What Is A Musical? Meaning, Definition & Examples Revealed

The musical remains one of the greatest artistic mediums, with many musicals being considered legendary. But, to the uninitiated, the concept of what a musical actually is can be a little elusive.

If this is you, then you’ve come to the right place. Read on to discover the characteristics of the common musical, and learn about some noteworthy examples you should experience for yourself. 

What Is A Musical?

A musical is a story that features songs that are sung by its various cast members. These stories can vary widely in range of scope, from being comedic to completely dramatic. 

The notion of musical theater has existed for centuries, and is, thus, one of the oldest artistic mediums still being utilized today. As the times have shifted, so, too, has the scope of performance, which has produced different styles of musical theater, including opera, vaudeville, and burlesques.

What we refer to today as a “musical” has only really been a categorization that has existed since the early 1900s. For the sake of this article, the word “musical” will fall in line with this philosophy and refer to works from the 20th century on. 

In some ways, the musical is an evolved, modern extension of opera. However, unlike opera, musicals can have their fair share of spoken dialogue without any musical accompaniment. 

Cast members of modern musicals will typically receive what is called a book, which features their character’s dialogue. This is also sometimes called a libretto when the scripted dialogue also includes the lyrics to the musical’s show tunes. 

Musicals can be completely original or utilize books, poems, or even movies as the source material for their inspiration. While the dialogue and music often stay the same, each production company’s version may differ depending on artistic interpretation, which can include dance choreography and wardrobe choices. 

While it isn’t always the rule, a musical is usually comprised of 2 acts, with the first being longer. An intermission is almost always featured in between acts, unless, of course, the musical itself only has 1 act.

During the first act, you’ll meet the musical’s characters and witness the developing plot and/or themes that are central to its story. While the intermission itself serves as a break, it provides a sense of lingering suspense as it usually occurs after an important plot development.

The following act(s) serve(s) the purpose of resolving the major conflict that is presented during the musical’s expositional climax. Toward the end, the musical production’s main songs will usually see a reprisal to help wrap the ending up in a tidy bow. 

Where Are Musicals Performed?

While musicals are performed all across the world, there are a few locations that are considered to be geographical headquarters. The one that most people are familiar with is Broadway, which refers to New York City’s theater district of which Broadway (the street) is a boundary.

Broadway is generally associated with being the highest level that a musical production could aspire to. However, the theaters in London’s West End district are usually considered to be an equal counterpart to those found on Broadway.

With that being said, musicals are not solely limited to these locations. In fact, you probably don’t have to travel too far to be able to find a musical happening near you.

Schools of all levels (especially colleges) will typically have a drama department that hosts different musicals on a yearly level. Different towns and municipalities all typically have their own departments and production companies that put on musicals on a regular basis. 

The musical is not limited to just the US or the UK, either. Musicals are alive in almost every country in which the arts culture is thriving. 

How Long Do Musicals Last?

If you aren’t so sure that you’d love attending a musical, you may have concerns about how long they typically last. After all, nobody likes feeling as if time has frozen while sitting through a multi-hour production that they aren’t enjoying.

How long the musical lasts is dependent upon how many acts it has. At the very least, you can expect the musical to last an hour minimum, with 90 minutes usually being about the average runtime.

On the other side of the coin, some musicals can last a few hours. Before Spartacus made its Broadway debut, the musical’s runtime lasted just beyond the 4-hour mark. 

Long musicals aren’t necessarily that common, primarily because the production costs to run such a show can be astronomical. The majority of musicals will usually max out around 3 hours at the most, but, again, there will always be exceptions.

The Golden Age Of Musicals & Beyond

Now that you have a general idea of what a musical is, let’s take a closer look at how the modern musical got to be where it is today. Along the way, you’ll learn about the most historical musicals, as well as the prominent people who have played an important role in innovating the medium.

Show Boat

While it isn’t considered as being a musical from the “Golden Age,” Show Boat is widely recognized as starting the shift in how musicals would be performed thereafter. The musical came out in 1927 and is based off of the novel by Edna Ferber, which came out a year prior.

The musical takes place in 1887 and follows the story of Magnolia Hawks and the different stages of her relationship with Gaylord Ravenal, whom she met on a show boat called the Cotton Blossom. The pair were given lead roles in the boat’s stage production after it was discovered that Julie La Verne and Steve Baker (the original leads in the production) were not completely of the white race and were let go due to Jim Crow laws.

As Magnolia and Ravenal became intertwined, they agreed to get married, despite the late revelation that Ravenal was once acquitted of murder. 26 years later, the musical finds Magnolia and Ravenal in Chicago with a daughter named Kim, and living off of Ravenal’s gambling winnings.

Not long after, the family becomes destitute and Ravenal leaves the family, leaving Magnolia to descend into alcoholism. Eventually, Magnolia finds her way back to the stage, with Kim following in her footsteps to become one of the greatest performers on Broadway.

Magnolia and Kim eventually return to the Cotton Blossom, where Ravenal makes an appearance and asks to be forgiven. And, of course, the musical ends on that happy note as Magnolia accepts. 

Show Boat is notable for multiple reasons, with the first being that it challenged social constructs by incorporating race as a central theme. Secondly, it was the first major work of Oscar Hammerstein II. 

Show Boat


1943’s Oklahoma! is widely regarded as the monumental work that completely changed the musical forever and is considered to mark the start of the period known as the “Golden Age”. It is notable for being the first musical that resulted from the legendary collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Oklahoma! takes place during the frontier days when land in the state of Oklahoma was up for grabs. Its story centers around the trials and tribulations surrounding the love of a cowboy named Curly and Laurey, a farmer’s daughter. 

Oklahoma! has some of the most famous show tunes in the modern musical’s history. Some choice cuts include songs like The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, and, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.

Even to this day, Oklahoma! continues to be revived around the world, with its most recent being a 2023 West End production. Schools and smaller regional theater companies also tend to put on this show on a frequent basis.


Annie Get Your Gun

1946’s Irving Berlin work, Annie Get Your Gun helped to solidify the evolutionary shift that was taking place in musical theater at the time. The musical follows the story of Annie Oakley and her romance with Frank Butler.

Annie Oakley was known for being an excellent shot, and when Buffalo Bill’s act came to her town, the hotel owner signed her up to challenge Frank, the show’s lead sharpshooter. From the very start, the pair had a palpable chemistry, though a few roadblocks are met along the way before they are eventually married.

Like Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun has a number of songs that have become extremely famous outside of the musical’s context. These include songs like, Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better), and There’s No Business Like Show Business. 

Annie Get Your Gun

The Phantom Of The Opera

Jumping ahead a few decades, 1986’s Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, The Phantom Of The Opera is, by far, one of the most iconic musicals of all time. Andrew Lloyd Webber innovated the musical multiple times, with works like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, and Cats, but The Phantom Of The Opera is considered one of his crowning accomplishments. 

The Phantom Of The Opera is so iconic that it has essentially become the longest-running production of all time. To date, it has seen over 12,000 performances, which plays a role in how ubiquitous it is in popular culture.

This musical follows the story of Christine Daaé and a disfigured, misunderstood musical genius (The Phantom), who becomes obsessively attached to Christine. This comes to a climax when she and Raoul (her own personal romantic interest) become prisoners to The Phantom as a result of his possessive rage. 

The Phantom Of The Opera


2015’s Hamilton is one of the latest musicals to light the theater world on fire with its critical acclaim. This Lin-Manuel Miranda work is unique in the sense that it incorporates modern genres in its music, including rapping dialogue. 

Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton from his early years all the way to his death in a duel in 1804. It’s this blending of history with seemingly out-of-place modern music aesthetics that makes Hamilton such a fantastic show. 

Upon its release, Hamilton received 16 Tony Award nominations, which cemented the show as being a modern classic. The show has since had a massive cultural impact and remains one of the hottest tickets around.


Musical Films

If you can’t attend a musical in person, you can count on the fact that most major musicals have all had Hollywood film adaptations. For many, seeing these films is their first foray into the world of musical theater. 

Due to runtime and continuity, these adaptations can have alterations, but, for the most part, are true to the original musical. Some of the most notable film adaptations include:

  • West Side Story
  • The Sound Of Music
  • The Kind And I
  • Bye Bye Birdie
  • Chicago
  • Carousel
  • Moulin Rouge!
  • South Pacific
  • Rent

What Is A Musical, Final Thoughts

Now that you have a better idea of what a musical consists of, you can attend a musical and have a greater appreciation for its production. Over time, you’ll inevitably find your favorites, and you’re sure to have at least one show tune memorized.

While the musical is somewhat of a tradition, one can’t help but be a little fascinated by how much they have evolved (and how much they have stayed the same). Only time will tell if tomorrow’s musicals will change the way musicals are written and made forever. 

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