Last June I had the pleasure of seeing Something Rotten! at St James Theatre, Broadway – a show that imagined the rise of the musical in response to Shakespeare’s dominance of London Theatre – with its two protagonists, Nick and Nigel Bottom, being subsequently deported to the American colony where – yes, you guessed it – Broadway was established and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now music and dance have been at the heart of theatre from its foundations in Ancient Greece and its only relatively recently that we have seen the reinstatement of traditional song and dance routines in the performance of Shakespearean productions. But in the modern context of musical theatre, where did it all really begin?
Modern western musical theatre emerged during the 19th Century and is closely related to the theatrical form of opera but there are significant differences that distinguish them from each other. Musicals, historically, have a greater focus on spoken dialogue, dancing, and indeed the use of popular music of the time, and perhaps most importantly, is performed in the language of its audience. Whilst an opera singer is primarily a singer, a musical theatre performer is often an actor first and then a singer and dancer.
The West End musicals of the 1900’s comprised mainly of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas and variety shows; Broadway similarly had its variety shows that began to extend towards musical theatre typically consisting of a musical comedy centred around a romantic story with perfectly written songs. Throw in some pretty girls and a dancing number and successful entertainment was assured. Whilst London was the comical musical factory, Broadway was the destination for the successful ones.
Broadway in the early Twentieth Century however was beginning to tire of the London shows that invariably didn’t chime with the New York cultural scene and through artisans such as Harrigan and Hart, they developed shows with a more literary story line, integrated with music, dialogue, and dance. This was taken a step further by a young American composer, Jerome Kern, who forged this new sound of musicals and which was picked up by new songwriters such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose sophisticated pieces began to edge out operetta, ragtime, and general song & dance routines.
Kern and Hammerstein’s 1927 Showboat is one of the earliest examples of song and story working together to tell a believable tale as the songs served the narrative and pushed the story forward in a piece that is also renowned for its sympathetic treatment of its characters and exposure of injustice that everyone could recognise. At the same time, Rodgers was working with lyricist Lorenz Hart producing such classics as Babes in Arms which gave us the hits The Lady is a Tramp and My Funny Valentine.
By the mid-1940’s Rodgers and Hammerstein II were thrown together by Hart’s personal issues and they produced a new way of working with the lyrics written first followed by the music. They also ‘stepped’ away from the dancing girl routines and focused on a seamless cohesive whole of lyric, music, plot-line, chorus, costume, and set design. At St James Theatre, Broadway, they delivered the 1943 blockbuster, Oklahoma, where the musical became an immersive experience. It was a box-office smash and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances. It was soon followed in 1945 by Carousel. These were productions that featured and reached out to real people.
1946 saw Irving Berlin enter the fray with Annie Get Your Gun, a story set in the West about sharpshooter Annie Oakley, which represented the start of a golden age on Broadway featuring Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, and Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, amongst others. Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 My Fair Lady, a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, a tale of an unknown Cockney girl being turned into a star, saw musicals go full circle as it arrived in the West End in 1958 where it would run for five years.
By the 1950’s though, a different set of lyricists, writers, and choreographers, was taking Broadway by storm as they sought to transform musical theatre from its past and make it more relevant to the here and now, reflecting the modern world that surrounded it, and the hopes, dreams, joys, and fears of a new generation. 1956 saw West Side Story (book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins) hit the stage. Inspired ironically by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it perfectly captured the harshness of the immigrant gang culture of the street accompanied by cooler rock ’n’ roll sounds.
The idea of immigrant culture was further explored at this time with Lionel Bart’s Oliver! appearing in the West End in 1960 and capturing welcoming and inclusive music whilst presenting a likeable ‘bad’ character of Fagin in a more sympathetic light. It went on to be an unprecedented hit on Broadway in 1963. 1964 saw Robbins collaborate with Jerry Boch and Sheldon Harnick to produce Fiddler on the Roof, which whilst set during a Russian pogrom, played up on the appeal of traditions and culture for immigrant communities. It has recently been performed at Liverpool Everyman.
Despite the seriousness of these pieces, musical theatre remained as escapist entertainment as reflected in Harold Prince’s 1966 production of Cabaret, and 1968’s rock-musical Hair which explored the prevalent counter-culture of the time. 1970 saw Prince link up with Sondheim to produce Company, a piece which held up a mirror to modern New Yorkers and reflected their lives back at them in what became known as the ‘concept musical’, where style and theme ranked over plot in a slice of contemporary live.
Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, with its haunting Send in the Clowns, took this theme further but despite its critical acclaim it didn’t appeal to a mainstream audience and as is often the way, hard economics would win the day. Picking up on this mood came choreographer Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, set on the bare stage of a Broadway theatre during an audition telling the tales of dancers lives. With the music by Marvin Hasmlisch reflecting individual personalities, it resonated with audiences and as well as winning nine Tony Awards, it ran for 6,137 performances, becoming the longest-running production in Broadway history until it was surpassed in 1997. It remains the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever.
So, the success of musical theatre lay in its adaptability and continuing appeal to the demands and interests of new audiences coming through. Nowhere was this better epitomised than 1973’s The Rocky Horror Show by Richard O’Brien which contrasted the modern representation of sexuality through rock ‘n’ roll numbers against the dated and well-behaved Brad and Janet characters. Its success has been through its cult appeal rather than mainstream success however.
The fuller evolution of musical theatre was best seen in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 Jesus Christ Superstar. Given its subject matter, this was the production no one wanted to touch so they took the bold step of producing a concept album instead which went to No.1 in the US album charts. In a nod to grand opera, the story is entirely sung through. Despite limited success, due to its subject matter, it went on to touring success which continues to this day. Next up for Lloyd-Webber and Rice was the less controversial, but less well known, Eva Peron in their production of Evita. Again, they took the step of releasing a double-album and with its sophisticated blend of rock, light pop, and classical music, success was assured as it took to the stage in 1978 in the West End before transferring to Broadway in 1979 where it was the first British musical to receive the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Lloyd-Webber went on to compose Cats, based on TS Eliot’s cat poems, and produced with Cameron Mackintosh. This now challenged the idea of what a musical could be as the story comes to be told through its setting, lighting, and costumes, and heralded the beginning of what would become the ‘mega-musicals’, further evidence by 1984’s Starlight Express, a high-speed roller-skating extravaganza, which was one of the West End’s longest running musicals with 7,408 performances although it fared less well when on Broadway. The culmination was 1986’s The Phantom of the Opera which still runs to this day and is memorable as much visually as it is musically.
But it couldn’t knock one show off its top-spot: Les Misérables which had opened the previous year. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, it had been adapted as a sung-through musical in French by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg in 1980. Impressed, Mackintosh with the RSC and designer John Napier, adapted it for a British audience with the philosophy that whatever happens on stage must enhance the song, narration, or motion of the play. Critics hated it when it opened but audiences took it to their heart as they engaged with the emotion of the piece and it has run continuously in the West End since opening in 1985.
Mackintosh reunited with Boubil and Schönberg in 1989 to produce Miss Saigon, a piece inspired by Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, again utilising Napier-designed sets, with over 4,000 West End performances in a ten-year period as well as opening on Broadway in 1991 and touring. From 2014, it has been undergoing revivals, firstly in the West End and currently on Broadway.
Further operatic inspiration saw 1997’s Rent, based on Puccini’s La Bohème, which explored the brevity of human life and time as HIV/Aids spread through New York. It was sad that the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, died from an undiagnosed heart condition, the day before its premiere in 1996. It ran through to 2008 with over 5,000 performances and grossing $280 million.
Musical theatre has also been influenced by animation. In 1991, celebrated theatre critic Frank Rich noted that the best musical that year had in fact been Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, based on the classic French fairy tale. With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Disney decided to enter properly into the musical fray with celebrated lyricist Rice stepping in after Ashman’s untimely death. Despite mixed reviews it was a commercial success and run between 1994 and 2007 making it Broadway’s tenth longest-running production in history.
It was not surprising that Disney then turned to one of their most popular films, The Lion King, although this came with bigger challenges since it was not theatrical and required a lot of thought for successful adaptation. Cue director Julie Taymor whose experience in opera, puppetry, and costume design, led to a show that engaged with authentic African cultural traditions. With music by Elton John and lyrics by Rice, it opened on Broadway in 1997 and, with one venue change, is still running after more than 6,700 performances. It is Broadway’s third longest-running show and the highest grossing of all time having taken over $1 billion. It debuted in the West End in 1999 where it is also still running. In 2014, it became the top-earning title in box-office history for both stage productions and films, a record previously held by Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.
Although commercial success has become an important driver, it is refreshing to know that musical theatre continues to challenge and push boundaries, a recent example being 2003’s Avenue Q with its biting comedy, adult edge, and swearing puppets. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks, who jointly wrote the music and lyrics, rightly acknowledge the influence of programmes such as South Park and The Simpsons but the traditional roots of musical theatre are still there at the heart of the production.
So, from its inauspicious beginnings in the 19th Century, musical theatre has continued to re-invent itself for new audiences without losing sight of its traditions, and, despite the pressures for wider commercial appeal, it has continued to provide challenging subject material, whether it be on Broadway or at The West End.
Sadly, my dear friends the Bottom Brothers got knocked off top spot in 2016 by Hamilton, a sung-through musical about the life of American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, with music, lyrics, and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Which really only leaves one question remaining: what’s next for musicals?
Well for me it will be watching this one, so why not take a look if you’re in the area: