Although Western music witnessed this emergence in the 19th century, the actual roots of the form date back to the Grecian performances of yore. This was adapted and then kept up by the Romans, who also included tap shoes to make the whole thing more comprehensible to their masses. The history pages then jump to the Middle Ages, where the tradition of musicals was upheld by traveling performers and minstrels, although information of these times is scarce.
The age of the European Renaissance, particularly in Italy, saw the evolution of the art into the “Commedia dell’Arte”, a form of masked theatrical performance. Subsequent research also brings to light that the Tudors were quite prolific in holding masques, which had singing and dancing to accompanying the music, with the age witnessing Shakespeare writing plays that had sections akin to a masque. This form of musical remained extremely popular till Charles II’s death in 1685.
This was followed by comic and ballad operas, where the former was a mix of humor with music and the latter was musical with a romantic edge. Relevant examples would be 1728’s The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay and 1845’s The Bohemian Girl by Michael Balfe. The former debuted at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the year 1728 and saw 62 performances over the season – a record for the time. Stalwart composers Gilbert and Sullivan were instrumental in creating a perfect blend of humor, music, and acting, that has developed into what we love and expect of a musical today. While Sullivan was the one who weaved notes into music, Gilbert was the architect of the lyrics. Their two most adored works are HMS Pinafore (1878) and Pirates of Penzance (1879).
Around the same era, American actors Tony Hart and Edward Harrigan contributed their bit and collaborated on a number of performances. The music was in turn, written by composer David Braham. The style that they projected for the people was Vaudeville that portrayed people easily relatable to the lower classes. Minstrel shows were re-introduced, although today, these are considered racially motivated as both white and black actors painted their faces black for the performances.
To speak of Broadway, we know that it was first introduced in the year 1866. The first show was The Black Crook, which had an extremely huge budget of $25,000, for the time. Following this, in 1900, George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert became responsible for giving musicals a unique identity that continues to this day. The journey of musicals thus continued with Hammerstein and Rodgers’ Showboat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943). Hammerstein is possibly among the most revered among musical theater personalities because he was responsible for bringing American and European styles of musical expression together. The 1950s were witness to the likes of The King and I (1951) and My Fair Lady (1956).
Another genre to be mentioned here is the “Concept musical” of the 1960s. These were musicals that stressed on the statement more than the actual narrative. Cabaret (1966) is a nice example here. Slowly but surely, the musical scene was slowly conquered by big staged musicals such as Les Miserables (1985) and Phantom of the Opera (1986), with great admiration drawn towards those like Wicked (2003) and Lion King (1997) today.
MUSICAL EMERGENCE: AMERICA’S INFLUENCE
- Minstrelsy: This involved artists painting their faces black, sing and dance, projecting a derogatory image of African-Americans. Despite slavery being abolished, Minstrelsy continued to be a rage from the 1840s right through to the 1940s. We can still find remnants of the music in songs we hear today, such as Camptown Races (1850) and Dixie (1861).
- Vaudeville: This was the primary form of American entertainment between the late 1900s and the 1930s, made up of small acts, that were otherwise unrelated to each other. Thousands of performers were a part of these shows and traveled cross-country entertaining hundreds of thousands.
- Burlesque: A popular form of musical entertainment, Burlesque involved well-known tales of Adonis or Humpty Dumpty, but mainly as an inspiration for performance not explicitly related to the story.
Irving Berlin, a Russian born singer-writer, wrote a number of hit songs, such as Everybody's Doing It (1911), Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911), Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning (1918), and more! Worth mentioning are Alexander Nevsky (1938) by Sergey Eisenstein and Fantasia (1940) by Walt Disney.
It would be respectful to remember that although musicals may have initially been akin to opera, they have become so much more. With origins born in the ancient ages, this form has survived all through the centuries and manifests as a widely-liked and enjoyed entertainment medium today. The art has become an expression of excellence in story-telling and musical grandeur, a reflection of both the regular and the Avant-Garde!