Music Theatre has always been intended to appeal to a wide audience as entertainment, and also as a means of escapism (essentially leaving everyday life at the door of the theatre and entering into a kind of fantasy world).
Background to Music Theatre
You may think that music theatre is phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries, but the roots of this type of popular entertainment go back much further.
John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) used popular ballads of the day and enjoyed enormous success and popularity both at the time, and in later revivals (a 1920 production at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith ran to over 1400 performances).
Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791) was written for the comic opera theatre in Vienna and included many of the elements of music theatre – quirky characters, bizarre plot twists, memorable popular-style tunes and references to and digs at aspects of everyday life.
The Light Operettas of W.S.Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan enjoyed enormous popularity in 19th Century London, again including memorable tunes, exotic locations and poking fun at contemporary culture and politics. Many of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are still performed today, especially by amateur performers, and include Trial by Jury (1875), M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889).
In the 20th Century, the first major musical theatre developments were on Broadway in New York (the famous street where many of the city’s major theatres showing musicals can be found). Emerging from the Vaudeville tradition of variety shows in theatres that went back into the 19th century, the early musicals continued to feed the public’s appetite for the accessible, the escapist and the spectacular. A number of key composers and lyricists emerge from the new musicals scene:
Jerome Kern (1885-1945): composer of over 700 songs which were used alongside works by other composers in more than 100 stage works. He is credited with composing the first of the great Broadway Musicals: Show Boat (1927) which includes the songs ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’.
George Gershwin (1898-1937): one of the greatest American composers of all time, whose works span both popular and classical genres. Like Kern, Gershwin composed hundreds of songs, and was amongst the pioneers of the Broadway musical with shows such as Strike up the Band (1927), Girl Crazy (1930) and Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933).
The partnership of composer Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) produced a string of Broadway hits in the so-called Golden Age of American Musicals in the 1940s and 50s, many of which were later made into Hollywood movies. The impressive Rodgers and Hammerstein output includes: Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959).
Irving Berlin (1888-1989) was another of America’s great songwriters who contributed many famous numbers to shows and films throughout his long life, including ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ (1911), ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ (1928) and ‘White Christmas’ (1942). His best-known Broadway hit musical was Annie Get Your Gun (1945), which Berlin took over as composer on the death of Jerome Kern that year.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was a great American conductor, teacher and composer who wrote a number of hit Broadway shows in his earlier years. These include On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953), but his undisputed masterpiece is West Side Story (1957), which is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but brought grittily up-to-date in a backdrop of 1950s New York racial intolerance and gang culture.
Stephen Sondheim (b.1930) is arguably the greatest living composer for music theatre. He collaborated early on as Lyricist with Bernstein on West Side Story, and his list of hit shows includes: A Funny thing happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Company (1970), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Into the Woods (1987).
1960s & 70s
The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of the British musical most notably with Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1960) based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber (b.1948). Lloyd Webber has come to dominate the London Music Theatre Scene both as a composer and as a promoter of shows. His own works include Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968), Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Evita (1976), Cats (1981), Starlight Express (1984, which ran at the Apollo Victoria for many years prior to the present production of Wicked) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986).
The last quarter of the 20th century saw the emergence of new types of musical theatre largely aimed at a younger audience.
‘Rock Operas’ like Sorrow (1968), Tommy (1969) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) featured specially-composed songs and other music but using rock and pop music styles.
Adaptations of Disney animated musical films have proved to be very popular with the younger audiences and their families. These include: Beauty and the Beast (1994) and The Lion King (1997) both with music by singer/songwriter Sir Elton John.
‘Jukebox Musicals’ have also emerged from the rock and pop music world, but differ from ‘Rock Operas’ in that actual songs from famous bands are adapted for the music theatre stage. Notable examples of this style of show are: Elvis (1977, based on the music of Elvis Presley), Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story (1989), Return to the Forbidden Planet (1989, based on 1960s Rock and Roll), Mamma Mia! (1999, featuring the music of 1970s Swedish super-group Abba), and We will Rock You (2002, based on the music of Queen).
In the 21st century, productions on Broadway and in the West End have tended towards either revivals of trusted shows like Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific and Sondheim hits like Sweeney Todd and A Chorus Line, or adaptations related to other genres such as film (The Producers, Hairspray, Billy Elliot) or novels (e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel and Wicked).
Modern music theatre does take a chance on innovative and original material (e.g. The Book of Mormon, Hamilton and Spring Awakening), but the need to make a profit makes such risky productions the exception rather than the rule.