In 2017, about 40 million people in the United States attended at least one musical theater production, according to data published by Statista.com. This level of enthusiasm puts this timeless art form near the top of the charts among all types of live performing arts.
Here are only a few insights into the rich history of musical theater, as it developed in the ancient and early modern world, and as it evolved in the United States in particular:
Its roots go back to antiquity.
Musical theater as American audiences know it today traces its beginnings all the way back to antiquity. Most historians believe that it first developed in classical Greece in about 500 BCE.
At that time, performers in open-air amphitheaters began to weave dance and musical performances into comedy and drama performances. By the days of ancient Rome, it was commonplace to incorporate multi-instrumental music along with singing, dancing, and special visual entertainments, into stage shows.
Its medieval spiritual predecessors include minstrels and religious ceremonies.
The European Middle Ages saw the proliferation of strolling players who performed in musical productions. In England during the latter part of this era, for example, traveling minstrels performed musical pageants in torchlight procession.
Medieval churches were also important sites for the development of a format that would influence musical theater, with religious services often presented in this type of framework. During the Renaissance, masked performers performed comedies and dramas against backdrops painted to evoke various kinds of scenes.
It shares numerous elements with opera.
Perhaps the most direct line leading from past eras’ performing arts presentations to the contemporary musical was the development of opera during the early modern era. By the 18th century in Western Europe, opera had become a highly sophisticated way of telling a story via music, making use of orchestral music and individual and choral singers.
Even today, the classical operatic tradition shares numerous elements with musical theater: Both tell a story through song, both feature individualized characters, and both are comprised of a variety of songs, joined into a continuous narrative with non-musical lines, written to convey emotion or to move the story forward.
Its development is uniquely American.
The beginnings of musical theater performances in the United States began even before the American Revolution, with operas from the Old World often performed in the New. After the U.S. achieved independence, its own new types of musical theater traditions flourished. Burlesque, characterized by extravagant costumes, wild plots, and over-the-top satirical characters, became enormously popular.
American musical theater as we know it today grew up in the new nation alongside the Industrial Revolution. By the later years of the 19th century, ordinary urban life had been transformed.
The proliferation of railroad and streetcar travel, electric street lighting, improved sanitation, and higher-paying jobs for average people in factories and offices had a huge impact on country. People could now enjoy greater freedom and speed of movement as they navigated safer cities, and they had more disposable income to spend on entertainment.
Its official beginning could be considered the opening of The Black Crook.
In 1866, New York City was the site of the first performance of a modern-day musical, with the debut of The Black Crook. This production held audience members' interest for the more than five hours it took to perform it on stage.
The Black Crook was an action-packed musical concoction that made it to the stage only due to chance and the canny idea of one local entrepreneur who had a problem to solve. He had booked two separate productions, one featuring a silk stocking-clad ballet troupe from France, and the other a story whose well-used plot involved the theme of selling one’s soul to the devil.
A fire destroyed one of the two theaters, so the enterprising booker combined the two shows on one stage into a music-and-dance-filled melodrama. The Black Crook ran for close to 500 performances, and was recently revived on Broadway for its 150th anniversary.
Its modern character was cemented with “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Composer, lyricist, librettist, and impresario George M. Cohan is often credited by theater historians as laying the foundation stone of the distinctively American musical theater in the early 1900s. In Cohan’s work, for the first time on any real scale, American audiences saw American stories depicting American values, traditions, and viewpoints.
Cohan’s formula for writing musical theater won popularity among his successors in the form. This simple rubric involved using any storyline, no matter how wild and improbable its plot or character motivations, as a means of leading into engaging musical and comedy numbers.
The extravagance of the early 20th century American musical was marked by large-scale, extravagant opening and closing numbers, featuring lines of chorus girls and other performers, singing and dancing together in often elaborately staged productions. Using this formula, writers and composers might fabricate an entire flimsily connected plotline simply as a means of showcasing the skills of popular individual performers.
Its defining characteristics have changed with the times.
Until the major cultural shifts that came with the Vietnam War and an era of questioning and protest, this American musical tradition thrived. Before the late 1960s changed public tastes, composers such as Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, along with lyricists like Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart, created musical comedies and dramas with richly evocative scores, clever lyrics, and the punch of personality that have made them beloved classics in both stage and film versions.
For parents interested in teaching their children more, the six-part PBS documentary entitled Broadway: The American Musical offers older children, teens, and adults a detailed and engaging history of the 20th century American musical theater. The series is available in DVD format through major retailers and as a separately published book.
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Photo used under Creative Commons from Marina K Caprara