Musical Milestones: When the Theatre Reinvents Itself
The American Musical Theatre has always been shaped and stretched by innovation. Musicals that follow the patterns of other groundbreaking musicals may improve upon what the initial groundbreaker has done, but it's the musical that takes the first step outside of the box and convinces future creators to follow suit, that has generated the real growth within the art form. A handful of musicals have had the brazen audacity to do so. Today's column is a celebration of these movers and shakers of the musical form that have evolved the musical to where it is today. Not every title on this list is perfect, but each one changed what musicals could do and opened the doors for important new pieces to build on the foundations that they laid.
The Black Crook
Though you will never see a production of The Black Crook revived in this day and age, many historians point to this 1866 show as the birth of the Broadway Musical. It didn’t set out to be that, but it all happened as a bit of a fluke. A theatre was putting on a troubled play called The Black Crook which was poised for failure. A Parisian ballet troupe was left homeless when the venue where they were supposed to perform burned down. The two productions were combined, some songs thrown in, a theatre was shared, and suddenly the world had a successful musical comedy. In truth, it was a crude form of musical theatre, more like a mish-mash of song, dance and story that were only slightly connected. Still, The Black Crook ran for 474 performances at the 3,200 seat Niblo’s Garden on Broadway, making the case that there was an audience for this type of entertainment. More musicals followed suit.
Long before Rodgers and Hammerstein made the idea of the integrated score stick with the 1943 musical Oklahoma!, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, II made a strong case for its possibilities in the 1927 masterpiece Show Boat. Adapted from Edna Ferber’s epic novel about a group of performers aboard a riverboat theatre, Show Boat not only had many of its songs grow out of the plot and facilitate character development, but it also went so far as to explore the injustices of racial inequality (this was 1927 folks). Much of what was to be found in Show Boat would be new to audiences. The Kern-Hammerstein score combines sounds from traditional operetta, black folk music, and period styles that indicated time and place. Though it would take 16 years for these conventions to catch on, Show Boat opened the door for a more intellectual, purposeful and poignant form of musical theatre storytelling.
If Show Boat ushered in the idea of the integrated musical (book, score, dance, character development all tied together and growing out of one-another), it was the success of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! that cemented this form as the template for musical theatre writing in the subsequent twenty-five years. A large contribution came from choreographer Agnes de Mille who would elevate dance as an important ingredient in how musical stories were told. The Rodgers and Hammerstein format would become the staple of musical theatre, followed closely by the likes of Lerner and Loewe, Adler and Ross, E.Y. Harburg, Cole Porter, Comden and Green, Strouse and Adams, Leonard Bernstein, and George Abbott for decades to come.
Here was a successful musical that had the balls, in 1947, to show blacks and whites singing, dancing, cohabitating and working together in what may or may not have been an allusion to a socialist community. When you think about the time period, Finian’s Rainbow was breaking down barriers left and right. Librettist-lyricist E.Y. Harburg, an avid champion of racial equality, actually had to campaign to have blacks and whites seen together onstage since this was not commonly done at the time. Harburg also peppered the story with anti-capitalism references which, considering the country was on the precipice of communist witch hunts, made Finian’s Rainbow possibly subversive. And yet, the musical was lighthearted satire cradled in blissful fantasy, and it proved to be a success. Though it is often relegated to the “dated” category, Finian’s Rainbow asserted that no subject was taboo in musical theatre and will forever be one of the most progressive benchmarks in the evolution of musical theatre.
West Side Story
The idea of using dance as a way to tell a story had been done before, but it had always been achieved in fits and starts, with dream ballets and long segments of choreography to flesh out the details of a story (Oklahoma!, Carousel, Bloomer Girl, Brigadoon, On the Town), but West Side Story, via Jerome Robbins’ choreography, seamlessly wove dance into the fabric of the narrative. In fact, West Side Story moves like a ballet with words, the tensions and rivalry of gang fighting and the emotional gravitas of a star-crossed love affair, all conveyed as much with the body as with story and music. This would open the door for new opportunities for dance, opportunities that Fosse, Bennett, Tune and Stroman would take to new heights in the decades to come.
At first this might seem like a peculiar entry for this list, but it was the success of The Fantasticks that really ushered in the possibilities of the Off-Broadway Musical. Small in production values, but rich in content, The Fantasticks made the case that not every musical needed to big, splashy, and heavy on the cast size. Making a success of dialing it down carved out a place for nuanced, reflective, and slightly edgy musicals that were out of the box and less costly to produce. By the end of the 1960s, the world of the Off-Broadway-style Musical was something that was here to stay. Thanks to The Fantasticks and the Off-Broadway model, we would someday enjoy musicals like Godspell, Avenue Q, and Urinetown.
Harold Prince is always an innovator where Broadway musicals are concerned, but never as spectacularly as when he got his hands on Cabaret. Working closely with librettist Joe Masteroff and composers John Kander and Fred Ebb, Prince fashioned a musical where a show-within-a-show was utilized as a device for making commentary on the main story and themes. Shattering the fourth wall, Cabaret invites the audience to be a part of the action by making them the crowd at the seedy Kit Kat Club. An Emcee oversees the proceedings and sings songs that directly reflect what is happening in the book scenes. Musicals like Pippin, Chicago, Urinetown and The Scottsboro Boys all have Cabaret to thank for successfully implementing these conventions.
It is simple folks: rock & roll. In the early 1960s, Bye, Bye, Birdie presciently hinted at the phenomenon that rock music would become (even employing a few Elvis-style numbers in the score), but it was Hair that would seal the deal at the end of the 1960s. It was a quickly-changing world in the late 60s, with sex drugs and rock & roll at the forefront of a movement that was also vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, pollution, and corruption in politics. Hair was an unconventional musical that would employ the ever-growing popularity of rock & roll as a means to make commentary on these issues, hitting its target audience of young people with great impact. Rock and roll in the musical was here to stay.
Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince are two forces of musical theatre that, when combined, created a list of musicals that basically turned the 1970s into a decade of musical theatre experimentation and evolution. It all started with Company, a musical that explored theme instead of plot, making it what many deem “The first concept musical.” With the inclusion of book writer George Furth, the creators fashioned the central character of Bobby, a beloved bachelor, as the catalyst for exploring the themes of marriage and commitment as he stepped in and out of the lives of his wedded friends. Instead of telling a linear story, Company was episodic, a collage on marriage that allowed Bobby (and the audience) to come to their own conclusions on its merits and detractions.
In the Heights
Just as Hair successfully secured rock & roll’s place in musical theatre, In the Heights did the same for rap and hip-hop music. Composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda energized Broadway audiences by inviting in a fresh sound that appealed to the younger generation, an audience that musical theatre is always on a quest to reel in. Capturing young audiences builds ticket buyers for the future. The new sound may not have been to everyone’s taste, but it demonstrated the ongoing elasticity of the musical theatre form, which can stretch and bend to accommodate new ideas, styles and themes. This is why musical theatre will never die, it will just continue to morph into what is needed to keep it soldiering forward.
It took a long time (too long in this writer’s estimation) for a musical to be produced on Broadway where the creators, entirely female, would go on to receive Tony Awards for their work. In general, the voices of females in the creation of Broadway musicals have been given short-shrift over the years in this male-dominated profession. The success of Fun Home goes far beyond mere Tony Awards and accolades for women. It encourages new perspectives, inviting into the mix a new half of the population who has been underrepresented and underutilized thanks to a system that, for the most part, dismissed their participation. Musical Theatre is ever-evolving and Fun Home has a set a new standard for making sure ALL of us have a voice.