musicals

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
Save to active project

musicals

musicals, earlier known as musical comedy, plays that incorporate music, song, and dance. These elements move with the plot, heightening and commenting on the action.

Mixing the sprightly songs and sketchy plots of operetta with the topical numbers of the revue, musical comedy began in England at the end of the 19th cent. In the United States during World War I the colorful extravaganzas of George M. Cohan ushered in an era of patriotic and spectacular productions. Thereafter musical comedy flourished primarily in the United States. A few mid 20th-century works, such as Porgy and Bess (1935) and Carousel (1945), are essentially American operas. But much more often the musical comedy songs were light and popular, with emphasis placed on chorus dancing rather than on singing. Such stars as Lillian Russell and DeWolf Hopper were followed by Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, Jack Donahue, Ray Bolger, Fred and Adele Astaire, Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, and Alfred Drake. Many of these musical stars appeared in the works of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

With the 1943 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, the form was transformed. Instead of stringing songs together along a flimsy plot line, the play organically integrated music, song, and dance with a detailed and complex plot, a synthesis that greatly influenced subsequent musical comedy. The later introduction of social problems and plots based on established literary works, as in West Side Story (1957) by Leonard Bernstein (based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) and My Fair Lady (1956) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (based on G. B. Shaw's Pygmalion), caused such productions to be termed simply musicals. In the late 1960s the "rock musical" came into prominence with the production of Hair (1967); variations of this style included the religious Jesus Christ, Superstar (1971) and a version of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971). The popularity of musicals created a new form of summer stock theater, the "music tent."

The musical film has enjoyed popularity since the release of Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer in 1927. The form developed from the Busby Berkeley spectacles of the 1930s to the scintillating gaiety and virtuosity of the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers comedies, the operetta films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and filmed biographies of musical celebrities and film figures. Noted singers and dancers who appeared in film musicals include Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Mario Lanza, Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Shirley Jones, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand. In the 1940s numerous romantic and patriotic musicals were produced. By the next decade musicals had come to depend heavily upon Broadway hits and previous film successes for subject matter. Outstanding among original motion-picture musicals are Top Hat (1935), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

In the second half of the 20th cent. many stage musicals, on and off Broadway, became more complicated and sometimes more spectacular. They often featured diverse and controversial themes or flashy and technically complex productions. Notable among these musicals are Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's A Chorus Line (1975); Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), and Passion (1994); and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita (1978), Cats (1981), The Phantom of the Opera (1986), and Sunset Boulevard (1993).

See studies by L. Engel (1967), D. Ewen (rev. ed. 1970), A. Wilder (1972), and S. Green (1971, repr. 1982); E. Mordden, The Hollywood Musical (1981) and his many volumes on the Broadway musical; B. Rosenberg and E. Harburg, The Broadway Musical (1992); R. Barrios, A Song in the Dark (1995); M. Steyn, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight (1999); W. A. Everett and P. R. Laird, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical (2002); L. Stempel, Showtime (2010).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

musicals
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?