While 1886’s The Black Crook may have been the theatrical performance that really established the elements we associate with musical theater today, in 1927, the first benchmark in the Broadway musical’s evolution came with the stage adaptation of Edna Ferber’s epic novel Show Boat. With music by Jerome Kern, and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II and P.G. Wodehouse, the musical told the sprawling tale of the inhabitants of the Cotton Blossom, a traveling song and dance show moseying up and down the Mississippi River. Show Boat’s significance is two-fold: it was a musical that addressed topical and controversial issues such as racism and miscegenation in an era when musical theatre preferred puff over politics; and it was also one of the first musicals with plot-driving songs concerned with character development.
Building on the groundwork laid by Show Boat, the 1943 musical Oklahoma! by stage and screen legends, Rodgers and Hammerstein, decisively used music and lyrics to propel plot and define characters. This ‘novelty’ would come to be known as the “integrated musical”. The story – about a menacing farm hand and a cocky cowboy both vying for the hand of the same spunky farm girl in the Oklahoma Territory of 1906 – offered deeper portraits of the characters, delving into their psychologies and demonstrating how music and lyrics could give the audience emotional insight into the characters’ hopes and fears. Additional innovation came in the form of Agnes De Mille’s choreography which augmented storytelling though movement. Her use of a “Dream Ballet” to explore the thought process was unlike anything Broadway audiences had experienced before.
West Side Story
Taking the proverbial baton from Agnes De Mille – and then running with it – director-choreographer Jerome Robbins pushed dance to the pinnacle of its storytelling potential in the landmark 1957 musical West Side Story. Set in New York City during the 1950s, West Side Story told the harrowing tale of warring street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Robbins used dance to show the tension between the opposing sides, and, in moments of visual poetry, painted violence in an unexpectedly compassionate and poignant way. He found ways to juxtapose the romances of the two rivaling sides with this turbulent backdrop through dance, and the effect was a critical success. Time magazine noted that the show’s “putting choreography foremost may prove a milestone in musical-drama history”. Indeed it did Time magazine. Indeed it did.
In 1966, director Harold Prince, the composing team of Kander and Ebb, and book writer Joe Masteroff would craft Cabaret, a multi-layered musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. Using a show-within-a-show conceit to enhance the musical theatre storytelling technique, the musical is set at a seedy Kit Kat Klub cabaret in 1930s Berlin as the Nazi Party begins to take control of the country – we see how the changing world is affecting the people who work at the venue. While many musicals of the ‘60s sought a bold break with tradition, Cabaret, was the boldest, with multi-layer storytelling and songs that used irony and dark humor to make sharp social commentary.
Up until the 1960s, musical theatre scores had a certain classic sound. Rock ‘n’ Roll and Broadway weren’t just unlikely bedfellows – the bougie Broadway coterie might well scream bloody murder. The 1960s hit Bye Bye Birdie would set the stage (so to speak) with three rock offerings in its songbook, but it was not until the late 1960s with the musical Hair that the Rock n’ Roll sound would fill the greater balance of a Broadway score. Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni would use the musical styles of the ‘60s generation to tell the story of a tribe of hippies railing against war while embracing sex, drugs and (of course) Rock n’ Roll. Not only did the production come to define the ‘rock musical’, it broke new ground in racially diverse casting and was the first to invite the audience onto the stage for a be-in finale – right on, man.
Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company is known as the first successful “concept musical.” Following his re-tooling of the rules in Cabaret, director Harold Prince came aboard to direct, and using the eleven plays written by Furth that served as the musical’s basis, crafted a series of vignettes in no chronological order, but exploring a single theme: marriage. The central character, Bobby, has many married friends, and through these vignettes, different hardships and struggles of married life are explored. Among the first musicals to deal with Adult themes, Sondheim sought to challenge his upper middle class audience with what amounted to a mirror. Company’s non-structure would open the door for musicals like A Chorus Line, Cats (alas), and Assassins.
The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera makes this list for the innovative use of spectacle and pageantry that went on to establish this Andrew Lloyd Webber/Charles Hart/Richard Stilgoe musical as Broadway’s longest-running of all time. Premiering first in London’s West End in 1986, the show crossed the Atlantic in 1988, and opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre where it still plays today. For over three decades, this stage adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name has been captivating Broadway audiences, with total estimated worldwide gross receipts of over $5.6 billion and a total Broadway gross of $845 million, not to mention the big-budget critically panned but financially fruitful 2004 Hollywood adaptation starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rosum. We’d imagine Webber, Hart, and Stilgoe are extremely happy chaps.
And just when we all thought there could be no more innovation in the industry – Hamilton – a modern-day masterpiece of American musical theatre, employing rap and hip-hop to tell the story of America’s founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Of course, Broadway has seen hits, but Hamilton struck a chord, so to speak. Not only did it received enthusiastic critical reception, but also unprecedented advance box office sales – you could not get a ticket until next year. Not for love. Not for money. Casting minorities as America’s founding fathers was a groundbreaking gamble that paid off massively, both as historical commentary and satire, but also addressing the still-stubbornly white world of Western theatre. Hamilton is a rapping representation of musical theatre’s boundary-breaking power to push the social conversation.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. His forthcoming book, Sitcommentary: The Television Comedies That Changed America, will hit the shelves in October, 2019. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.
END OF STORY