Evolution of the Musical

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Musical theater in English goes back to the court masques of the Renaissance—private productions that, in the case of Ben Jonson’s works, achieved a highly wrought integration of poetry, music, and spectacle. William Shakespeare first made a musical production number part of public theater when he inserted a full masque into the action of The Tempest (pr. 1611).

Strangely, the vicissitudes that beset English drama over the next century had the effect of encouraging musical theater. The Puritan Commonwealth’s proscription extended to plays only; while few dared to indulge in this loophole with impunity, opera in English first dates from this period. The first English opera was The Siege of Rhodes (pr. 1656) with songs by several composers. The Restoration authorities also restrained legitimate drama, this time by awarding exclusive patents to the Covent Garden and the Drury Lane theaters; again musical theater went unrestricted. Even when musical entertainment was finally brought under governmental regulation early in the eighteenth century through the issuing of burletta licenses, the effect was to further musical theater, for the licensing rules established a minimum of five musical numbers per act as a requirement for a license; the real purpose of the burletta licenses was to provide further protection for the two legitimate theaters.

With all this opportunity, one might suppose that musical theater in England matured rapidly during the reign of the Georges, but this is not so. The artistic success of John Gay ’s The Beggar’s Opera (pr. 1728), the earliest theater piece identifiable as a musical drama or musical play, was singular. No exceptional work of popular musical theater appeared again for 150 years, until the musical plays of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, which are most frequently labeled “comic operas.”

Gay’s purposes in The Beggar’s Opera were satiric, his victim the Italianate opera made fashionable by George Frederick Handel, but his approach to musical theater clearly foreshadowed that of the modern musical play. For opera’s knights and princesses, Gay substituted highwaymen and whores. Instead of recitative, Gay used spoken dialogue. Finally, the music for The Beggar’s Opera was not classical; in sixty-nine numbers, Gay’s characters sang lyrics set to the popular tunes of the day, including a few of Handel’s.

Gay’s success spawned many imitations. Indeed, burlesquing the pretentions of high art, whether opera or literature, never lost its popularity, although, after Gay, few of these works were evening-length pieces. Also popular were shows such as Tom and Jerry: Or, Life in London (pr. 1823), Pierce Egan’s theater work, which was part comic sketch, part travelogue, part musical. Shorter early musicals were performed on bills in variety or vaudeville theaters. Variety was the most popular of all the musical theater forms; in and out of favor over the decades were pantomime (only partly mute) and the “extravaganza,” a form that featured dance (frequently with an element of...

(The entire section is 1284 words.)