History of Broadway Musicals & Theatre

Categories: HistoryMusicTheatre

There have been many debates on whether or not Broadway musicals are considered “serious” art forms. People feel that a musical can never be taken seriously if the character is always singing sporadically, which is very unusual in real life. However, musicals have been around for quite some time now, many musicals are being adapted into major motion pictures, many children are raised on the famous Disney musical cartoons and everybody( whether they’ll admit it or not) has seen at least one musical in their lifetime and are able to sing some of the songs from it.

It seems that musicals have made an impact on society but yet are still not taken seriously. The history of musicals dates back to the Greeks. It is a common known fact that the Greeks incorporated song and dance into their stage comedies and tragedies as early as the 5th Century B. C. Some used existing songs but it is known that Sophocles wrote his own.

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The Romans are also known for taking the Greek musicals and expanding on them.

The Romans liked the idea of musicals so much that they attached metal chips to their shoes, creating the first tap shoes, so that there would be more focus on the dancing throughout the play. Of course musicals and the idea of telling stories through song and dance really became popular through the Renaissance era. During the 1700’s the two main types of plays were ballad operas and comic operas. Many people think that musicals evolved from operas however if you follow the history of musicals and operas you will learn that it is the other way around yet operas are much more respected than musicals.

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Musicals came to America during the mid-1800’s as saloon shows. They were also known as variety shows and consisted of everything from clowns, singers, dancers and chorus girls. In Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1991, p. 92), historian Luc Sante, claims that variety shows were born in Manhattan's Bowery saloons during the 1840s. One of the first and most famous variety houses was Koster and Bial's on West 23rd Street in New York City.

The variety shows were very distasteful and were later cleaned up and renamed vaudeville then in the 1900’s the shows were cleaned up even more and were then known as minstrelsy. While the minstrelsy shows were much cleaner than the original variety show they would still be considered extremely raunchy by today’s standards. Musicals later came to take the form of the misunderstood form of Burlesque performances. Burlesque shows became popular and kept America entertained from 1840 through the 1960’s. Many people identify burlesque with strippers or scantily dressed women.

The burlesque shows however covered many topics of interest from Shakespeare to spoofs of the famous operas of the moment. In 1860 Burlesque made its appearance on Broadway with Lydia Thompson's British burlesque troupe and their first hit entitled Ixion. It became clear that respectable people would pay lots of money for a sexy performance. The theatre group would use popular songs of that time and parts of operas to perform too which made some of the audience try to say made the Burlesque show more classy and easier to relate too.

Soon the offended audience members began to raise their voices in protest of the performances saying that they were extremely inappropriate and tasteless. This of course only made people more curious about the performances and the crowds began to grow for the show. With the success of the shows people began to copy them and bring them back to their own communities. The majority of the managers and choreographers were women and finally women were beginning to gain respect in the theatre business.

Men quickly began to see the success and start their own shows. The point of the shows were to hint at the idea of the women being naked and to show as much skin as was considered acceptable. The Burlesque shows, while being popular, were considered to be the lowest form of theatre, many of the actors would move on to vaudeville shows which were considered to be the top of the line where if a vaudeville actor would appear in a Burlesque show it was considered a step down and the actor was labeled as “washed up”.

Burlesque soon took on comedy routines and would make fun of the current issues that the middle and lower class were dealing with. However in the 1920’s there began a raid and the police felt the need to shut down all of the Burlesque shows which was a major hit to the Manhattan society where most of the theatres were at the time. While the Burlesque scene was popular musical comedies were beginning to rise without the help of the nudity factor. The musical comedy was born on

Broadway between the years 1878-1884 by the famous producers Edward (Ned) Harrigan and Tony Hart. Harrigan would write the lyrics and songs with some of the music he had taken from his father and add them to plays that would feature characters and situations that the everyday lives of New York’s lower class. They had one particularly famous bit entitled "Mulligan Guard's March” which started in San Francisco and was quickly spread all across the country and reached New York where it ran for over a year in the most popular theatres.

With the success of their short bit they expanded into a 40 minute performance which was greatly accepted and kept playing for a month which was considered a good run for that time. Their show became so popular that it started a seven year run of different shows with Harrigan directing, producing, performing and writing the scripts and lyrics. Their shows ran with much success on Manhattans downtown streets and overpopulated theatres. People quickly saw the success and began to try to create their own versions of this new style known as musical comedies.

Some had success but were quickly forgotten or overlooked with Harrigan and Hart’s success. The more light-hearted and “cheesy” musicals began to pop up all over the Broadway scene in 1940. The Broadway producers felt that with America at war and people still suffering from the Depression audiences just wanted to be entertained and no longer wanted to see their troubles and everyday situations acted out on stage because they were no longer comical. There were still a few comedies left however, one of the most popular being This is the Army a comedy which spoofed the army life.

This particular play had a huge success in America and also had successful run in London. This is the Army became so popular that they even made a motion picture out of the play which earned over $9 million and donated to the Army’s Emergency Relief fund. The 1940’s were filled with famous musicals all with the hopes of just being pure entertainment and losing the idea that only the most artistic performances would be well received. Two of the most famous musical writers in the history of the business made their debut during this time, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were friends in college and both agreed that the best way to approach a musical was with the lyrics first, which was rare for the time. When the two were ready to debut their loved musical Oklahoma the Theatre Guild was bankrupt so the two took the major decisions in their own hands. They took some major risks one being to not open with a big catchy theatrical number and the other being to cast smaller unknown actors instead of the guaranteed success of the more popular actors of the time.

The play was something that had never been seen before; it was a well rounded well written musical. On opening night in New York the show however was not sold out, since there were no major known stars, however the show quickly became a huge success. The success of Oklahoma changed the quality of musicals forever. It was soon realized that musicals could contain more than just “cheesy” dance numbers; musicals could contain drama, comedy and all around quality acting. Future musicals had higher standards and required better and more talented actors.

The actors had to be skilled dancers, singers and actors. There was a lot of talent discovered all over the theatre community during the 40’s while everybody tried to compete with and follow the success of Oklahoma, however most of the talent was quickly forgotten. The 1950’s were soon open the musical community and show tunes were considered the main source of entertainment. Even the smaller musicals that did not have the most talented actors could be very profitable because the audience hoped to discover another winning team like Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The fantastic duo were still ruling the musical world of Broadway, at one point they had 4 successful musicals running at the same time. In 1959 one of the most famous musicals of all time was created and praised, The Sound of Music. Everybody loved the music and the story and it was an immediate success, however it is also remembered as their last great success together as Hammerstein died just a few months after it opened which brought the end of their ruling. The 60’s and 70’s also had some great success in the musical worlds with the idea of bring rock music to the stage.

In the 60’s show tunes could not be found in musicals and were replaced by edgier rock songs. The 60’s are of course known as the years of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll and those ideas were put into story lines and portrayed on the stage. The 70’s had two major hits with Grease and The Wiz. However, the 70’s ended on a bad not for musicals because many people were tired of the shoddy performances being produced and their change in taste of music. There were some other great musicals that were produced in the 70’s but unfortunately they went overlooked.

At the end of the decade revivals were beginning to pop up with famous actors playing the major roles in the musicals to boost up ticket sales. In 1980 the success of Broadway was revived with the huge success of Cats. The success and word of Cats spread all across the world and totally revived the spirit of the musical theatre. Many American composers debuted works after the success of Cats but sadly many failed. One of the biggest failures, Carrie, made its debut in 1988 which many considered the death of the Broadway rage of musicals. The main source of entertainment was now and movies and nobody paid much attention to Broadway anymore.

Broadway however had one major hit left in The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber gave Broadway one last major success which is still running today. The Phantom brought in a new crowd and sold tickets at outrageous prices that the audience did not mind paying for at all, they also spent ton of money on the souvenirs. The 90’s saw a pretty bad drought in musical success except for the mid-90’s when it seemed like musicals were back with the success of Rent, Chicago, Cabaret and Bring in Da' Noise, Bring in Da' Funk. The success carried into 2000 and is still working it’s was on a comeback with a hot streak.

With the huge success of Chicago being adapted into a major motion picture with huge stars like Rene Zellweger, Richard Gere, Taye Diggs and Catherine Zeta-Jones a new interest and spark was ignited in musicals. The theatre has also seen success recently with The Lion King, Hairspray, Aida, The Producers and Mamma Mia!. Musicals have overseen many changes and has a great history of success and failures just like any other type of theatre. As stated in the beginning many children are raised on musicals and grow up surrounded by music yet musicals are not seen as serious pieces of art.

While the most popular musicals are the entertaining ones that don’t deal with any major issues that doesn’t mean that they can’t be serious as well. There are many types of musicals but why does that make them less important? Should comedic plays be seen as less artistic than dramatic pieces? Musicals have just as an important background and history as plays so I feel they should be viewed just as valuable to our society as any other piece of theatrical art. While it may be unnatural for a person to just burst out into song throughout their everyday life I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch if it did happen.

How many times are we reminded of a song we hear earlier that day and sing it in our head? The only real difference between musicals and everyday life is that when we do sing our songs throughout our lives they aren’t always originals, everybody around you doesn’t join in and automatically know every word and we don’t have perfectly choreographed dance numbers to go along with them, however if we did have all that I think it would make life a lot more exciting and interesting. I am personally jealous of musicals for those reasons and wish they were given more respect.

Updated: Jul 20, 2021
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History of Broadway Musicals & Theatre. (2018, Aug 25). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/history-of-broadway-musicals-theatre-essay

History of Broadway Musicals & Theatre essay
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