The term “musical theatre” is often taken for granted to mean what one might readily assume it to mean. But have you ever taken a step back and wondered what musical theatre really is?
To put it simply, musical theatre consists of stage works incorporating an emphasis on music alongside its central theme(s) or story. With that being said, there is much more under the surface waiting to be explored, which is a curiosity you can quench by reading on.
How Long Has Musical Theatre Been In Existence?
Attempting to trace the lineage of any art form is almost an impossible task. Humanity has seemingly always had a penchant for expression, no matter what year it may be.
As a species, we seem to be inevitably drawn to the telling of stories, which is inherent in almost every art form known to mankind. Today, stories exist in film, song, written word, theatre, and even that favorite podcast you like to listen to.
Because of this, one could almost readily assume that some form of musical theatre may have even existed before language itself was created. As you probably know, it is universally agreed that music itself is perhaps one of the oldest art forms in history.
Keep in mind that, while acting plays a central role in musical theatre, acting itself does not necessarily need to rely on the usage of language. Acting, at its most basic level, involves the portrayal of an action or emotion, all of which can be conveyed without saying a word.
Obviously, as language became a part of normal, everyday life, musical theatre evolved alongside its usage. For instance, during the Middle Ages, minstrels and traveling productions were regularly becoming commonplace.
Is Opera Considered Musical Theatre?
While we’re rehashing the history of centuries long past, you might wonder whether opera is considered musical theatre. After all, opera takes place on a stage and incorporates a very explicit focus on music.
Because of this, opera can definitely be considered a part of musical theatre, though it isn’t necessarily what “musical theatre” means in today’s world. There is really one notable reason for this distinction.
Unlike today’s musical theatre, there really is not very much spoken dialogue in the opera’s form. Rather, operas are primarily (but not always) sung through their entirety, sometimes with singing that can incorporate standard speech inflections.
The first opera ever is considered to be written by Jacopo Peri with his work Dafne, which came out in 1598. While opera itself started in Italy, the art form was adopted all throughout Europe, with Germany, England, Russia, and France being major hubs.
Some of the biggest names in classical music have had their hand in producing operatic works, including both Handel and Mozart. In fact, opera would continue to be a prominent platform for the day’s best composers well into the 20th century.
Again, while opera isn’t considered “musical theatre” as it is colloquially used today, tracing opera’s lineage is important in understanding how this term has come to be.
Opera itself rose to its grandest heights during the 19th century. It wasn’t until around the 20th century that a glimmer of today’s form of “musical theatre” became established.
Defining Today’s Musical Theatre
Modern musical theatre is much different in scale than what was going on in centuries past. However, there are still common veins that exist in today’s climate with regard to what a production consists of.
For all intents and purposes, most modern musical theatre productions are simply called “musicals”. However, even today’s musical took quite a journey to become known as what it is today.
Like opera, today’s musicals of musical theatre consist of a book (traditionally called a libretto in opera). This contains the dialogue and lyrics that are to be performed by the production’s various cast members.
Unlike opera, today’s musical theatre often contains quite a bit of spoken dialogue to help push the exposition of the production’s plot. Despite this, music is still very important and often features dance choreography.
It really wasn’t until the 1930s that these stage productions evolved into a format that is recognizable to today’s musical theatre fans. One of the notable aspects here is that the songs incorporated in these productions became phenomenally popular, with many of them being able to stand on their own as bonafide hits outside of the context of the production itself.
Along the way, there are 2 locations that have become especially prominent hubs for the biggest musical theatre productions. These include Broadway (in New York City), and the West End (in London, England).
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular works throughout the years. These will help give you a timeline that you can use to trace the lineage of the musical from its most primitive form to where it is today.
Along the way, you’ll learn about the “Golden Age” of musicals. This specific time period was significantly innovative and laid much of the foundation for what today’s musical theatre productions involve.
1927’s Show Boat is widely accredited to planting the seed of revolution in shaping the modern colloquialism of musical theatre. This standout production features music and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, who would eventually forge a legendary partnership with Richard Rodgers.
In a sense, Show Boat provided the foundation that other shows would draw inspiration from and build upon. One important factor here is that Show Boat challenged several societal norms at the time, one of them being racism.
Show Boat follows the story of Ravenal and Magnolia, who take over the lead roles in a riverboat’s theatre company after it is discovered that the established actors do not have 100% caucasian blood. Eventually, they become married against the warning of others, with their fate being revealed later in the show.
Of Thee I Sing
1931’s Of Thee I Sing marked another massive step forward in the evolution of musical theatre. This production is notable for having its music and lyrics written by George and Ira Gershwin (respectively).
Of Thee I Sing takes its focus to the political world, following presidential nominee John P. Wintergreen as he falls for Diana Devereaux despite his heartstrings compromising his chances. This musical takes some sharp stabs at common political complaints, many of which still hold up in relevancy with respect to today’s political landscape.
Oklahoma! came out in 1943 and is accredited with marking the beginning of the “Golden Age” of musicals. This production was the result of the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein and forged a path that many musicals follow to this day.
Oklahoma! takes place during the settling of the Oklahoma Territory and centers its story around the competition between Curly McLain and Jud Fry for the hand of Laurey Williams. Oklahoma! is especially notable for the fact that it has numerous songs that have become bonafide hits outside of the context of the stage production.
Annie Get Your Gun
Irving Berlin’s 1946 musical, Annie Get Your Gun, continued with the evolutionary direction set in stone with Oklahoma! This very popular musical follows the story of Annie Oakley and how her sharpshooting skills landed her in Buffalo Bill’s traveling show and beyond.
Like Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun is especially notable for having an extremely memorable soundtrack. The songs, Anything You Can Do, and There’s No Business Like Show Business are practically embedded in the psyche of modern-day popular culture.
1949’s South Pacific was another smash hit by the Rodgers and Hammerstein duo and helped push the boundaries of what was possible on the stage. The musical takes place during World War II and examines the consequences of love between 2 separate pairs of characters, all of different backgrounds.
Like Show Boat did in 1927, South Pacific took a clear-cut criticism of the notion of racism, depicting that love knows no boundaries. Along with that, it examines the consequences that each character grapples with as their desires go against societal norms for the time.
West Side Story
Debuting in 1957, West Side Story marked a clear point of evolutionary progress in musical theatre with its grandiose production. This musical had a powerhouse cast and crew, with Leonard Bernstein composing the music, Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics, and Arthur Laurents writing the book.
West Side Story is a sort of modernized adaptation of Romeo And Juliet, set in the gang-ridden landscape of New York City. The production’s soundtrack incorporated elements of world music never before heard in the capacity of a Broadway musical.
Jesus Christ Superstar
During the 1970s, rock music began to be infused with stage performances, with Jesus Christ Superstar paving the way. This iconic musical featured music by Andrew Lloyd Weber, and lyrics by Tim Rice.
Jesus Christ Superstar essentially put a Biblical story on the stage and ironically set the story against the backdrop of music that would not typically be associated with the religion. The overwhelming success of Jesus Christ Superstar spawned a movement around the “rock opera,” with Godspell, and Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat following in its footsteps, along with actual rock bands experimenting with the medium (such as The Who with Tommy).
The Phantom Of The Opera
1986’s The Phantom Of The Opera is, by far, the most successful musical production to have ever taken place on stage. It’s also one of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s crowning achievements.
The Phantom Of The Opera is so legendary because it transports the audience to the late 1800s with its immersive stage environment. Along the way, the audience becomes gripped by the story of Christine Daaé and the masked maestro living below the Paris Opera House, whose obsession with her drives the story to a climactic edge.
1996 saw Rent take the stage for the first time, which would eventually become one of the most popular musicals to date. This production (with music, lyrics, and the book written by Jonathan Larson) takes the audience back to New York City during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Like many of the greatest musical theatre productions to come before it, Rent was not afraid of controversy as it examined the lives of those affected by the disease. Some songs in Rent (such as Seasons Of Love) have become hits outside of the musical, while the musical itself has gained a cult-like following of die-hard fans.
Is Music Theatre The Same As Musical Theatre?
You should be aware that there is a clear difference between what is considered “musical theatre” and what is considered “music theatre”. Musical theatre is a term that is used to describe everything that has been discussed in this article up to this point.
Like any art form, the theatre is not immune to experimental approaches. The term “music theatre” is often used to describe works that fall outside of the established conventionalities of theatre by incorporating avant-garde techniques.
While many of the works in music theatre are not as popular or established, their importance cannot be understated. Oftentimes, it's the willingness to experiment outside of convention that pushes the boundaries of what is possible within those conventions.
What Is Musical Theatre? Final Thoughts
While musical theatre can be defined in its most simplistic form, the truth is there is far more at play than one would initially think. The term “musical theatre” has seemingly been in a constant state of evolution since ancient times.
Despite the fact that motion pictures have dented the popularity of musical theatre, the art form is still alive and well today. It’s a safe bet that the tradition of musical theatre will continue to evolve far into the generations of the future.