Back to Before: Part One — It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish?
Before I begin my promised series “Back to Before” chronicling the history of the American Musical Theatre, from its origins to the present, I must apologize for my lack of fresh posts these last few weeks. I made an enormous trek from the small town of Abilene, Kansas to my new home in New York, New York. Upon my arrival here, I almost immediately fell sick and could barely focus on the computer screen, let alone write anything worthwhile. As I finally regroup, I thank you for your patience and hope you enjoy the first installment.
It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish?
To truly understand an art form of any kind, you have to go back and look at its roots and see how it evolved to become the art form that we know today. Musical theatre is no exception, but it is one of the trickiest genres in which to pinpoint a genesis. Musical theatre pulls from so many different areas of music, theatre, and storytelling that it has been a work in progress almost since man first began using art as a means of communication. The first story put to music around a caveman’s campfire was musical theatre in a rudimentary sense. Musical theatre is about conveying the human experience, theatrically, through words and song. Humans have always been compelled by rhythm and melody as ways to pass our story along, so it is not much of a leap to suggest that musical theatre has always been a part of our heritage and was destined to become one of the preeminent devices of communicating the human experience.
As the Ancient Greeks began to organize theatre into a structure that still sits as the base of all theatrical endeavors, many of its conventions helped shape the contemporary musical theatre that we enjoy today. Most prominent is the use of a chorus to help deliver exposition and to drive the emotional energy of a theatrical production. The chorus serves as the binding within a piece, the fabric that once held a Greek comedy or drama together, and that today, through song, dance and heightened expression, give musicals their richness and vitality.
Of course, there are centuries of opera that one can look to as some great-great grandfather of musical theatre. Indeed, the pieces begin to assemble within opera that might someday yield musical theatre, but there are distinct yet curiously undefinable differences. What those differences are can be argued and debated by scholars and critics, but in the end, most people can tell you if they have watched a musical or an opera. For me, I have always felt that opera is driven mostly by the music and the power of music to invoke emotion and character, whereas, contemporary musical theatre survives on a strong balance between music and lyrics that are carefully integrated with the plot and underscored by character development. Musicals weren’t always like this and we didn’t immediately jump from opera to the musical theatre we know today. Somewhere there is a linking period allowed musical theatre to evolve out of opera and that period began in 1791 with the premiere of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, a comic opera with spoken dialogue that was enormously successful and, in its lighthearted, jubilant and commercial way, ushered in the form that would bridge the gap between opera and musical theatre: the operetta.
Operetta is known as “light opera” or opera that is comic and not as heavy as traditional opera. It also gained a certain reputation for being a less significant art form, though time has certainly made a case against that argument. After The Magic Flute, For the next 100 years, operetta became a very popular form of theatrical entertainment with the likes of Offenbach and Strauss contributing to the canon of great operettas. It would not be until the advent of composing team Gilbert and Sullivan in 1871, however, that we would see the strongest evolution of opera toward the musical theatre and the success of their operettas would leap across the Atlantic Ocean and prepare Americans for the next step in the story of the Broadway musical.