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Matthew Dean
Mrs. Pasquale
ELA 7 Honors
28 May 2018.
The Evolution of Musical Theatre
In the 1800s to early 1900s, minstrelsy started to become prevalent in the theatre community, appealing to the people of the lower class. It unfortunately consisted of only hateful material, and racial discrimination. This lasted for nearly the entirety of 1800 and the early parts of 1900. While this was a form of light, even if hateful, entertainment, it did not compare to other shows going on during this time period.
The more prominent shows that people saw in theatres contained some songs, but were not yet considered to be musicals. Some were simply regular plays, with a few songs thrown in to entertain the audience further. This eventually led to the invention of ballad operas. Ballad operas took popular tunes of the day and changed the lyrics of the songs to comedically fit their purpose in the plot.
The form of early musical theatre that is closest to the musical today is the French and Viennese Operettas. These featured romantic storylines, new scores, and used characters that were considered upper class, as opposed to other operas that used characters that resembled criminals. This type of operettas resembles shows many shows that are playing in New York now.
Variety shows were a form of entertainment from the late 1800’s. Most featured very inappropriate acts, which was unfortunately what it was known for. However there was another type of variety, which used another name to identify itself as OK for the family. They were called museums which passed themselves off as educational so they didn’t have as much scrutiny vs. normal variety shows. In these museums, inappropriate material was banned. After variety began to phase out, in walks Vaudeville (Kenrick 28 May 2018).
Vaudeville took some of its roots in American Variety shows. It featured clean acts and the actors required flexibility or other physical talent. A Vaudeville show consisted of specialty acts like contortionists, jugglers, dancers, and gymnasts, and of course, small skits performed by actors. Eventually, Vaudeville phased out due to movies starting to play at theatres, and acts were fighting to perform between showings (PBS 28 May 2018).
Now we have finished the 19th century, we will move on to the time that theatre changed the most, the 20th century. In the beginning of this century, British and West End imports began to become popular in New York’s , at the time, 33 Broadway theatres. During this time, Britain’s West End became a testing ground for musicals. If they succeeded, they would move toward the American stage, where they often did very well.
Also during this time, the musical comedy began to develop and become popular. One of the most popular was Showboat, one of the first shows of legendary composed Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein, creators of The Sound of Music (Kenrick 28 May 2018) . Showboat was considered by many to be the first book musical. Book musicals are musicals in which the songs revolve around the plot, instead of having no real correlation (Blood 28 May 2018) . Musical comedies remained popular until the late 1940’s, when the first integrated musicals featured people of darker skin in the cast.
The 1950’s brought new musicals that featured “popular music of the Western World” that still are hits today. These musicals incorporated three new elements that made them successful: new composers that recently became famous, new directors, and female stars, which attracted audiences. Female stars became one of the key elements of musicals for the entire future of musical theatre, something not previously seen in the earlier genres.
The 60’s, other than the first rock musical Hair, didn’t improve upon the world of theatre,, but in fact, confused it.
The 70’s brought theatre back to normal, but at the same time confused it even more with the invention of concept musicals. “Concept musicals are shows built around an idea rather than a traditional plot,” (Kenrick 29 May 2018). Concept musicals were shows like A Chorus Line, Chicago, or Cabaret. However, the first concept musical was invented as early as a forgotten musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Well titled Love Life. Love Life is about a young couple living through colonial times through the year it opened, 1948. Many theatre gurus consider it to be the first “concept” musical, despite it being a type of Vaudeville musical (Bilowit 28 May 2018). These were popular for most of the decade, but at the end of the decade, British imports started pouring in, and the crowd loved them. These musical used a lot of marketing to draw audiences in. These lasted for the entirety of the 80’s, and brought us some of the most popular musicals, such as Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Cats.
By the 90’s, the crowd was done with these musicals. The fandom was losing interest. The crowd were the ones deciding what shows stayed on Broadway. At this point, Broadway musicals were starting to die, causing worry among the crowd. “New musicals required the backing of multi-million dollar corporations.” Shows like RENT, which were popular with the musical theatre fandom, were funded by smaller corporations (Kenrick 28 May 2018). RENT was a rock opera. Rock operas had existed as early as the 70s, but RENT was one of the shows that really brought it to light. Rock operas usually started out as concept albums, or movies. They were designed to speak to their target audience in a way they could understand, (DK 189).
In the beginning of the 2000’s, Broadway couldn’t figure out what it wanted to do. The 2000s started by trying to copy Disney, making stage versions of movies. However, as soon as the 2000’s started to kick into full gear, so did Broadway. New musicals with new ideas started arriving. They weren’t based on anything, they were funny, and brought musical theatre back into popular culture.
People think that musical theatre may not go on, but it is just changing. The musical will never be dead. Musicals are already including new elements and new developments are being made. Since musicals are in an uncertain place right now, we don’t know where they will go. Oscar Hammerstein II says, “It is nonsense to say what a musical should or should not be. It should be anything it wants to be, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to go to it. There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be – it has to be good,” (Kenrick May 28 2018).

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