the character’s feelings. Successful songs commonly have been written with lyrics that are actually skillful poems set to music.

Origin and Evolution of Musical Theatre:

It is true that the art of telling stories with music goes way back to time immemorial. Even ancient Greeks commonly used music and dance in some of their stage stories and tragedies. However, this did not really contribute to the development of musical theatre. Theatre with song and dance became more popular in the 1600 -1700’s. Soon, two forms of “musicals” became very popular in France, Britain, and Germany. Firstly, ballad operas became popular, using some comedy and popularly known songs. Also, there were comic operas with newly-composed music that mostly had romantic plot lines. Still, musical theatre did not descend from opera, and in fact, did not even try to imitate grand opera. Despite being called “comic operas”, shows on Broadway such as Robin Hood weren’t really operas at all, they were more musicals. They were called “comic opera” to make them sound more high-minded. It is most commonly believed that musical theatre was not built upon the work of grand opera but rather gradually developed (by popular tastes, etc) to create a different style, spirit, and energy.

Throughout the 1800’s and the 1900’s, European Operetta proved to be more popular than American musical theatre. In response, many American composers and performers sought to create their own form of musical theatre. It was a blend of elements from vaudeville, minstrel shows, burlesques, and parts of European musicals.

The first reported musical (ballad opera) was on February 8,1735. America’s first native musical was entitled The Disappointment. It was withdrawn from rehearsal because “as it contains personal reflection, it is unfit for the stage.” The Disappointment was considered to be one of the precursors of musical comedy. Other scholars believe that The Black Crook (1866) was the first major beginning to musical theatre. This musical had managed to fully integrate the story, the songs, and the dances. From there on, musical series such as The Mulligan Guard’s Ball (1879), presented by Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart, and Little Johnny Jones (1904), by George M. Cohan, emerged to bring realistic scenes of everyday life to the stage.

Then, musical theatre began its great process of maturing. During 1915 to 1918, World War I, Jerome Kern began to compose a series of sophisticated musicals emerging from musical comedy. His shows were commonly known as “princess shows” because they were performed at the Princess Theatre in New York. Princess shows were shows that had more of a natural, informational style which also had modern, everyday settings. Show Boat (1927) was another milestone for musicals, composed by Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. It again displayed more realistic characters and manner but also lead into dealing with racism and many other serious topics at that time.

Next came Of Thee I Sing by George and Ira Gershwin in 1931. It was a political satire and was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Price for drama. What this award did for musical theatre was bring the status of musical theatre to a new level of serious theatre. As well, the political aspects about American political life had been broadened so that is was more suitable to use these subjects in musicals.

Continuing into the 1920’s and 1930’s, major composers and lyricists more commonly began to appear. At this time the more prominent composers were George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Arthur Schwartz, Vincent Youmans and Richard Rodgers. Famous lyricists were Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, Otto Harbach, and E.Y. Harburg. In 1940, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart formed a relationship and created one of their best known musicals, Pal Joey. It brought into musical theatre views that dealt with themes such as sex and love in a realistic adult outlook. These musicals and composers lead into the more modern era of musical theatre.

The opening of Oklahoma in 1943 began the modern musical ear of musical theatre. Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein of Oklahoma soon became the most widely-known team in the history of musical theatre. They showed remarkable skill through the ways that they integrated the story, music, and dancing.

Following, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, there emerged many teams that contributed to popular musicals. Examples are those such as composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote My Fair Lady, which was a very popular musical for that century. Another was composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen, who created West Side Story in 1957 based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Also composer Jerry Bock and Lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who brought about Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. Some of these musicals in this era were the longest running ever in musical theatre history.

Recent musical comedy was said to start around the 1960’s. Musicals now are found to deal with an enormous range of new subject matter and styles. Grease (1972) was a rock ‘n’ roll musical centered on the life’s of high school students in the 1950’s. Hair (1957) was another type of musical that dealt with young Americans during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s. Stephen Sondheim was a composer and lyricist who gained prominence during the 1970’s and 1980’s. He gave a creative twist and sophistication to lyrics that gained him wide praise. He demonstrated this technique through musicals such as Company (1970), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1986).

A British composer that should be highlighted is Andrew Lloyd Webber. Probably one of the most successful composers in his time, he was known internationally, and he had many successful British musicals following the 1970’s. Hits of his were Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Evita (1978), Cats (1981), and Phantom of the Opera (1986). However these accomplished productions had taken a step back toward trends of musical theatre in the 1900’s, with emphasis on more lavished setting, and also the movement away from the modern conventional book musical to more of an operatic focus. Now, musicals can range from elaborate sets and casts to small casts and few scenery changes but the smaller musicals rarely succeed.

Through the evolution of musical theatre, we have seen many types of musicals and styles of musicals, and also seen the successes and failures. But still, musical theatre will continue to be popular and continue to evolve further.

History of musical Film:

Recently, not only has musical theatre on the stage existed, but now there has been a great interest in musical film. Live action musicals still were very rare in the 1990’s. For live screen versions the only musical with much recognition was Evita in 1996 starring Madonna. Hollywood began to believe that this was a waste of time and money, but Disney sure didn’t. Disney created one of the best musical films ever with Beauty and the Beast in 1991. The score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken was worthy of Broadway. Beauty and the Beast won Oscars for Best Song and was the first ever animated film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. At that time, musical theatre was in decline, but Beauty and the Beast proved that musicals could live on through film. Then in 1992 came Aladdin, composed by Menken and lyrics by Tim Rice. Robin Williams gave an exciting performance as the Genie in the film. The ballad “A Whole New World” received an Academy Award for the Best Song. The Lion King began to turn heads in 1992 with a pop-style score by Tim Rice and Elton John. It had many hit songs like “Hakuna Matata”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and “Circle of Life”. Also in 1997, the stage adaptation was presented, and proved to be one the biggest hits of that decade.

After that, Disney followed up with many more musical films such as Pocahontas, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Musical Score, and also The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hunchback was known to be the most mature, but parents said that they would not let their children watch blood-drenched action films because they were “too intense”. Still, Disney came out with two more films: Mulan and Tarzan. By the end of the decade it became clear that not too many musical films would be as popular as Beauty and the Beast. However, musical film has had a great influence on not just it’s own evolution but on the development of stage as well.

Important composers and lyricists contributing to the history and evolution of Musical Theatre:

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were two of the most prominent lyricists and composers in the history of musical theatre. Composer Richard Rodgers was born June 28, 1902 in New York, NY, USA. He was self-taught but had early influences such as Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern. When he was in University he joined up with Lorenz Hart. Together they created many memorable songs but this relationship came to an end with the death of Lorenz Hart in 1943 (he was 48). However, Rodgers began to work with Hammerstein. The both had developed a distinguished career apart from each other. Like Rodgers, Hammerstein was also very innovative and had worked in the field of operetta in the 20’ and 30’s. Many of his musicals were the longest running through the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Their first musical which they produced together, was Oklahoma! It dwarfed any of their past individual achievements. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote 11 musicals together which were nine stage musicals, one screen (movie) musical and one television musical. Specifically, they were Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945), State Fair (1945), Allegro (1947), South Pacific (1949), The King and I(1951), Me and Juliet(1953), Pipe Dream(1955), Cinderella (1957, 1965), Flower Drum Song (1965), and The Sound of Music (1959). Popularity of these musicals spread all around the world. Over the years, Rodgers and Hammerstein won 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, 2 Grammy Awards, and 2 Emmy Awards.

Sadly, this partnership had to end when Oscar Hammerstein passed away in 1960. Rodgers continued to compose for Broadway and was awarded 2 more Tony Awards for such works as No Strings. Richard Rodgers passed away years later in New York, at the age of 77, on December 10, 1979. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein had created a legacy and experienced many successful works in musical theatre. It is said that Rodgers and Hammerstein will be remembered as pioneers of musical theatre and also that their shows will remain staples of the Broadway and amateur stage.

Even before the existence of Rodger and Hammerstein, there was William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Two extraordinary, talented and imaginary men they were, who had an extreme effect on the revolution in musical theatre. Gilbert was an unsuccessful attorney, which lead him to write comic poems in newspapers. Sullivan was said to be a promising composer looking for a chance at wealth. Before their partnership, they both had contributed to minor musicals but won fame through their works of musical theatre together.

In the 1870’s, they were first hired by John Hollingshead who was involved in the productions of light comic opera. Gilbert and Sullivan were highered to create the production Thespis (1871). After Thespis, Gilbert and Sullivan tried to develop a different form of British opera than its predecessors. Their goal was to discover ways to make the characters believable. Characters that people could relate to, or characters they could know from everyday life were what they were trying to achieve. Reshaping popular musical theatre opened the door to success in America and Britain. In their next musicals, they redefined musical theatre through integrating words and music to serve the plot and characters. Previously, musicals contained one-dimensional comic creatures/characters and songs that could be exchanged from one character or show to another. Now Gilbert and Sullivan songs were specific to the characters and situation plus made the characters more rounded. People who lived in Britain at the turn of the century hummed, sang, played and breathed the lyrics and melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan created many musicals including a series of 14 stage musicals. Some of their most popular musicals are still entertaining people today. This is probably because of the wittiness included in their melodic operettas, the songs which sparkled with melody and rhyme, plus the blending of many things from funny to serious or fantasy to realistic. It is hard to establish the level of influence that Gilbert and Sullivan had on the development of musical theatre but they definitely redefined it forever.

A popular brother duo in musical theatre whether on stage or screen was George and Ira Gershwin. George was born September 26, 1898 in New York. His interest lay in composing, songwriting and especially piano. Working for Jerome Remick Company, “Song Plugged” exposed George to what makes a popular and successful song. “Swanee” for the musical Sinbad was his first hit. Following that was his first musical score, for La, La, Lucille in 1919.

In Ira’s case, he was a writer. He had majored in English but was unsuccessful in that area. So he turned to the musical ways of his brother and tried lyric writing. However, Ira did not want people to relate his name to his brother so he changed it to Arthur Francis. Under this name he wrote his first stage success, Two Little Girls in Blue Dresses. After this, George and Ira worked on their first collaboration, which was Lady Be Good (1924).

Soon they were not only composing for Broadway but for the silver screen. Examples of their works were King of Jazz and Delicious. George’s life ended shortly after doctors discovered a brain tumor. Unfortunately, George passed away during emergency brain surgery on July 11, 1937. Ira, however, passed away peacefully at his Beverly Hills home on August 17, 1883 at the age of 86. Still today Gershwin music is being played in mainstream media on a regular basis because of growing interest. Visa’s new commercials are using the Gershwin song “I Got Rhythm”. Also, motion pictures are using their works such as “Someone to Watch over Me“ in Mr. Holland’s Opus. Therefore, it can be observed that the Gershwins had an influence and success through their musicals which can still be heard around us today.

A little about some popular musicals:


Oklahoma first opened on March 31, 1943. This was the first musical composed by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. It was a fusion of Rodger’s musical comedy and Hammerstein’s operetta. One of the greatest musicals ever, Oklahoma ran 2,212 performances. Originally the cast starred Joan Roberts as Laurey Williams, Alfred Drake as Curly Mclain, and Howard Da Silva as Jud Fry. Later a film version of Oklahoma was made in 1955.

The Sound of Music

Rodger and Hammerstein also composed this musical. The story was based on the autobiography of Maria Van Trapp and her life with her family in World War II. November 16, 1959 was its opening performance. The Sound of Music was the second longest running Broadway musical in the fifties. Sadly, Hammerstein died 9 months after the opening. Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel were featured in the Original cast. Also, The Sound of Music was turned into a film version in 1965 starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

The Wiz

The Wiz that came out in 1975 was a retelling of the story The Wizard of Oz. Its score was brimming with rock and soul producing a style that distinguished it from the rock musicals of the decade. Originally the musical ran for 1, 672 performances. This work won a Tony Award. Unfortunately its popularity did not stretch much past the original run because its revival lasted for only 2 weeks.


Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lyrics by Time Rice, Evita opened September 25, 1979. Webber based Evita on the stylings of Harold Prince. With Patty LuPone (Lead), it was a success and ran originally 1,567 times. The story involved a young girl (Eva) who used her feminine powers to climb the ladder of success to become the most powerful woman in South America. In 1996, the screen version came out featuring Madonna and Antonio Banderas.

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast was first done by Walt Disney in cartoon film version. It is a story about a prince that is turned into a hideous beast by a witch, and in order to break the spell he must learn to love and be loved in return. After the film version came out, men such as Alan Menten (composer), Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice (lyricists) set to turn it into a stage production. New songs were added to the stage productions such as “Me’, “Home”, “If I Can’t Love Her”, “No Matter What”, “How Long Must This Go On” and a few more. Opening night was on April 18, 1994 at Palace Theatre. The Broadway performance of Beauty and the Beast was assisted by costume designers and even magicians such as David Copperfield to help with the illusion of the Beast’s transformation back to a prince. It even won a Tony award for “Best Costume Design”. Beauty and the Beast is one of the greatest and most popular love stories of all time.

There are numerous popular musicals that could be named and researched, from the very start of musical theatre to more recent ones. There have been many great musicals that have led up to today, some that people are still presently familiar with, such as West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Ragtime, Showboat, Oklahoma and many more. Musical theatre has become popular, and people are familiar with it, and it continues to grow. Even today, people of many ages are aware of musicals like Footloose, Grease, Chicago, RENT, Fame, Cats, The Wiz, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, plus countless others. Now, musical theatre does not only exist on the stage but also on the screen. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and many other Disney movies are prime examples of this change. This tradition of musical theatre will continue to exist in our world because of its effect and influence on our lives.

The changes and evolution of musical theatre that have occurred throughout musical history displays our creativity, differences, and ideas. Composers and lyricists will continue to create, not only to entertain but also to open sides of us with music that normally would be left closed. Musical theatre can be seen as riches that will keep us in pleasure and in joy for years to come.


Musical Theatre. 1993. The World Book Encyclopedia. Vol. M, p. 959

Lerner, Jay. 1986. The Musical Theatre. Great Britain. Gilmount Ltd.

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