I think the best way to begin musical theatre appreciation is by appreciating its roots. This is where your education will begin, my young grasshoppers. The most sturdy, fruitful, handsome tree is bupkis without the life-giving foundations of its roots. Even as a tiny seed buried under the ground, the tree is draw from the world around it and mature into a blossoming edifice that grows and thrives by sharing itself with the world. Such is the same for musicals and the incredibly rich history of the art form.
A looooooooooong time ago, theatre in Europe roughly consisted of traveling minstrels and players, performing either songs and slapstick comedy or religious dramas. Then around the Renaissance period, theatre evolved (highly influenced by the Italian Commedia Dell’arte, which tried to recreate the Greco-Roman Theatre Age) into sketch comedies performed by song-and-dance clowns. Plays with heavier subject matter were often broken up by musical interludes and slapstick routines between and during acts. This new form of theatrics inspired the advent of improv, professional actors (European nobility would commission and finance troupes), opera, music halls, burlesque (not that kind), vaudeville, the stock character, and the actress.
The presence of theatre in America first arrived shortly before the Revolutionary War. London was the hot spot for theatre at the time. London would have a hit show and then send it across the pond to American theatres (kinda like today’s Broadway & West End, except now the hits come from our side of the pond. Represent!). Then, a nifty little production titled The Black Crook premiered in 1866. The 5½ hours long piece is credited with being the first original American musical – or at least the first one to employ the concept of utilizing song and dance to help tell the story. It ran for a record-breaking (at the time) 474 performances. Operas evolved into operettas (light, satirical operas with dialogue), spearheaded by Gilbert &Sullivan and Offenbach (he wrote the piece “Orpheus in the Underworld.” Sound familiar?)
At the start of the 20th century, theatre manager George Edwardes decided to take a break from the smutty, absurdist, period satire that monopolized the Gaiety Theatre stage (and most of the other stages in town) and adopted a family-friendly “musical play” style with catchy songs, Cinderella story plots, and splashy spectacles. This marked the birth of the integration of book and score. The hipper, prettier, more refined style greatly appealed to theatregoers and paved the way for musicals to establish believable characters and situations.
The 20’s brought about extravaganza revues (featuring oodles of scantily clad women) and frivolous musicals with reasonably forgettable plots, but the theatre scene thrived with star power, big dance numbers, and enduring popular songs (“standards”) by big shot composers of the day (Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, etc.). Then in 1927, Kern and Hammerstein stormed the theatre world with Show Boat.
Let’s stop the history lesson here and talk a little more about Show Boat, because this is where musical theatre gets really interesting. You hear the word "groundbreaking" pretty often in the media and Show Boat was an understatement. Imagine eating nothing but candy for several decades and then getting served a huge slab of roast beef. Because that's pretty much what Show Boat did to the theatre world. Lot of firsts for this show:
- First musical to integrate white and black performers (and those black performers were not in blackface!)
- First musical based on a book
- First serious musical
- First musical without a curtain call (see Fun Fact below!)
Based on a novel by Edna Ferber and uncharacteristically produced by Florenz Ziegfeld (more about him later), this musical about racial prejudice, destructive habits, and their consequences was the first serious musical. Until Show Boat, any piece that had combined music and dialogue was either satire, lighthearted comedy, or some other theatrical excuse to have a bunch of scantily clad females line the stage. Total fluff. Compared to these musicals and revues that had monopolized Broadway, Show Boat was a radical deviation from the norm. Not only was it the first musical to tackle serious subject matter, it also raised the bar for musicals to come and officially buried the previous formula of storyline-less pastiches people were accustomed to in the 19th century.
Fun Fact: On opening night, Hammerstein decided not to have a curtain call (another first), as the show didn't necessarily end on a 100% happy note and he didn't want to break the theatrical vibe by letting the audience see the actors, as opposed to the characters, at the end of the show. People weren't sure how to react, as a curtain call was customary, and they silently left the theatre. Kern, Hammerstein, and Ziegfeld initially thought viewers didn't like it until the rave reviews and the line going out the door for tickets arrived the next day.
Our minimal history lesson for today shall end here, young grasshopper. The moral of today's lesson is that an understanding of the birth and evolution of musical theatre is vital to appreciating it for what it is today. When you think how uneventful the simultaneous casting of black and white performers is now, remember a time and place in which it was unthinkable; less than 100 years ago. But some brave, creative, most likely Jewish guys took a risk and wanted to tell a real story; thus inadvertently changing the face of an art form.
Until next time, namaste.