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History of Musicals

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Musical comedy developed, gradually from a variety of older American theatrical traditions. One of its earliest sources was the minstrel show, which became popular in the United States about 1840. The emphasis that the minstrel shows placed on specialty numbers exerted an important influence on the form of later musical variety shows.

A more direct ancestor of musical comedy was the extravaganza. A famous example of these spectacular entertainments was The Black Crook, which was presented in New York City in 1866. It anticipated musical comedies in its use of the ballet chorus. In addition, the sophisticated wit of its comic songs became a characteristic of later musical~comedy lyrics.

Another influence on the musical comedy was the literary burlesque, or comic version of a well known novel, play, or poem. One of the most popular of these burlesques was Evangeline (1874), a spoof of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem of the same name.

Two musical shows presented in New York City in 1879 indicated an important trend in the development of musical comedy. They were The Brook, which had a book and lyrics by Nate Salsbury, and The Mulligan Guards Ball, with a book by the comedians Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart and music by David Braham. These farces with music used American settings and presented commonplace events and familiar American character types. They also foreshadowed the casual style of later musical comedies.

During the 1890's the musical farces were outstripped in popularity by comic operas and operettas modeled on European forms. Such American musical shows as Reginald de Koven's Robin Hood (1890) and John Philip Sousa's El Capitan (1896) imitated the style of the English light operas composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan to the librettos and lyrics of Sir William S. Gilbert.

The operettas written for the American stage closely followed the traditions of such Viennese works as Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus and Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow. Composed in a rather elaborate and operatic style, the American operettas presented stock characters from the European stage. One of the most successful composers of such operettas was Victor Herbert, who wrote the scores for many shows, including The Fortune Teller (1898), Naughty Marietta (1910), and Sweethearts (1913). In spite of their improbable and artificial plots, these operettas are remembered for the many warm, melodious waltzes and vigorous marches that Herbert composed for them. The popularity of operettas continued into the 1920's with the appearance of such highly successful works as Sigmund Romberg's The Student Prince (1924) and The Desert Song (1926) and Rudolf Friml's The Vagabond King (1925).

Early in the 20th century the revues of the actor George M, Cohan and of Florenz Ziegfeld were also popular. Like the musical farces, Cohan's patriotic musicals presented native character types and settings.

His shows, which included Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway (1906) and George Washington, Jr. (1906), avoided the leisurely pace and picturesque elegance of operettas, They relied for their success on a fast succession of songs and routines, on catchy tunes, and on contemporary slang. This type of fast-moving and topical show was also exemplified in such popular musicals as Jerome Kern's Very Good, Eddie (1915), Vincent Youmans' No, No, Nanette (1925), and George Gershwin's Girl Crazy (1930).

A high point in the development of musical comedy was reached with Show Boat (1927), in which the traditions of the European operetta were blended with distinctively American themes and folk elements. The melodious score of Jerome Kern and the skillful libretto and lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II established Show Boat as a classic of the American stage, Its songs appeared to develop naturally from the dramatic context as expressions of the characters' feelings.

During the 1930's, musical comedies showed an increasing ability to deal with timely subjects and realistic situations. An important example was Gershwm's musical Of Thee I Sing (1931), with a book by Morrie Ryskind and George S. Kaufman. The show, which satirized American political campaigns, became the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize in drama, Other musical satires followed, including Rodgers and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right (1937) and Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock (1936). The dances in musical comedies also began to receive more mature treatment in the 1930's, Instead of being merely spectacular numbers, they became more closely related to the dramatic text. Outstanding figures from the ballet theater entered the musical comedy field. A leading example was the choreographer George Balanchine, who staged the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet sequence in Rodgers and Hart's musical On Your Toes (1936).

In 1943 the musical Oklahoma!, composed by Rodgers to a book and lyrics by Hammerstein, helped create a new type of musical comedy. It broke away from many traditional features, such as the rousing opening number sung by the chorus. Oklahomal, based on a play by Lynn Riggs, had a typically American story centering on the conflict between cowboys and farmers, and, its songs and dances drew upon folk elements.

The choreography by Agnes De Mille was artistically integrated with the dramatic action and with the thoughts and emotions of the characters.

A vigorous realism was introduced in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey (1940), whose book was written by the novelist John O'Hara. It was a frank portrayal of a charming cad and other disreputable characters.

Another highly original work of the period was Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark (1941), which used dream sequences influenced by psychoanalytic theory. Musicals in a lighter, fanciful vein included Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon (1947) and Burton Lane's Finian's Rainbow (1947). Among the many picturesque representations of the American past were Harold Arlen's Bloomer Girl (1944) and Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1946).

Some of the best musicals have been adapted from works of literature. Rodgers and Hammersteiri's Carousel (1945) was based on a play by Ferenc Molnar, and their South Pacific was from stories by James Michener. Cole Porter's lively Kiss Me, Kate (1948) was an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. One of the most successful musical comedies was Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's sophisticated comedy Pygmalion. Many of the important features of the contemporary musical were illustrated by Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), choreographed by Jerome Robbins. While its story was inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, its setting and themes were taken from New York City of the 1950's. The musical was noted for its social realism -and its extensive use of modern ballet.

In the 1960's Broadway musical comedy continued to flourish. Highly successful productions included How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Hello, Dolly! (1964), Man of La Mancha (1965), and Cabaret (1966). In the late 1960's a new form, the rock musical, appeared. Characterized by the wild, driving rhythms and sounds of rock music, it introduced a new freedom and boldness into the traditional structure of musical comedy. Prominent examples included Hair (1967), The Me Nobody Knows (1970), Godspell (1971), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Grease (1972), and The Wiz (1975). Revivals of musicals of past decades have also appeared.

Television and motion pictures have also produced original and interesting musical comedies. Movies, recordings, and traveling companies have helped popularize the musical comedy in many parts of the world.

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