Timeline: American Musicals

Feb 13, 2017

The modern American musical is usually associated with the “triple threat”, singing, dancing and acting. It is also the culmination of costume and set design utilizing resources and technology that would make Wagner jealous. The line that connects operas to musicals is a complicated one, influenced by shifting cultural tastes, commercial enterprise and a wide ocean.

In 1728, the British dramatist, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera opened in London. This ballad opera used popular tunes with rewritten lyrics and spoken dialogue to satirize the serious nature of Italian opera. This genre of “anti-opera” was a huge success and many British ballads were taken across the pond and performed in the American colonies. After the revolution, American theaters became the home of the burlesque show, witty parodies of famous plays.  They included dancing girls, popular songs, witty comedy and sometimes lewd subject matter. The Black Crook, which opened in New York in 1866, became the culmination of this new American musical theater genre. It is considered to be the first “book” musical written by Americans.

But this new genre owed a great deal to European influences. The form of the American musical borrows heavily from the opera buffas of Offenbach and the operettas of Johan Strauss II. The content comes from the minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque and other popular entertainments of the late 19th century. But the look and production value come directly from the work of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan inspired American musical theater writers to pursue the same level of production value.
Credit US-PD

The Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York in 1879. This comic opera set a new standard with American audiences with its witty lyrics and dialogue, sophisticated musical structure and its impeccable production value. American dramatist and composers were inspired to imitate and make this genre their own. In the early 1900s, George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert began to give the “Broadway Musical” a distinctly American sound and Ziegfeld’s “Follies” introduced a new sense of pageantry and performance.

In the 1920s, the American musical began to travel back across the pond to entertain British audiences. By the next decade, during the Great Depression, the musical grew in popularity; with the premiere of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, and Ira and George Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing. These productions saw the birth of many popular songs that found their way onto the radio and into the American consciousness.

But the musical truly came into its own in 1943 when Rogers and Hammerstein opened Oklahoma. This work is a now a touchstone for story, character development and production.  Since then the musical has evolved with the shifting tastes of audiences, embracing new musical genres and offering spectacle that is rarely seen on the opera stage. By the end of the 20th century, with the sophisticated music and storytelling of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, it’s hard to truly define where musical ends and opera begins.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.