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Musical Theatre
What is a Musical?
Musicals have gone by many different
Comic operas
Revues which have their roots in
vaudeville, music halls and minstrel
The Best Musicals have three essential
Brains (intelligence
and style)
Heart (genuine and
believable emotion)
Courage (The guts to
do something creative
and exciting)
Musical Theatre
A Brief History
Added music to their productions as early as the
5th Century B.C.
The Greek Chorus sometimes included music
(Aeschylus & Sophocles composed their own
music but melodies no longer exist)
Solos were not unheard of
No direct effect on modern musicals but it shows
that show tunes have been around for more than
2500 years
3rd Century comedies of Plautus included song
and dance routines with full orchestrations
To make dance steps more audible in large
open air theatres, actors attached metal chips
called "sabilla" to their footwear – the first tap
Stress on spectacle and special effects, a trend
that echoes into our own time
Europe – Middle Ages
Traveling minstrels and roving troupes of
performers offered popular songs and
slapstick comedy
12th and 13th centuries religious dramas,
intended as liturgical teaching tools, used
church chants, creating their own form of
musical theatre
Europe – Renaissance
Minstrels reached their peak with
Commedia Dell’arte in Italy with raucous
clown characters improving their way
through familiar stories
Formal musical theatre was rare in the
Renaissance, but Moliere turned several of
his plays into comedies with songs when
the court of Louis XIV demanded song and
dance entertainments in the late 1600s
Europe – 18th Century
By the 1700s, two forms of musical theater were
common in Britain, France and Germany
ballad operas like John Gay's The Beggars Opera
(1728) that borrowed popular songs of the day and
rewrote the lyrics
comic operas, with original scores and mostly
romantic plot lines, like Michael Balfe's The
Bohemian Girl (1845).
Which brings us to the question…
Are Musicals Descended From
Opera has been with us since the late 1500s, but
contemporary musical theatre and film are not direct
descendants of grand opera.
Opera can be called a descendant of classical theatre.
When Renaissance writers and composers tried to
resurrect the forms of Greek drama, they added music.
This eventually led to the birth of grand opera.
From its birth in the 1800s, the musical has often
spoofed opera, but it traces its roots to other sources.
Vaudeville, burlesque, and many other forms are the
true ancestors of the modern musical -- not opera.
Are Musicals Descended From
Of course, the melodies of grand opera were part of the
popular musical culture of the 1800s and early 1900s,
and therefore had some effect on the musical theater
melodies of that time.
However, the so-called "comic operas" that dominated
Broadway in the late 1880s and 90s, including the works
of Gilbert & Sullivan, are not operas. Producers called
these shows "comic operas" to make them sound more
sophisticated, but with extended dialogue and melodies
designed for the popular taste of that era, they were
clearly musicals.
Musical Theatre
Gilbert and Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan
In the 1870s, William S. Gilbert and Arthur
Sullivan revolutionized the musical theatre,
creating witty, melodic operettas. Their songs
sparkled with melody and clever rhyme, and
Gilbert's librettos blended silliness and satire in
settings that ranged from fantasy to the realistic.
Producer Richard D'Oyly Carte publicized these
shows as "light operas", but by any name, they
were musicals – some of the finest the world
would ever see.
Gilbert and Sullivan - Beginnings
Gilbert was an unsuccessful attorney before his
comic poems appeared in popular magazines. This
opened the way to a career as a playwright and
Sullivan was Britain's most promising serious
composer, but he woud compose lighter pieces to
cover the expenses of his high-society lifestyle.
In the 1860s, British musical theatre consisted of
variety shows, French operettas, and slapdash
comic light operas presented by John Hollingshead
at The Gaiety Theatre.
Trial by Jury (1875)
Trial by Jury
Hollingshead hired G&S to create Thespis (1871), a
mythological spoof. Gilbert didn’t like it, but it impressed
producer Richard D'Oyly Carte.
4 years later, he needed a one-act "curtain raiser" to share
the bill with his production at London's Opera Comique. Carte
convinced G&S to adapt one of Gilbert's satirical poems.
Trial by Jury (1875) was a huge success
This piece established several themes that run through most
of Gilbert and Sullivan's shows –
unqualified men who have oiled their way into high public office
the course of true love flowing in surprising directions
an appalling disdain for women over 40 years of age
Gilbert and Sullivan – The Sorcerer
D'Oyly Carte then persuaded G&S to attempt a full-length
work. The Sorcerer (1877) involved a magician who wreaks
havoc in a small English village with a love potion.
Gilbert and Sullivan were developing a form of British
operetta that was quite unlike its predecessors. They
eliminated overt sexual references and replaced the
cartoonish characters with more familiar, believable
Encouraged by The Sorcerer's profitable run, they then
created an operetta that succeeded beyond their wildest
dreams, with a show that reshaped the popular musical
theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.
HMS Pinafore (1878)
HMS Pinafore (1878)
H.M.S. Pinafore was the story of a naval captain's daughter
who spurns the attentions of the First Lord of the Admiralty
because she loves a common sailor, spoofing the Victorian
class system.
Pinafore was such a hit that D'Oyly Carte's investors tried to
steal the production from him, sending thugs to carry off the
sets and costumes in the middle of a performance!
Since there was no international copyright laws, both Britain
and the U.S. were flooded with Pinafore copycats. When
G&S brought their company of Pinafore to New York, the
casts of several unauthorized Pinafore's brazenly turned out
to welcome them in the harbor.
Pirates of Penzance (1880)
Pirates of Penzance
D'Oyly Carte secured the first international copyright by
premiering The Pirates of Penzance (1880) simultaneously
in New York and Great Britain.
Pirates is the story of Fredrick, a young man who was
accidentally apprenticed to a band of pirates. He falls in love
with a Major General's ward and tries to atone for his past by
plotting the destruction of his former comrades. When it turns
out the soft-hearted pirates are really "noblemen who have
gone wrong," they and a relieved Frederick marry the
multitudinous wards of the rather "modern Major General."
The success of Pirates confirmed Gilbert and Sullivan's place
in popular culture. The amazing thing was that they were just
getting started.
The Rocky Road of Success
G&S continued to turn out successes such as Patience
(1881), Iolanthe (1882), but Princess Ida (1884) was not as
well received so it closed early. D’Oyly requested another
show to take it’s place.
Gilbert submitted yet another plot involving a love potion, and
when no amount of re-writing could make Sullivan accept it,
the disagreement turned ugly.
Sullivan declared that it was time for him to concentrate on
more serious compositions, and Gilbert resented the
suggestion that their collaboration was holding Sullivan back.
The partnership was on the brink of collapse when a
Japanese sword fell from the wall of Gilbert's study –
inspiring the plot for their most popular show ever.
The Mikado (1885)
The Mikado
The Mikado was influenced by an 1880s craze for “all things Japanese.” The
complicated plot centers on what happens when the Emperor of Japan decrees
that flirting is punishable by death. Because no one in the town of Titipu is
willing to enforce this horrible law, a condemned tailor (Koko) is appointed Lord
High Executioner – the reasoning being that he cannot behead anyone until he
beheads himself. When it turns out he has to execute someone after all, he
selects Nanki-Poo, a traveling minstrel. Nanki-Poo will only agree to the
scheme if he can first marry the executioner's ward and finance, the lovely
Yum-Yum. This will allow the minstrel a month of happiness, and the
Executioner can then behead the man and marry his ward as planned. An aged
woman (Katisha) from the royal court appears, announcing that Nanki-poo is
really the crown prince who has been in hiding since he toyed with her
affections! After a series of deceptions and misunderstandings, everything is
The Mikado's Japanese setting and costumes masked the fact that it was a
send-up of British customs and pretensions. In the United States, "Mikadomania" fed a nationwide American passion for all things Japanese. It
remains one of the most frequently produced musicals of all time, and still
receives new amateur and professional stagings worldwide.
The Beginning of the End
G&S’s following shows were not able to live up to
the success of The Mikado.
When it seemed Gilbert and Sullivan's
collaboration was at its peak, it fell apart over
several trivial disputes – including an infamous
quarrel over the price of some new carpeting in
the Savoy Theatre.
After several years, the Savoy trio effected a
reconciliation, but things were never quite the
same. Gilbert and Sullivan's talents were intact,
but both were losing the fresh creative edge.
The Final Years
G&S remained on cordial terms in their final years, and were both
hailed by the public. When Sullivan received a knighthood in 1888,
Gilbert was overlooked. The old collaborators worked on revivals
and shared curtain calls at the opening nights. Sullivan continued
composing classical pieces, and wrote comic operas with new
librettists. Weakened by years of kidney trouble, he succumbed to
a severe case of bronchitis in 1900 at age 58 years.
Gilbert enjoyed renewed health and popularity in the new century,
writing plays and musical librettos, and finally received his
knighthood in 1907. In late May 1911, Gilbert (at age 74) suffered a
fatal heart attack while saving a young woman from drowning on his
country estate.
After many years of illness, Richard D'Oyly Carte died in 1901.
Musical Theatre
Musical Theatre in America:
The Minstrel Show
Minstrel Shows
The American musical has one shameful chapter in its history –
minstrel shows. The most popular musical stage shows of the
early and mid 19th Century, minstrelsy embodied racial hatred.
Both white and black performers donned blackface, and audiences
of all colors loved it. Hateful as it was, minstrel shows were the first
form of musical theatre that was 100% American-born and bred.
Minstrel shows developed in the 1840’s, peaked after the Civil War
and remained popular into the early 1900s. In these shows, white
men blackened their faces with burnt cork to lampoon Blacks,
performing songs and skits that sentimentalized slave life on
Southern plantations.
Blacks were shown as naive buffoons who sang and danced the
days away, gobbling "chitlins," stealing the occasional watermelon,
and expressing their inexplicable love for "ol' massuh."
Jim Crow
Blackface acts were common features in circuses and
traveling shows from the 1790s onwards.
In the 1820s white entertainer Thomas "Daddy" Rice
caused a nationwide sensation by wearing burnt cork to
perform the song "Jump Jim Crow" on stage. He first
heard it from an old black street singer who supposedly
made up the lyric about his own name –
"Jim Crow" turned out to be more than a popular song. It
became a stock comedy character, and a by-word for
legalized racial segregation. (Separate but Equal)
Minstrel Shows
Minstrelsy was the first example of the way American
popular culture would exploit and manipulate AfroAmericans and their culture to please and benefit white
As laws changed, several all-black minstrel companies
toured America and Great Britain. Black performers still
had to wear blackface makeup in order to look "dark
enough," performing material that demeaned their own
race. Despite such drawbacks, minstrelsy provided
African American performers with their first professional
stage outlet.
Famous Minstrel Performers
Amos and Andy
Al Jolson
Musical Theatre
Musical Theatre in America:
Beginning in the 1840s, these works entertained the lower
and middle classes by making fun of (or "burlesquing") the
operas, plays and social habits of the upper classes.
Everything from Shakespearean drama to opera could inspire
a full-length burlesque spoof.
By the 1860s, burlesque relied on the display of shapely,
underdressed women to keep audiences interested. In the
Victorian age, when proper women went to great lengths to
hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills, the
idea of young ladies appearing onstage in tights was a
powerful challenge.
Suggestive rather than bawdy, these shows relied less on
strong scripts or songs than on sheer star power. When
Broadway's The Black Crook became a massive hit in 1866,
its troop of ballerinas in flesh-colored tights served notice that
respectable American audiences were ready to fork over big
bucks for sexually stimulating entertainment.
At first, the American press praised burlesques, but turned
vicious under pressure from influential do-gooders. But the
cries of the self-righteous had an unintended effect. Editorials
and sermons condemning burlesque as "indecent" only made
the form more popular!
By the 1880s, wit was gradually replaced by a determination
to reveal as much of the feminine form as local laws allowed.
But obscenity and vulgarity were avoided – the point was to
spoof, not to offend.
Burlesque underwent a crucial change when Michael Leavitt
produced burlesque variety shows using something similar to
the three act minstrel show format –
ACT ONE: The ensemble entertains with songs and gags,
dressed in formal evening clothes.
ACT TWO: An "olio" of variety acts (singers, comics, skits, etc.).
ACT THREE: A complete one-act musical burlesque. These
ranged from Shakespearean take offs like Much Ado About a
Merchant of Venice to a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof called The
Mick Hair-Do.
The biggest burlesque star of the early 20th Century was dancer Millie
DeLeon, who tossed her garters into the audience and occasionally
neglected to wear tights, which got her arrested on occasion, and helped to
give burlesque a raunchy reputation.
In time, burlesque bills began and ended with extended skits that made fun
of hit shows and popular topics. In between came a variety olio where
singers, comics, and specialty acts were all part of the mix. By the time
most performers reached vaudeville, they were already experienced pros.
While it was common for burlesque stars to graduate into vaudeville,
vaudevillians considered it a fatal disgrace to appear in burlesque, insisting
that only those who were "washed up" would stoop so low. However, many
vaudeville veterans did burlesque during dry spells, appearing under an
assumed name.
Some famous comedians learned their craft working in burlesque, including
future musical comedy stars Jackie Gleason, Bert Lahr, W.C. Fields, Red
Skelton, and Bob Hope.
From the 1880s onwards, burlesque comedy was built around
situations familiar to lower and working class audiences. Sexual
innuendo was always present, but the focus was on making fun of
sex. Some examples –
(Injured Man crosses stage in assorted bandages and casts.)
Comic: What happened to you?
Injured Man: I was living the life of Riley.
Comic: And?
Injured Man: Riley came home!
(Minister walks up to a beautiful young woman.)
Minister: Do you believe in the hereafter?
Woman: Certainly, I do!
Minister: (Leering) Then you know what I'm here after.
Many burlesque routines spoofed social conventions and linguistic
idiosyncrasies. The most famous was Bud Abbott and Lou
Costello's glorious "Who's On First,"
Musical Theatre
Musical Theatre in America:
By the 1880’s, half of the population was now
concentrated in towns and cities, that left most of them
with a little spare cash and weekly leisure time.
People wanted affordable entertainment on a regular
basis. Most variety shows were too coarse for women or
children to attend, and minstrel shows were declining in
Vaudeville also tried to bridge a social gap that had
divided the American upper and lower class.
Two Boston producers in 1883, using the fortune they
made staging unauthorized Gilbert and Sullivan
productions started building a chain of ornate theatres
across the northeast.
Presenting commercially successful "clean" variety
shows, they instituted a policy of continuous multiple
daily performances, which they called "vaudeville."
As vaudeville spread through the United States, major
theatre chains or circuits were built. All of them were
run by tough businessmen, and all insisted that acts
keep their material clean at all times.
Headliners could bend the rules, but transgressions by
lesser known performers were not tolerated.
By 1907, Variety reported that vaudeville was earning
$30 million a year.
Appearing in vaudeville was hard. A successful act
toured for forty plus weeks a year, doing "one nighters,"
or weekly stands.
Performers put up with these demanding schedules
because even those who did not reach the level of
headliner could make good money.
In 1919, when the average factory worker earned less
than $1,300, a small time circuit performer playing a 42
week season at $75 per week earned $3,150 a year.
Anyone with determination and a talent to entertain
could earn a solid, respectable living. Few other fields
could claim to offer the disadvantaged such accessible
rewards in the early 20th Century.
Vaudeville Acts
More than 25,000 people performed in vaudeville over it’s
50-plus years of existence
An act could be anything that was inoffensive and
entertaining. A performer's gender, race and appearance
were no barrier to success, and nothing was too eccentric.
While singers and dancers were part of every bill, the
specialty acts set vaudeville apart
Among them were mind readers, escape artists - Houdini
and his many imitators, high divers, strong men,
contortionists, balancing acts, freak acts, and regurgitators
- who drank liquids and then brought them back up. Hadji
Ali would swallow water & kerosene, then spew kerosene
onto open flames, followed by the water to put the flames
out. Not pretty, but audiences were fascinated.
The Decline of Vaudeville
Many factors brought about the end of Vaudeville
The advent of motion pictures was a devastating blow to
Audiences also grew tired of the vaudeville format
causing a sharp decline of ticket sales.
The Great Depression also hit the vaudeville circuit
pretty hard.
Most vaudeville houses were converted to movie
theatres and several circuit producers made the
transition to movies as well.
Many vaudeville performers were able to make the
transition to radio and film.
Famous Vaudeville Performers
Judy Garland
George Burns and
Gracie Allen
Famous Vaudeville Performers
Eddie Cantor
Sophie Tucker
Famous Vaudeville Performers
W.C. Fields
Jack Benny
Famous Vaudeville Performers
Ma Rainey
Bessie Smith
Famous Vaudeville Performers
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Nicholas Brothers
Famous Vaudeville Performers
Will Rogers
Charlie Chaplin
Famous Vaudeville Performers
Marx Brothers
Buster Keaton