Musical Theatre is a type of theater that includes both spoken dialogue and sung music. It combines elements of other theatrical genres, such as opera, drama, comedy and romance, with the traditional forms of song and dance. Musicals are accompanied by an orchestra, typically led by a conductor.
During the Roaring Twenties, many musicals borrowed from vaudeville, music hall and light entertainments. They often ignored the plot in favor of big dance routines and popular songs. Florenz Ziegfeld produced annual Broadway revues with elaborate sets and star performers, but there was usually no common theme tying the different numbers together. In London, Gilbert and Sullivan’s family-friendly comic operas dominated the theater scene. They used fanciful, topsy-turvy worlds and memorable melodies to convey both humor and pathos.
The Great Depression slashed the number of people who could afford to attend theatre performances. Nevertheless, the art form survived. During the 1940s and 1950s, shows began to focus on story and song more than before, and some became classics such as Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. These shows also tapped into Americana, with Irving Berlin using sharpshooter Annie Oakley as the model for his Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg combining political satire with Irish whimsy in their fantasy Finian’s Rainbow (1944), and Cole Porter taking his inspiration from William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in Kiss Me, Kate (1948).
By the 1960s, a growing cynicism about society prompted some shows to tackle serious issues such as race relations and religion. Shows such as Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story challenged racial prejudice, while Ragtime and South Pacific focused on religious tolerance. In the 1970s, the Broadway hit Evita provided audiences with a more dramatic biographical story than they were used to seeing in musicals.
The 1980s saw the emergence of “mega-musicals,” which featured large casts and spectacular sets. Some, like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, were based on novels or other works of fiction. Other incorporated rock and other pop styles to attract younger audiences. Today’s Broadway blockbusters such as Hamilton, based on an historical figure, and the Tony-winning Rent, with hip hop music, demonstrate that musicals are more than just old-fashioned entertainments.
Musical writers need to be skilled at collaborating with librettists (writers of the spoken words) and lyricists (composers of the music). They must be good at interpreting ideas, incorporating them into their own unique style, and creating songs that are memorable and uplifting. As a rule, composers work with a lyricist and librettist for their full careers, though they may produce their own work as well in between. This is not an easy career choice, and many aspiring artists spend years trying to break into the business before becoming successful. Successful Broadway composers are known to be well-connected and have access to talent-enablers like producers, directors and choreographers.