A Brief History of Musical Theatre

What is Musical Theatre? Well in its most basic definition is a performance that combines spoken lines with musical numbers. This is different however from opera where all of the words are sung and there are no spoken lines. And a play where there is no singing and strictly spoken lines. But where did it get its start?


The Beginning

Musical Theatre can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. (a really long time ago) Where music and dance were incorporated in stage comedies and tragedies, that kind of musical performance was lost to time and had little effect on how musical theatre is portrayed today. After that musical theatre went quiet for a long while until around 1850 a French composer named Hervé, was experimenting with a form of musical theatre he called opérette, some of the more famous composers of that genre include Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II. In the mid 19th century around this time in America, musical theatre included crude variety review, which later developed into vaudeville and minstrel shows.


1890-1900

Heading towards the late 19th century and early 20th century Broadway has become big and shows like A Trip to Chinatown, Irene, Robin Hood along with hundreds more. Then over in England, a man named George Edwards began to modernize the idea of musical theatre and take the current theme of either comedies or tragedies. And make a more all-encompassing and inclusive version that anyone can follow, this style was referred to as the Edwardian style and was quickly adopted by the American theaters.


1920-1930

Around this time musical theatre started to focus on the big dance numbers and large spectacles in their shows at the expense of the story and plot. And we began to see more of the revue-style of plays where there would be short skits that had nothing to do with each other rather than full-length performances. During the 1920s more musical styles were brought into the mix such as jazz and ragtime.


1930-1940

During this time the great depression had hit, and most people turned back to mostly light, escapist song-and-dance entertainment. People on both sides of the Atlantic had little money to spend on entertainment, and this was during the time that motion pictures were coming to rise so there was a noticeable drop in popularity in the theatrical department.


1940-1960

This couple of decades are what is known as the golden age of musical theatre where we got such classic as. The sound of music, The King and I, Carousel, and South Pacific. This directly following the great depression was a fantastic comeback to musical theatre.


1970-1990

In the early 1970s, there saw a rise to popularity in a genre of musical theatre known as Rock Musicals which are musicals that incorporate rocks music and what most people would consider regular music compared to the regular theatrical style of music. In the 1980s we see a new trend come in in the form of Mega-Musicals or Pop Operas which were performances with a pop-influenced score and a large cast and set, and were easily identifiable by there notable effects and spectacles. In the 1990s Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa started to open up the theatre community to anyone that wanted to see it no matter how much they could pay, they did this by advertising with the show Rent. The 1990s also saw a large rise in corporations getting into musical production, the most notable being Disney producing such things as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the Little Mermaid.


Today

Today we see a much more modern and comfortable look at musical theatre, there are so many outlets for people to watch and even be a part of theatre whether it be as an actor, or director or as a tech crew or whatever you want to be, you have the opportunity to do that. And that is why we need to know the history behind musical theatre because it has given us this opportunity today to do what we love.

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