What Is Musical Theatre - Will It Survive?

"The hills are alive, with the sound of music....." Who doesn't know or at least hasn't heard of this song - a mainstay of perhaps one of the most famous and iconic musicals of all time - The Sound Of Music. If you have never heard of or listened to this musical, I strongly suggest that you do as soon as possible. The combination of a great story, memorable songs, dancing, dialogue and amazing visuals (movie) are truly the essence of what we know as the best of musical theater.

So What Is Musical Theater?

This amazing medium has an ancient history dating back some 2500 years to the Greeks, and later the Romans. The plays, be they comedies or tragedies, usually contained dialogue, singing and dancing during the performance, and also what we call a Greek chorus, which basically narrated the story as it unfolded.

Since those times, dialogue, music and dance has been utilized in the theater, but the medium really didn't start to evolve until the 19th century with European composers such as Franz Lehar, Johann Strauss II and Jacques Offenbach. These fine musicians wrote a lighter form of grand opera, known as operetta, the style of which was similar to opera but with lighter, more emotionally accessible themes and music.

What was happening in Europe at that time clearly carried over and infiltrated the American music scene, and produced composers such as Czech born Rudolf Friml (The Vagabond King), and Sigmund Homburg, who "Americanized" the medium to produce musicals like "The Student Prince". In the UK there was the work of Gilbert and Sullivan (the Gondoliers, HMS Pinafore etc), whose amazing output involving the three main ingredients of comic opera, singing, dancing and dialogue, made a major contribution to what was to later become the modern musical theater that we know today.

Musicals US style

The early part of the 20th century was dominated by Mr George M. Cohan, the son of Irish/Catholic immigrants from Rhode Island. A wonderfully creative and versatile man, he composed more than 50 musicals and wrote over 300 songs, including "Give My Regards To Broadway", "Yankee Doodle Boy" and the famous wartime song: "Over There". With his consistent efforts to bridge the gap between drama and music, he more than anyone, helped to establish musical theater as a major medium in the USA.

Also in the '20s, another musician emerged, a man, who, in his short life, was to leave a lasting and enduring legacy for the rest of the world to love and embrace. That man was George Gershwin and, although he is now better known for his instrumental and more classical compositions, he nevertheless wrote musical comedies that spawned well-known songs such as the title song from "Lady Be Good" plus "Fascinating Rhythm", "Someone To Watch Over Me" from "Okay", the title song from "Strike Up The Band", "'S Wonderful" from "Funny Face" and "American In Paris" to name a few.

While all this was going on, other composers of note were making their contributions. Irving Berlin with "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Call Me Madam"; Cole Porter with "Anything Goes" and "Kiss Me Kate"; Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown with "The Broadway Melody" and of course Jerome Kern's "Showboat". These examples are just the tip of the iceberg as far as musicals in the '20s and '30s are concerned, but are representative of the growing dominance of musical theater in the first half of the 20th century, both in North America and in Europe.

Fringe Contributions

At the turn of the 20th century, a woman by the name of Florenz Ziegfield Jr conceived a show called the Follies, which was based on the famous Folies Bergeres in Paris. The structure of the show consisted of a series of entertaining acts, similar to a variety show, but with lots of dancing from beautiful chorus girls included. There was no story line as in musical theater - just lots of different 'acts' whose prime job was to entertain with a background of female glamour and pizzazz. In fact, many famous entertainers appeared in these shows, such as Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker and W. C. Fields, and they retained their popularity for many years before finally disappearing.

Musical Movies

Musical theater continued its inexorable march forward to dominate world popular music, but at the same time Hollywood was evolving and producing lots of musical movies at the same time as musical theater. The concepts were much newer than the theater but caught the public's imagination, especially when celebrities appeared in the movies and musical theater composers such as Irving Berlin, wrote the musical scores. Everyone knows, for example, "White Christmas", starring Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. It's an iconic movie that reappears every year during the Christmas season and is still loved by many.

But as far back as the '20s, the Hollywood moguls with vision, understood the potential of musicals for the movies. In 1927, The Jazz Singer was released starring Al Jolson, and underscored both the end of silent movies and the auspicious beginning of the age of musicals on film.

Right through the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, Hollywood produced a high volume of movie musicals that highlighted a medium hitherto not predicted, and became immensely popular with audiences all over the world. Movies like "The Desert Song", "Animal Crackers", "The Merry Widow", "The Girl Friend", "Pennies From Heaven", "The Wizard Of Oz", "Blue Skies" and many, many more, all served to up Hollywood's musical profile right through to Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' in the '50s.

The Glorious '50s and '60s

At this time, the musical as seen in theaters, rose to new heights with composers such as Frank Loesser's "Guys n Dolls", "Singing In The Rain" from Betty Comden and Nacio Herb Brown, Cole Porter's "High Society" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King And I". The high standards continue in the '60s with British composer, Lionel Bart's "Oliver", based on Dicken's novel Oliver Twist, and Anthony Newley's (also British) Stop The World I Want To Get Off.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, Charles Strouse was writing Bye Bye Birdie and later the iconic "Annie", followed by Mitch Leigh's "Man Of La Mancha", the story of Don Quixote, and the emergence of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's memorable "Fiddler On The Roof". Still in 1964, we saw "Hello Dolly" and Funny Girl, the story of actress Fanny Brice. 1966 was a bumper year with musicals like "Cabaret", "Mame" and "Sweet Charity", all completely captivating the audiences of the time.

Such was their incredible impact that many of the scores written in these decades live on still in revivals on Broadway, notably "The King And I" and "Singing In The Rain" but many others too numerous to mention.

Towards the end of this decade, the influence of the 'flower power' generation finally took hold in the form of the musical "Hair", in which there was nudity, profanity and an overall sense of rebellion. Some of the songs even became anthems in the Vietnam peace movement and certainly reflected the hippy generation so well.

A year later, another iconic composer emerged - British musician Andrew Lloyd Webber. He opened up a whole new treasure trove of music for musical theater, in the form of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Interestingly, he originally wrote this as a 30-minute mini musical for schools, but it turned out to be so successful that he transformed it into a full length musical. Although it contained an Old Testament biblical theme, it worked, and audiences lapped it up. Lloyd Webber went on to write another musical with a religious theme but in this case much more controversial. Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in 1971 and, while it evoked some controversy, it had a successful run and has since become a staple for local musical groups. More about Webber in a future post.

Other Musical Icons Of The Last 40 Years

Two major composers stand out - Stephen Schwarz and Stephen Sondheim. Both have achieved notoriety and become part of the new establishment in musical theater. Schwarz's biggest musical is of course "Wicked" but he had experienced other success before 2003, notably "Godspell" and "Pippin" back in the early '70s. Sondheim began his career writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" but soon started writing his own music. He is best known for successes such as "Follies", "Merrily We Roll Along", "A Little Night Music" (Send In The Clowns) and "Sweeney Todd".

No post about musical theater would be complete without acknowledging one of the most iconic musicals of the modern era - "Les Miserables". Penned and adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, Schonberg, Boubil, Nader (French lyrics) and Kretzmer (English lyrics) did an award-winning job of bringing this whole dramatic ambiance of the French Revolution to the public, lacing it with memorable songs, ensemble scenes and dialogue that will surely stand the test of time.


Like everything that survives, musical theater has had to change and adapt to its audience and to the times since its inception. We believe that, despite the odds, including the competition from the movie industry, television, the internet and streaming, it will not only survive but is healthy enough that, as long as audiences demand live performance, it will continue to do so for many years to come. And thanks to its many dedicated sponsors and talented musicians waiting to pen high quality music, its future is assured.

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