Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Ah, the theater. Even in the world of cinematic blockbusters and on-demand television, the theater has maintained a tight hold on American cultural imagination. Actually, theater is still popular around the world, but when we talk about this concept in the United States, we're almost always referring to musical theater. Musical theater is a form of dramatic production combining acting, singing, and dancing to tell a story. We tend to call these productions musicals, or sometimes Broadway musicals based on their preeminent venue. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll cheer, you'll sing; it's an artistic experience unlike any other.
Defining the Musical
Before we get into the history of musical theater, we need to define this concept a little more clearly. In Western theatrical traditions, there are three main kinds of dramatic performance involving music. Ballets communicate their story almost entirely through dance, with little to no dialogue. Few people confuse musicals and ballets. Where this gets trickier is with operas. Operas are dramatic productions in which the dialogue is nearly entirely sung by the performers. In an opera, even simple lines like ''hello'' and ''hurry up'' are sung as parts of the symphonic score. In musicals, the actors will often sing, but most of the mundane dialogue and much of the plot is spoken and acted. That's one of the defining differences between musicals and operas.
Musical Theater History
Now that we're clearly established that musicals and operas are different, let's look back at the origins of the musical: the opera. Yes, I know it's confusing. In the 18th century, operas were one of the most important forms of theater in Europe, but there were many kinds. We're familiar with the serious and complex operas of the educated and wealthy, but there were also comical operas of both high-brow and low-brow varieties. These operettas were very popular amongst many social classes, were much less serious, and told simpler stories often through popular songs. One of the most notable examples is The Beggar's Opera, a 1728 satire about thieves and prostitutes told through both popular bar songs and famous operatic melodies.
This popular, comedic opera grew in Europe, but to see it turn into musical theater we have to travel across the Atlantic to the United States. Americans, who did not strictly adhere to European concepts of class privilege, favored forms of entertainment that were accessible to all. These took off in the 19th century in the form of minstrel shows. These basic theatrical productions generally included a small cast of satirical characters, defined by larger-than-life personalities and stereotypes. These productions generally occurred in three acts. The first included the entire company (cast) on stage where they told stories through songs. The second act, called the olio, was more like a variety show featuring dances, songs, and comedy routines. The third act was a short play that generally poked fun at various members of society in what we would now find often racist and prejudicial ways.
Throughout the 19th century, minstrel shows grew in size and popularity but were also refined into other art forms, such as vaudeville and burlesque theater. Each of these included a combination of acting, singing, and dancing. They were performed by traveling theater troupes, who organized into established tour routes and companies by the 1880s. The more popular these became, the more American theater was refined.
In 1866, a theatrical performance appeared called The Black Crook which brought in a troupe of standard ballet dancers to add a new level of entertainment to the show. By combining the variety and entertainment of vaudeville with a full theatrical plot told partly through acting and partly through music, The Black Crook became tremendously popular, and set many foundations for the genre of musical theater.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the emerging genre of musical theater continued to create more complex plots filled with drama and intense human emotion, coupled with increasingly-original songs and musical scores. The rise of jazz music among African American communities was quickly incorporated into musicals, and the genre began to develop a distinct sound. The final nail, however, came in 1927. In this year, musicals reached a new level of popularity, but still resembled their vaudeville origins in many ways.
Then, a show opened on Broadway called Show Boat. Show Boat included a full cast of characters who were more than stereotypes. Each one was fully developed and integral to the plot. The plot itself was complex and dramatic, dealing with issues of racial identity in the American South. The story was dramatic yet comical, and fully integrated the dancing, singing, and acting into a unified production instead of featuring them as independent acts. We call this integrated, mature production a book musical, and it's been the definitive form of musical theater ever since.
All right, let's take a moment or two to review what we've learned. We learned that musical theater is a form of performance combining acting, singing, and dancing to present a fully-realized story. Unlike ballet and opera, musicals advance the plot through singing, dancing, and spoken dialogue equally. Ballets communicate their story almost entirely through dance, with little to no dialogue, while operas are dramatic productions in which the dialogue is nearly entirely sung by the performers.
The origins of this genre can be traced back to popular comical operas of both high-brow and low-brow varieties, called operettas, in 18th-century Europe. They can also be traced to the traveling minstrel shows of the 19th-century United States, which were basic theatrical productions that generally included a small cast of satirical characters, defined by larger-than-life personalities and stereotypes. Minstrel shows, which became vaudeville and burlesque shows, presented a variety of acts with short stories for popular entertainment.
As we learned, though, in 1866, a performance called The Black Crook started integrating these elements together, setting the stage (pun intended) for musical theater. The genre was refined over time, leading to the formation of the book musical, a production integrating fully-realized characters, song, and dance to advance a complex plot. The first musical to do this was 1927's Show Boat. When we talk about musicals today, this is the format we think of. Musicals are a uniquely American form of theater, built on a century of popular entertainment, and still entertaining us to this day.
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