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American Musical Theater

The term “musical” in American culture today refers to a form of musical play that first took shape in the 1920s in which songs and dances become part of a truly dramatic story. The technical term for this type of drama is a “book musical,” the term “book” referring to the musical’s serious dramatic script. In a musical, although the audience is entertained and often gets a chance to laugh, emotions also come into play, on stage and in the audience. American musicals can have much dialogue, punctuated with song and dance, yet some varieties are “sung through,” indicating that all dialogue is in the form of song. Some musicals are original, while others are adapted from books, films, or stage plays.

During the 1920s, light musical shows with very thin plots became the showcase for the great songwriters of the day and produced thousands of songs that are performed to this day. Today, no one remembers the plots of these shows, but the songs of composers like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart are now standards. The big change came in 1927 with the success of Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. The story involves some serious themes such as racial intolerance and alcoholism. Although it created an immortal array of songs that today stand by themselves as American classics (Can’t Help Loving That Man, Make Believe, Old Man River, Bill, and others), the full story has been revived and filmed over the decades and is still performed today.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw musicals that tended to have political themes, some light, some dead serious. An example of the light variety is George and Ira Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing. The politically charged musical The Cradle Will Rock dealt with issues of labor strife. The art form hit its stride, however, with the 1943 production of Oklahoma with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to create such American classics as CarouselSouth PacificThe King and I, and the Sound of Music, all blockbusters, all made into films, and all still performed today. Other 1940s musical successes, still performed today, include Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your GunOn The Town, with music by Leonard Bernstein and words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Burton Lane’s Finian’s Rainbow and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Classic American musicals during the 1950s included Guys and DollsMy Fair LadyWest Side StoryThe Music Man, and Gypsy.

In the 1960s, prominent musicals included Fiddler on the RoofHello, Dolly!Funny GirlMan of La ManchaCabaret, and the rock musical Hair. Prominent composers Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman each became creatively active during this period. In addition to Hello, Dolly!, Herman would be responsible for later productions of Mame and La Cage aux Folles. After the commercially successful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sondheim went on to write such highly regarded musical plays as CompanyFolliesA Little Night MusicSweeney ToddSunday in the Park with George and many others.

Although recent decades have seen the rise in popularity of large scale and often European-written musicals like Miss SaigonThe Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables, this American art form continues to flourish in such successful productions as the wildly successful Wicked. These amazing productions have spurred legions of fans to seek out a TakeLessons singing coach because their dream is to be a part of a theater hit like Wicked.Given the immense cost of producing a major musical today, the art form mainly thrives today in smaller scale, small cast productions. The big money usually goes into tried and true revivals of the hits of the past.

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