Musical or Musical Comedy, theatrical production in which songs and choruses, instrumental accompaniments and interludes, and often dance are integrated into a dramatic plot. The genre developed and was refined in the United States, particularly in the theatres along Broadway in New York, during the first half of the 20th century. The musical has origins in a variety of 19th-century theatrical sources, including the operetta, comic opera, pantomime, the minstrel show, vaudeville, and burlesque.


The American musical actually began in 1796, with The Archers; or, The Mountaineers of Switzerland, composed by Benjamin Carr and with libretto by William Dunlap. The Black Crook, produced in 1866, is generally credited as the first musical; actually, it was an extravaganza, combining melodrama with ballet. In the late 19th century, operettas from Vienna (composed by Johann Strauss, Jr. and Franz Lehár), London (by Sir Arthur Sullivan), and Paris (by Jacques Offenbach) were popular with urban audiences in the eastern United States. At the same time, revues (plotless programmes of individual songs, dances, and comedy sketches) abounded not only in theatres but also in some upper-class saloons, such as the music hall operated in New York by the comedy team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields. The successful shows of another comedy team, Ned Harrigan, and Tony Hart were also revues, but with connecting dialogue and continuing characters. These, in turn, spawned the musical shows of producer-playwright-actor-composer George M. Cohan, the first of which appeared in 1901.

In the years before World War I began in 1914, several young operetta composers emigrated from Europe to the United States. Among them were Victor Herbert, Sigmund Romberg, and Rudolf Friml. Herbert’s Naughty Marietta (1910), Friml’s The Firefly (1912), and Romberg’s Maytime (1917) are representative of the new genre these composers created: American operetta, with simple music and librettos and singable songs that were enduringly popular with the public. The text of a musical (the libretto) has been divided since that time between the “book”, which is the spoken dialogue, and the “lyrics”, which are the words of the songs. These two are often by different authors.


In 1914 the composer Jerome Kern began to produce a series of shows in which all the varied elements of a musical were integrated into a single fabric. Produced in the intimate Princess Theatre, Kern used contemporary settings and events, in contrast to operettas, which usually took place in fantasy lands. In 1927 Kern provided the score for Show Boat, perhaps the first musical to have a high-quality libretto. It was also adapted from a successful novel, a technique that was to proliferate in post-1940 musicals.

Gradually the old musical formula began to change. Instead of complicated but never serious plots, sophisticated lyrics and simplified librettos were introduced; underscoring (music played as background to dialogue or movement) was added; and new American musical elements, such as jazz and blues, were utilized by composers. In addition, singers began to pay more attention to the craft of acting. In 1932, Of Thee I Sing became the first musical to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Its lyricist and composer, the brothers Ira and George Gershwin, had succeeded in intelligently satirizing contemporary political situations.

In the 1920s, satire, ideas, and wit had been the province of the intimate revue. These sophisticated shows were important as testing grounds for the young composers and lyricists who later helped develop the serious musical. One composer-lyricist pair who started in the intimate revues, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, wrote Pal Joey in 1940, a show that had many of the elements of the later musicals, including a book with well-rounded characters. But it was not a success until its 1952 revival. In the meantime, Rodgers, with Oscar Hammerstein II as his new writing partner, had produced Oklahoma! (1943), which had ballets, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, that were an integral part of the plot. The choreographer-director was eventually to become vastly influential on the shape and substance of the American musical. Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Bob Fosse, and Michael Bennett are were notable among the skilled choreographers who went on to create important musicals, most notably A Chorus Line (1975) and Dancin’ (1978).


As these and other innovations altered the familiar face of musical theatre, audiences came to expect more variety and complexity in their shows; a host of inventive composers and lyricists obliged. In 1949, Cole Porter, who had written provocative songs with brilliant lyrics for many years, finally wrote a show with an equally fine book: Kiss Me, Kate. Rodgers and Hammerstein followed Oklahoma! with Carousel (1945) and South Pacific (1949). Irving Berlin, who had been writing hit songs since 1911, produced the popular but somewhat old-fashioned Annie Get Your Gun (1946). Frank Loesser provided both words and music for Guys and Dolls (1950), with its raffish Damon Runyon characters. Brigadoon (1947) was the first successful collaboration of the composer Frederick Loewe and book-and-lyric writer Alan Jay Lerner, who were later to contribute My Fair Lady (1956), based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and Camelot (1960).

In the 1950s a number of composers gained prominence. Leonard Bernstein wrote the scores for Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957). The latter, a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, mostly danced and heavily underscored, was greatly influential. Jule Styne wrote the music for Bells Are Ringing (1956) and Gypsy (1959). In the 1960s and 1970s the composer John Kander and the lyricist Fred Ebb collaborated on Cabaret (1966); composer Sheldon Harnick and lyricist Jerry Bock produced Fiddler on the Roof (1964); and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, did the entire scores for a series of musicals, including Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), and Sweeney Todd (1979).

A show that opened on Broadway in 1968 and went on to affect world theatre was Hair. Called a folk-rock musical, it presented a situation rather than a plot, and its lyrics were often unintelligible. But its youthful exuberance, ingenious theatricality and concentration on rock music produced many imitators, notably Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar (both 1971). The score for the latter was the work of the English composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who went on to write the hits Evita (1978), based on the life of the Argentine political figure Eva Perón; Cats (1981), adapted from poems by T. S. Eliot; and Song and Dance (1982). Webber’s adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera opened in London in 1987; the show received wide critical acclaim and achieved great popularity, and was followed by Sunset Boulevard (1994).

By the mid-1980s the traditional La Cage aux Folles (1983) by composer Jerry Herman and playwright Harvey Fierstein and the innovative Sunday in the Park with George (1984) by Sondheim, to a book by James Lapine, marked possible new trends. For their dramatization of the life of the French painter Georges Seurat, Sondheim and Lapine shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama. In 1986 the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables opened in London to popular acclaim and on Broadway the following year.

Bill Kenwright’s 1988 revival of Blood Brothers by Willy Russell became an enduring success in the West End and on Broadway through the 1990s. Other successful musicals of the decade included Miss Saigon (1991) by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg; The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) with music and lyrics by Kander and Ebb of Cabaret fame; Rent (1996) by Jonathan Larson, which in that year collected four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer for drama; and Fosse (1999), a celebration of the work of the legendary choreographer and showman Bob Fosse. There were the stage versions of popular Walt Disney films Beauty and the Beast (1994) by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, who later collaborated with Elton John on the hit The Lion King (1997). Whistle Down the Wind, the classic film about some farm children who find an escaped convict hiding in a barn and believe him to be Jesus Christ, was the basis of a musical of the same name by Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman, which opened in 1998.

At the start of the new century, Lloyd Webber’s next productions were Bombay Dreams (2002), a musical influenced by the Bollywood film genre, and The Woman in White (2004), an adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel. A US television talk show inspired the Sherman brothers to write Jerry Springer—The Opera (2003), which received several prestigious Best Musical awards after its West End opening (although a performance screened by the BBC in 2005 attracted vociferous protests of blasphemy from some Christian groups). 2005 also saw the premiere of Billy Elliot, an exuberant stage adaptation of the successful 2000 film (both directed by Stephen Daldry), with a score by Elton John.

Credited Images: Yesstyle: