Tuesday, November 6, 2018

History of American Musical Theater

At our school, a cast of excited middle and high school students are in full swing of rehearsals for this year’s musical, a junior version of the classic Singin’ in the Rain. I have always loved musical theater, and my sister is actually directing this year’s production, so I thought it would be fun to take a peek at the historical development of this art form.

Early Years

Lithographic poster for early American production of H.M.S. Pinafore,
By A.S. Seer's Print - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
While the use of music and movement in theater dates back to ancient Greek plays, what we currently view as musical theater had its earliest glimmerings in the 18th century, when English “ballad operas” became popular in America. Most musical stage shows in the 19th century were some combination of vaudeville, burlesque, or minstrel shows. However, in the late 1800s, British composers Gilbert and Sullivan elevated the art form to new artistic and family-friendly heights with their highly successful comic operettas like The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, and HMS Pinafore, which remain popular even today.

Original Broadway cast of Show Boat, White Studio, photographer -
Theatre Magazine, Vol. 49, No. 2, February 1928 (p. 58), Public Domain

1900s to 1930s

The early twentieth century saw new developments in uniquely American musical theater, especially through the works of George M. Cohan. Many musicals of the 1910s through the 30s were heavy on elaborate staging and dance routines and light on plot, but in 1927, the musical Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, formed a turning point. For the first time, the songs served the plot of the story rather than the other way around, and deep themes such as racial injustice and marital trouble were explored through thoughtfully developed characters. Light, escapist musicals rose to popularity again through the Great Depression, and the advent of “talking pictures” affected live theater attendance also, but Show Boat had laid the groundwork for big advancements in American musicals.

The Golden Age: 1940s – 1960s

From the 1943-44 production of Oklahoma! Public Domain.

In March 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! opened on Broadway and changed musical theater forever. For the first time, music, dance, character, and story were fully integrated into a seamless whole. The curtain lifted not on scantily clad chorus girls but rather on an older woman churning butter and a cowboy singing an early morning ballad. Like Show Boat, Oklahoma! dealt with some heavier themes, including pornography addiction and attempted murder, and the choreography by Agnes de Mille broke significant ground by using dance to express emotion and tell the story.

Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I
www.oreieeu.com.br, Public Domain.

Oklahoma! was followed by multiple Rodgers and Hammerstein hits using the same principles of strong storytelling, developed characters, integrated dance and song, and thoughtful social themes: The King and I, Carousel, South Pacific, and most famous of all, The Sound of Music. All these shows were made into successful motion pictures and continue to enjoy stage revivals today, from community theater to Broadway.

Other composers joined this “Golden Age” as well, with such beloved and enduring musicals as Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady and Bock, Harnick, and Stein’s Fiddler on the Roof. In 1957, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story bravely took on racial tension and gang violence in a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet and also brought new and innovative composer Stephen Sondheim on the scene.

Modern Musicals

Les Miserables, by Otterbein University Theatre & Dance, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0
From the late 1960s on, “rock musicals” such as Godspell and Hair took the stage, though more traditional forms saw some decline. In the 1980s, however, musical theater saw a new revival through the soaring popularity of such European “mega-musicals” as Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera. Disney also found grand success through adapting several animated films for the Broadway and London stage: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and most triumphant of all, The Lion King.

Lin Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton.
Photo by Steve Jurvetson
https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/25945250053/, CC BY 2.0
In 2015, the new musical Hamilton debuted on Broadway and broke ground with its innovative transference of contemporary rap and the American Revolution into musical theater, generating new waves of interest among young people in both musicals and American history.

While musicals may not be as popular as they once were, relevant new shows like the ethnically diverse Hamilton and the socially conscious Dear Evan Hansen, which focuses on bullying, indicate musical theater does seem to be on the rise. The growing number of new movie musicals speaks to this, such as the hugely successful films La La Land and The Greatest Showman.

Across the years, we continue to respond to these stories told in song and dance that capture our human hearts in a way few mediums can.

What about you? Are there any classic old musicals that you love? Which piece of musical theater history did you find most interesting? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines, won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky, and is currently a 2018 Genesis Finalist. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at www.kierstigiron.com. She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony, and their two kitties.


  1. Thank you for your post - it was very interesting! I love musical theater, and I think I've seen all of the shows that you listed. I would not have thought that I would have enjoyed a rap musical but I loved Hamilton. I don't think I could pick a favorite either old or new. I am hoping to see the touring show of Beautiful because my nephew is in it!

    1. How wonderful, Linda! Thank you so much for sharing, and congratulations to your nephew!