The History of Musical Theatre

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  • Topic: Musical theatre, Jerome Kern, Broadway theatre
  • Pages : 6 (2021 words )
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  • Published : February 3, 2013
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The History of Musical Theatre

The recently released Les Misérables earned £8.1 million in its opening weekend, making it the largest opening weekend for a musical film in history, proving that the genre is still alive. But how exactly did this powerful art form originate? And from then on, how did it evolve to become the spectacularly vivacious being that it is today? The oldest known forms of music theatre were the ancient Greek plays with music and lyrics, as well as music and dance being included within the Roman productions of comedies and tragedies. Despite their entertainment value at the time, the music of these eras stopped long ago, meaning they had little impact on the development of the modern musicals between the 18th and 21st centuries, both on-screen and on-stage. The Middle Ages then followed with the pioneering of musical “morality play”, staged by the congregation and pastors of churches. This possibly stemmed from the combination of parables or the holy psalms, adding hymns as the musical element. However, these plays too had little influence on the development of fully integrated musicals as a medium of drama and storytelling. Although there were an abundance of musical stage productions in the 18th century, only a few of them were referred to as ‘musicals’. The earliest known English work of this particular period was John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, an operatic satire piece, poking fun at upper-class, reputable citizens who were compared to being no better than a common thief. The music featured within the play, however, was not entirely original: a selection of popular songs of the time was used as accompaniment to originally written lyrics. Various other ballad operas, burlettas and early versions of pantomimes made up the majority of the musicals performed on stages through America, well into the early 19th century. Now, the musical as we witness it nowadays, primarily based on themes of comedy, romance, satire and occasionally tragedy, has some of its roots in the French ‘operettas’ of the early 19th century. The satirical works of Jacques Offenbach, such as Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld), as well as the romantic comedies of Johann Strauss, including An der schönen blauen Donau, (far more commonly known as The Blue Danube, the clichéd song for a ¾ waltz) were the very first musicals ever to accomplish acclamation throughout the world, translated for performance in London, Vienna and various other European cities. European opera was rather well received in England, but audiences remained to still favour the broader ‘variety shows’ instead of the operettas. While the modern ‘Broadway’ musical was also partially inspired from various European operettas, its comedic soul was derived from variety entertainment shows that enchanted American from the mid-19th century and beyond. Simple variety shows and ‘minstrel’ shows began to settle down to introduce the more sophisticated pleasures of Vaudeville, as well as the boisterous force of Burlesque. The Black Crook was the first ‘book musical’, with the book written by American playwright Charles Barras. Its content was based on that of the story that had already been written, differing from Vaudeville and Burlesque, which simply had a series of sketches as opposed to a constant narrative. The entire production was an astonishing five and a half hours long, but still retained the audience’s attention well enough to go on and perform over 474 performances on Broadway before setting off on a nationwide tour. The accomplishments of the play gave way to the expansion of even more American productions, including extravaganzas, pantomimes more similar to the ones performed today, and the musical absurdities of Harrigan & Hart, the very first famous collaboration on Broadway and the first well-known Americans to use ethnicity as a major element of a character’s development. The witty operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan were sharp, harmonious and expertly...
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