History Of Musicals
Musicals are the most popular form of theater. This article takes you on a brief history of musical theater, from the early Ziegfeld Follies shows to the modern Disney blockbusters.
There’s nothing quite as rousing as a well-executed stage musical. The resonance of the voices, the thrill of the dancing, the collective gasp of the crowd, all add to the pleasure. This is a (necessarily) brief history of the genre.
Strictly speaking, it all goes right back to Ancient Greek drama, where the chorus chanted the story. The 17th century saw the beginnings of opera, and the 18th century saw ballad operas like THE BEGGAR’S OPERA in New York. Various comic operas also propelled the genre in the 1700’s. In the minstrel shows of the 1800’s, we can also see the genesis of the modern musical.
The late 19th century operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan also helped the genre to find itself. It was H.M.S. PINAFORE that exposed theatergoers to a new kind of show: one in which story, music and lyrics all worked simultaneously to produce a unified theatrical effect. Further Gilbert and Sullivan shows were also successful in New York in the late 1800’s: among them PATIENCE, THE MIKADO, THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD, THE GONDOLIERS and IOLANTHE.
1903 saw L. Frank Baum adapting his story THE WIZARD OF OZ for the stage, with memorable make-up and settings, but a somewhat different story to that made famous later on the stage and in the film version. The songs and the script were hardly memorable, but Fred Stone and Jim Montgomery were hailed for their performances as Scarecrow and Tin Man.
The early 1900’s also saw the beginnings of the career of Florenz Ziegfeld and his FOLLIES shows, with their trademark line-ups of gorgeous showgirls. In 1905,the operetta THE MERRY WIDOW opened in Vienna; and was a hit in America after opening there in 1907.
In 1910, comedienne Fanny Brice joined the increasingly successful Ziegfeld FOLLIES, which reached their peak in the 1915 and subsequent seasons, until the 1922 season, which many describe as the last truly great version.
The biggest hit of the 1920’s was ROSE-MARIE, with its famous “Indian Love Call”; which filled houses in both New York and London. THE STUDENT PRINCE opened in 1924, with a superb Sigmund Romberg score. Another milestone of the musical theater, NO! NO! NANETTE! opened in 1925, with a number of catchy songs, including “I Want to be Happy” and “Tea for Two”, which were both simple melodies added to the show belatedly.
The show RIO RITA opened the superb Ziegfeld Theatre in 1927, and ran for almost 500 performances. The Ziegfeld was also the venue for SHOW BOAT, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Featuring the standards “Make Believe”, “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”, it was, perhaps, the first great American musical.
The 1929 stock market crash, and the rise of the film musical changed everything. Noel Coward’s BITTER SWEET opened at the Ziegfeld in May. It was a fine work, with the superb “I’ll See You Again”, but its American run proved disappointing. The Gershwins’ show, GIRL CRAZY, opened in 1930 starring the astonishing Ethel Merman. The last ZIEGFELD FOLLIES mounted by the master himself reflected the changing times with the words “It’s not the place it used to be” in the song “Broadway Reverie.” Ziegfeld died in 1932.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill died a quick death in 1933, despite some critical success. THE GREAT WALTZ, in 1934, showcased elaborate settings while telling its fictitious Strauss biographies. Moss Hart wrote the libretto.
The biggest hit of 1934 was ANYTHING GOES with its Cole Porter hits “You’re the Top” and “I Get a Kick Out of You”. The Gershwin opera PORGY AND BESS opened in 1935, but it proved to be too gloomy for audiences, despite the excellence of its music.
In 1940, Rodgers and Hart, together with writer John O’Hara, introduced a new kind of character to the Broadway stage. PAL JOEY had, as its “hero”, the mercenary, two-timing Joey. Critics were divided in their opinion, but some praised its honest, three-dimensional characters. The song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is the one best remembered.
OKLAHOMA! opened in 1943 and ran for over 2000 performances in New York, and changed American musicals forever. Its music was sophisticated and innovative, and it gave us the standards “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”. The same year also saw Oscar Hammerstein’s all-black CARMEN JONES, which ran for 503 performances.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL, in 1945, introduced a new solemn note to the musical, with its purgatorial coda and the unforgettable song “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, in 1946, eschewed such sententiousness, and its purely escapist approach ensured its popularity.
The recently revived KISS ME, KATE opened in 1948, written around Shakespeare’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. The Cole Porter score gave us “Too Darn Hot” and the witty “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
In 1949, SOUTH PACIFIC, based on two James Michener stories, gave us the songs “Bali Ha’i”, “Younger than Springtime” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.” It also won the Pulitzer Prize. In all, the 1948-49 season was quite brilliant.
Kurt Weill died during the run of LOST IN THE STARS, based on Alan Paton’s novel CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY. The big hit of 1949 was GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, featuring bombshell Carol Channing, and which assured us that “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”
The hit show GUYS AND DOLLS, by Frank Loesser and George Kaufman, based on the stories of Damon Runyon, spawned the hit song “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”, and ran for a little under three years. THE KING AND I opened in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence as star, but she died during the run.
Besides a revival of PAL JOEY, the year 1951 also saw PAINT YOUR WAGON with the songs “I Talk to the Trees” and “They Call the Wind Maria.” Bob Fosse choreographed THE PYJAMA GAME in 1954, with its wonderful tango “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Fosse developed his trademark unsynchronized style, and the show also featured the lovely ballad “Hey There.”
Julie Andrews astonished Broadway in 1954 in Sandy Wilson’s THE BOY FRIEND, a delightfully nostalgic look back at the twenties, and Mary Martin flew spectacularly as PETER PAN.
MY FAIR LADY, once again with Julie Andrews, established a new Broadway long-run record in 1956. It ran for over six years. BELLS ARE RINGING, with Judy Holliday, ran for a “mere” two years or so, and gave us the poignant song “The Party’s Over.”
WEST SIDE STORY re-interpreted ROMEO AND JULIET in 1957, and shocked some with its frank brutality, but impressed so many others. It also launched the career of Stephen Sondheim. GYPSY, in 1959, told the story of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and offered superb music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC also opened in 1959 with Mary Martin in the lead, and gave us many memorable melodies. It ran for over three years and spawned a tremendously successful film. Lerner and Loewe’s CAMELOT had a successful run after an initially unkind response from critics; one even uncharitably dubbed it “Camelittle”.
OLIVER was imported from London in 1963, and audiences loved it, especially the ballad “As Long as He Needs Me” and the liltingly upbeat “Consider Yourself”.
The biggest hit in years was 1964’s HELLO DOLLY! With Jerry Herman’s snappy music and unashamed escapism, it ran for nearly 3000 performances. The year also saw FUNNY GIRL, which told the Fanny Brice story, and starred Barbra Streisand. FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was an atmospheric adaptation of stories by Sholom Aleichem.
The hit song “The Impossible Dream” emerged from a successful adaptation of DON QUIXOTE called MAN OF LA MANCHA. In 1966, Angela Lansbury impressed audiences as MAME, the Jerry Herman musical based on the Patrick Dennis novel. The longest run of the 1966-67 season was CABARET, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb; but the show was less successful in London.
HAIR opened in 1968, and the songs “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine” became hits. It ran for almost 2000 performances, but rock music still did not lastingly penetrate the Broadway scene.
APPLAUSE, the hit of the 1969-1970 season, was based on the film ALL ABOUT EVE, and Lauren Bacall’s electric personality kept the show running for nearly 900 performances.
FOLLIES, Stephen Sondheim’s intelligent, nostalgic show, opened in 1971, but was perhaps too sophisticated to capitalize on popular appeal. The year also saw JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Rice and Webber with Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene.
GREASE opened in 1972, and has been a hit ever since. A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, in 1974, re-worked the Ingmar Bergman film SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, and gave us the haunting “Send in the Clowns”. MACK AND MABEL, with engaging music by Jerry Herman, took audiences back to the days of silent movies, but closed after eight weeks.
January 1975 saw THE WIZ, a black version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, with some imaginative production values, and the song “Ease On Down the Road.” Despite its London success, THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW flopped in America. CHICAGO proved to be popular then as well as in subsequent revivals, and the hit A CHORUS LINE was performed in front of a simple mirrored back wall.
The revue BUBBLING BROWN SUGAR was big in London and New York. The trend, mostly due to escalating running costs, was towards smaller casts. In 1977, there was the Sondheim revue SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM and the wife-swapping show I LOVE MY WIFE, which was funny and lively. ANNIE was a successful adaptation of the Orphan Annie cartoon strip, and THE ACT was designed as a vehicle for Liza Minnelli. The 1978 revue AIN’T MISBEHAVING celebrated the music of Fats Waller.
In the early eighties, there was BARNUM; and David Merrick produced the Gower Champion hit “42nd STREET” with the rousing “Lullaby of Broadway” production number.
In the last twenty years or so, we’ve seen more Lloyd-Webber hits, ranging from EVITA to STARLIGHT EXPRESS, CATS and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. We’ve had shows with the most unlikely subjects: monstrous plants (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS), monstrous murderers (SWEENEY TODD) and the French Revolution (LES MISERABLES). There’s recently been a musical version of JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD
We’ve had FAME and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER reproducing the film versions. And we’ve had the Disney blockbusters BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING and recently AIDA.
Revivals and revues remain popular: recent successes have been FOSSE, THE MUSIC MAN and SWING!
Despite having to adapt to all kinds of society’s changes, the musical appears to be fighting fit.