Musical Drama Analysis

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...

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Early Twentieth Century Figures

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

There was a kind of American operetta, or rather there was one composer. The English-language version of The Merry Widow did not appear until 1907. Victor Herbert ’s Babes in Toyland had been produced in 1903, and The Red Mill had appeared in 1906. The production of Naughty Marietta dates from 1910, and without question Herbert stands as one of two dominant figures in popular musical theater in the period from 1900 to World War I. A native of Ireland and trained in Stuttgart and Vienna, Herbert began his American career as a cellist with the Metropolitan Opera; his wife, Therese Förster, sang in the first American Aida (pr. 1871) in the late 1880’s. Not surprisingly, his musical plays follow European models; there are lush melodies and improbable stories, mostly about Europeans. There is another element in Herbert’s shows, however, perhaps most forthrightly apparent in The Red Mill . The Red Mill is a musical farce about two American tourists who have run out of money and are stuck in Katwyk-ann-Zee, Holland. The operetta part of the show is complemented by American show biz. The Americans were played by Fred Stone and Dave Montgomery, who made L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1903) famous as a musical, and who, along with Joseph M. Weber and Lew Fields, were the most popular vaudeville-type comics of the age. The United States flirted again with operetta in the 1920’s. Rudolf Friml’s Rose-Marie (pr. 1924) and The Vagabond...

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Vaudeville and the Revue

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The plotless musical evening, though, was far from dead. Vaudeville went on more or less triumphantly, and the revue appeared. Unlike vaudeville acts, revue numbers were prepared especially for that edition of the revue. The most famous revue was the Ziegfeld Follies (originally as Follies of 1907), which began in 1907. Florenz Ziegfeld’s imitators followed the same formula: lavishly produced song and dance numbers, pretty girls draped in elaborate costumes, and comedy sketches featuring the leading comics of the time. The big revues died out in the late 1930’s, but smaller-scaled revues such as The Garrick Gaieties (pr. 1925), music and lyrics by then-newcomers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and the New Faces series (various years from 1934 to 1952) were still popular. They did not die out until the emergence of television in the 1950’s, when the average viewer could see the same kind of entertainment for free. One of the most famous revues was Kaufman and Howard Dietz’s The Band Wagon (pr. 1931), with a score by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Dietz, and dancing by Fred and Adele Astaire. Revues are important to the history of musical theater, because nearly every major composer and performer important to the development of the musical play worked in revues.

Era of the Composers

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

After World War I, English-speaking audiences were briefly infatuated with shows such as Irene (pr. 1919), new versions of the Cinderella tale so successful in the Gaiety musicals, and with, as noted, American-made operettas. The 1920’s, however, will be remembered as the time when the great popular composers—George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Noël Coward —came to dominate the musical stage. The subjects of their musical shows were for the most part drawn from the upbeat society of the jazz age. (Lest anyone credit audiences with a complete switch to musical sophistication, the most successful 1920’s-type musicals were Vincent Youman’s No, No, Nanette of 1925 and 1927’s Good News, the apotheosis of college football musicals, with a score by Ray Henderson.) George Gershwin ’s Lady, Be Good! (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) opened in 1924. Rodgers and Lorenz Hart ’s Dearest Enemy followed in 1925. (Rodgers and Hart shows such as Dearest Enemy and the 1927 show A Connecticut Yankee, despite being set in the past, have modern scores.) Berlin had already been on the theatrical scene for nearly as long as Kern with revues, especially the wartime show Yip, Yip, Yaphank (pr. 1918); revues remained his favored form throughout the 1920’s, while his success with musical comedy began with Moss Hart’s Face the Music (pr. 1932) and the films of Fred Astaire. Porter’s first successes came at the end of the 1920’s, with Paris (pr. 1928) and Fifty Million Frenchmen (pr. 1929). Coward’s romantic Bitter Sweet opened in London in 1929, before crossing the Atlantic. Songs from these 1920’s shows and their 1930’s cousins help form the backbone of the body of popular standards. Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” comes from Girl Crazy (pr. 1930); Porter’s “Night and Day” was first sung in Dwight Taylor’s The Gay Divorce (pr. 1932)—the list can go on and on. As book musicals, however, these shows are less successful. The plots are trivial excuses for the songs; the songs are virtually interchangeable with the songs from every...

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The Modern Book Musical

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1940’s established the book musical as the dominant form of popular musical drama. Pal Joey (pr. 1940), the penultimate Rodgers and Hart musical collaboration with a libretto by John O’Hara, based on his series of short stories that appeared in The New Yorker, set the stage with its cynical romance about the anti-heroic, but charming Joey and the older, hard-edged Vera, who dumps him at the end. The show’s songs were character studies and depictions of the gritty nightclub world of the story. The most important show of the decade, however, was Oklahoma!, which opened in New York on March 31, 1943.

Oklahoma! , based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs (pr. 1931) by...

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The 1950’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1950’s added many works to the musical repertory. Following the lead of Oklahoma! and South Pacific, many if not the majority of the best shows were evocations of some part of Americana. The plots stressed comedy at the expense of sentiment, but perhaps audiences found a special kind of nourishment in recognizing an America in part real, in part based on popular fiction, even if that fiction embraced crooks and disreputable show business types, and even if there were, as there often was, a small amount of satire mixed in with all the celebration and fun.

Perhaps the two best-loved shows from this group, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls (pr. 1950) and Meredith Willson’s The Music...

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New Directions

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1940’s and 1950’s also produced musical orphans and distant cousins, plays nearly or completely removed from the musical theater vogue for things American. Burton Lane’s Finian’s Rainbow (pr. 1947) was an odd mix of the American South with an Irish leprechaun. After its debut on television, Mary Martin’s version of Peter Pan (music by Styne and Carolyn Leigh) moved to Broadway in 1954, costarring Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. Two small Off-Broadway shows, Rick Besoyan’s operetta spoof Little Mary Sunshine (pr. 1959) and The Fantasticks (pr. 1960) by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, asked audiences to turn to a nostalgic past with a quieter kind of sentiment than that in the big...

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Influence of Rock Music

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

By the 1960’s, conditions no longer favored the book musical in the form dominant for twenty years. Almost all the major composers of shows were silent, or nearly so, or had given up the musical. More important for the musical’s future, the arrival of rock and roll—and, later, the Beatles—had irrevocably split popular music in two. In Bye Bye Birdie, Broadway had observed the rock phenomenon from a bemused, secure distance, but once the theater realized that the musical play was nearly on the brink of obsolescence, a few rock shows came forward, the most famous being the nearly plotless Hair (pr. 1967), the religious Godspell (pr. 1971), and Grease (pr. 1972). All were very popular and...

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Concept Musicals

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Still, in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, and even into the 1980’s, old-fashioned book musicals continued to appear. (Because the importance of the book seems to have been sacrificed to outsized production concerns, most of these shows seem old-fashioned even when set beside Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady.) The total number of shows produced during these years may have been fewer than in previous decades, but the financial bonanzas for shows such as Hello, Dolly!, Mame (pr. 1966), Annie (pr. 1977), or La Cage aux Folles (pr. 1983) were enormous. It is staging that made these shows theatrical events of note. Naturally, theatrical technology had advanced, but much of the credit for...

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Stephen Sondheim

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The one composer to achieve greatness during the decades that have been dominated by the concept musical and the director-as-star is Stephen Sondheim . Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, and his first musical score was the farcical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (pr. 1962); but his breakthrough work was Company, the 1970 landmark concept musical. Company was less a play than a set of situations about a bachelor and his married friends. The married couples also doubled as the singing-dancing chorus and in solos or trios sang commentary on the ensuing action. There were songs within the scenes. In any case though, Sondheim resisted the easy melody (a...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

Growing Split in Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The later 1980’s and the first years of the 1990’s, however, witnessed a widening split between entertainment extravaganzas and more serious musical drama. The huge success of British imports such as Cats (Lloyd Webber’s musical based on T. S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) and Les Misérables, first produced in French in 1980 and in English in 1985 (by Alain Boublil, and Claude-Michel Schönberg, from Victor Hugo’s famous 1847 novel), meant that the economics of Broadway theater had turned toward investment-and-return criteria, rather than theatrical complexity of character and integrity of vision. The ambitious Chess (pr. 1986), by Benny...

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Contemporary Innovations

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The musical plays of the 1990’s and the first few years of the twenty-first century exhibited several differences from previous decades. The first was that Broadway looked to movies for source material. These included Grand Hotel: The Musical (pr. 1990), Meet Me in St. Louis (pr. 1990), The Goodbye Girl (pr. 1993), Beauty and the Beast (pr. 1994), Sunset Boulevard (pr. 1995), The Lion King (pr. 1998), The Producers (pr. 2001), The Full Monty (pr. 2001), Thoroughly Modern Millie (pr. 2002), and The Sweet Smell of Success (pr. 2002). Producers, especially corporations like the Walt Disney Company and Clear Channel Entertainment, strove to...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bach, Stephen. Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Besides his famous collaborations with Kaufman, the director and writer also worked with such noted figures as Berlin, Porter, Rodgers, Ira Gershwin, and other important musical drama figures from 1925 to his death in 1962.

Greene, Stanley, and Kay Greene. Broadway Musicals: Show by Show. 5th ed. Milwaukee, Wis.: H. Leonard, 1997. Surveys musicals that have run for five hundred or more performances, starting with plays from the late 1800’s through the 1990’s. Provides facts, synopses, credits, and photos of three hundred plays.


(The entire section is 393 words.)