Term Paper: History of Musical Theatre

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Musical Theatre is almost as old as America itself. From the 1700s to the present day, the stages across the United States have come alive with the voices and instruments of dramatic, romantic and comedic musicals that have delighted audiences of all ages. It is indeed a part of American heritage that continues and will continue far into the future. The United States is known for its mixture of cultures, beliefs and traditions and where freedom of expression is not only allowed but encouraged. American Musical Theatre is a prime example of this ethnic and cultural eclectic creativity and presentation.

Generally, musical theatre is defined as a presentation that combines music, song, dance and spoken dialogue. It is normally distinguished from opera by use of popular music and unaccompanied discourse. As always, exceptions exist such as the musical "Les Miserables," which is always accompanied by music, and the rock opera "Tommy."

One of the first forms of U.S. musical theatre clearly characterized the country's history. In the early to mid-1800s, minstrelsy became the most popular form of entertainment. White, and sometimes black, entertainers applied burnt-cork makeup and imitated slave and freeman culture. Minstrel entertainment was widespread in the northern cities, appealing to immigrants, the unskilled, as well as some of the middle and upper classes. Reported the 1847 Daily Tribune: "Christy's Minstrels are drawing crowded houses at the Society Library. Many of the most fashionable families attend, as the performances are a pleasing relief to the high toned excitement of the Italian Opera." Ironically, minstrelsy was the first input of black culture into the mainstream.

By the mid-1800s, another type of musical was also intriguing American audiences, called Vaudeville. The Industrial Revolution had altered the previous agricultural-based shape of the country, and half of the population had moved from rural areas into towns and cities. Working at structured jobs gave them spare money and time for regular entertainment. Minstrel shows were beginning to decline, and something else was needed to take their place. Vaudeville also helped bridge the social classes forming in America: Opera was primarily geared for the upper-middle and upper-classes, and minstrel shows for the middle-classes. Vaudeville was thus developed by entrepreneurs seeking higher profits from a wider audience (Snyder 1226).

The first vaudeville houses opened in New York in the late 1840s, emphasizing the entertainment with very varied appellations as "continuous," "advanced," "electric," "polite," and "fashionable" (Sobel 24). Although vaudeville brings to mind comedy and dancing, music played as important a role with solos, singing groups, orchestras, bands and stars such as Judy Garland and Eddie Cantor.

During this time, burlesque also brought laughter and enjoyment to a wide range of audiences. Although much of it was a spoof on social attitudes and activities, it also contained musical comedy, dance routines and song. Burlesque arrived in the U.S. from Europe with the Hootchy-Cootchy & Can dancers. Shows encouraged more conservative Americans to put aside religious qualms to see shows that included male impersonators and scantly clothed women (Allen). Later, burlesque became known as the "strip-tease" show, creating its own stars as Gypsy Rose Lee.

At the middle of the 1800's, numerous theatres opened in large urban areas. In Broadway, Niblo's Garden, a 3,200 seat auditorium at the intersection of Broadway and Prince Streets bragged that it was the most well equipped stage. Here the first Broadway musical was produced and run by part-time actor and entrepreneur William Wheatley. He hoped to run a melodrama with some mediocre songs by assorted composers. When a fire destroyed New York's elite Academy of Music in 1866, the promoters Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer went to Wheatley with a Parisian group of dancers. Wheatley then threw all these elements together in one huge, but memorable, production called the "Black Crook." Its unique quality was having a story line that tied together all pieces, unlike earlier minstrel and vaudeville presentations (Henderson 64).

The plot relates the story of the evil Count Wolfenstein, who loves the beautiful Amina. He places her boyfriend Rodolphe in the clutches of the nasty crook and master of black magic Hertzog, who stays alive by providing the Devil with a soul every New Year's Eve. While an unknowing Rodolphe is led to this hellish fate, he saves a dove, which turns out to be Stalacta, Fairy Queen of the Golden Realm. The grateful Queen delivers Rudolph to safety and reunites him with Amina. Count Wolfenstein is defeated, demons drag the evil Hertzog into the Netherworld (Henderson 64).

The late 1800s also introduced Gilbert and Sullivan, who revolutionized the musical theatre by creating humorous, melodic and word-play operettas. The stage was now literally and figuratively set for Broadway musicals. One of their most special shows is "H.M.S. Pinnafore." This play spoofed the Victorian system of social strata, which limited each person's options in life based on their class (Musical101.com)

At the start of the 20th century, New York was quickly becoming theatrical capital of the world. The first extravaganza was the British musical comedy "Florodora," about a young woman seeking romance and a stolen inheritance. Then came one of the most memorable musicals of all time -- "The Wizard of Oz." It first mesmerized audiences in NYC and then across the country. This was followed by several George M. Cohan and Victor Hubert musicals and the legendary "Ziegfield Follies" (Musical101.com).

Born in Chicago in 1867, Florence Ziegfield's father was head of the Chicago Musical College. In 1893, Ziegfeld and his father opened the variety hall Trocadero, with strongman Eugen Sandow headlining. Later that year, Ziegfeld headed to NYC and went from promoting to producing shows with the backing of characters such as "Diamond" Jim Brady. He met and married European star Anna Held and produced lavish shows with beautiful chorus girls and stunning musicals.

What Broadway lacked, at the turn of the century, was a figure who could fuse the naughty sexuality of the streets and the saloons and the burlesque show with the savoir-faire of lobster palace society -- someone who could make sex delightful and amusing. What it lacked was Florenz Ziegfeld. (Traub 31)

After World War I, musicals once again picked up full force with new composers, such as Rogers and Hart, along with old-time favorites Cole Porter and the Gershwins. The most popular musical during the 1930s was "Hellazapoppin," which included not only unique songs, but slapstick stage acts with wild audience participation gags. Also at this time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein became a strong partnership. They would greatly transform the musical world (Musical101.com).

Rodgers and Hammerstein started their run of hits with "Oklahoma." The seemingly impossible mixture of murder, suspense and music worked because the characters were characterized in depth. The creative team took other risks as well: Instead of opening with the usual stirring ensemble number, the curtain rose on a farm woman churning butter as a cowboy enters singing a solo about the beauty of the morning. Further, Hammerstein wrote lyrics for all the songs in a conversational style, each fitting specific characters and storytelling needs. In addition, since the characters would be dealing with emotions that might sound awkward if verbalized by cowboys and farm girls, Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to use dance as an integral element. "Oklahoma," became a cultural phenomenon and set a new long-run record for Broadway musicals (Henderson 80). Musical theatre had become big business, and entrepreneurs such as the Shubert brothers were already getting their share of the profits (McNamara).

During WWII, a reality escape came from shows such as Irving Berlin's "Louisiana Purchase." Porter continued musical comedies with stars such as Danny Kaye and Ethel Merman, and Rodgers and Hammerstein produced the well-known "South Pacific." In the 1950s, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Porter and Berlin musicals continued strong. The political 1960s and the 1970s… [END OF PREVIEW]

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