Musicals were being performed in North America as early as 1735, when a production called "FLORA"
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
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
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
, 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"
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
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.