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Musicals were being performed in North America as early as 1735, when a production called "FLORA" was performed in Charleston. And there was a performance of John Gay's "THE BEGGAR'S OPERA" in New York in 1750. But these imported ballad operas bore little resemblance to American musical theatre as it later became, which developed gradually out of comic operas and melodramas, variety and burlesque, eventually resulting in William Wheatley's 1866 production "THE BLACK CROOK", said to be America's first bona fide hit musical.
In 1878 the first of the musical comedies of songwriting team Ned Harrigan and David Braham took Broadway by storm, delighting audiences until 1885, when the comic Tony Hart left the show. The success of their brand of vaudeville led the way for a multitude of profitable Broadway shows to follow. In 1898 Bob Cole became the first black songwriter to produce an all black Broadway musical, "A TRIP TO COONTOWN", a production which, unsurprisingly, given it's title, still relied heavily on minstrel stereotypes.
By the turn of the 20th century America was really beginning to flex it's economic muscles, and the confident, patriotic songs of composer / impresario George M.Cohan fitted the bill perfectly. Tin Pan Alley was approaching it's heyday, American music was now an industry, and the popular song in it's true sense had arrived. From here on in, right through to the 1950's and 1960's, musical theatre is peopled by some of the greats of American popular songwriting.
The pioneer of Broadway's first Golden Age was Jerome Kern, who, in 1914, wrote "They Didn't Believe Me" with Herbert Reynolds. This song, with it's timeless melody and simple, charming lyric, marked a turning point in the development of popular show music, departing completely from the florid poetry of the period love song. Kern went on to produce another watershed with his score for the ground-breaking musical "SHOW BOAT" in 1927, written with master lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.
Then came the incomparable Irving Berlin, who, according to Kern, went on to become the embodiment of American popular music. Berlin was the first to bring black musical styles to a mainstream white audience with his 1911 sensation "Alexander's Ragtime Band", and went on to become the most successful songwriter in American history, not just Broadway.
Between the two World Wars American musical theatre was at it's height, with unforgettable music pouring from the pens of George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart and others, all of whom also wrote directly for the burgeoning film industry in Hollywood.
Most wartime productions were understandably escapist, but March 1943 saw the opening of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "OKLAHOMA! ", which has been described as the first musical play, as distinct from a musical comedy or operetta. Songwriters were now dramatists, the music providing both an emotional setting for the plot and insight into fully three-dimensional characters. "OKLAHOMA! ", though still somewhat escapist and old-fashioned, was the forerunner of a second Golden Age of Broadway theatre, headed by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The real breakthrough came in 1957, however, in the shape of Leonard Bernstein's "WEST SIDE STORY", still widely regarded as the finest and most important piece of musical theatre of all time. Not only does it introduce for the first time a gritty urban realism, it also has the scope and complexity of opera, and the score manages to bring together popular, latin and classical traditions in a glorious fusion, echoing the achievement of Georges Bizet's "CARMEN" over 80 years before.
"WEST SIDE STORY" represented not only the way forward for musical theatre but also, sadly, it's zenith, since it coincided precisely with the birth of rock & roll, the many manifestations of which have dominated the musical tastes of the younger generation ever since.
Attempts were made to recapture the audience during the 1960's and 1970's with so-called "rock musicals" such as "HAIR", "GODSPELL" and "GREASE", with some success, it has to be said. The concept musicals of Stephen Sondheim also achieved considerable acclaim during the 1980's and 1990's, competing with the mega productions of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The sad truth, however, is that the days of musical theatre at the forefront of popular entertainment appear to be over, possibly never to return.

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Prominent songwriters

Ned Harrigan
David Braham
Bob Cole
George M. Cohan
Jerome Kern
Oscar Hammerstein II.
Irving Berlin
George & Ira Gershwin
Cole Porter
Harold Arlen
Richard Rodgers
Lorenz Hart
Jimmy McHugh
Ray Henderson
Kurt Weill
Burton Lane
Nacio Herb Brown
Arthur Freed
Lerner & Loewe
Leonard Bernstein
Frank Loesser
Jerry Herman
Jule Styne
Meredith Wilson
Bob Merrill
Jerry Bock
Sheldon Harnick
John Kander & Fred Ebb
Galt McDermott
Stephen Schwartz
Warren Casey
Jim Jacobs
Stephen Sondheim

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