A Brief Broadway Musicals History

The Broadway musical's history is a fascinating one. While Broadway was a popular destination for theatre-goers for many years, it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that plays featuring music and dance became an entertainment staple on the Great White Way. Here is a brief history of the musical on Broadway.

Early Years
The Seven Sisters opened in 1860 and was the first ever musical performed on Broadway. The musical production ran for 253 performances. There are no known copies of the play or its score still in existence.

The Black Crook, which premiered in 1866, is thought by many to be the first real Broadway musical. It was a huge success, running for over a year. There were eight revivals of the show on Broadway. Initially, the show was a melodrama. A fire at a nearby theater displaced a ballet troupe and its orchestra, so the producers of The Black Crook decided to add the group to the show to create what they called "A Musical Spectacular." 

Burlesque was popular Broadway fare during the 1800s. In 1868, Lydia Thompson brought her Burlesque troupe The British Blondes to New York. The elaborate production, filled with comedy, extravagant sets and risqué costumes, was a huge hit.

Broadway's theater district was one of the first areas in America to get electric light. By 1880, one mile of the street was lit electrically, earning the nickname, "The Great White Way."

Early 20th Century
In 1907, A new Broadway phenomenon was born. Originally called Follies 1907, Flo Ziegfeld's lavish production would become a Broadway staple for many years to come. New productions were mounted each year until 1925, with additional productions produced in 1927, 1931, 1934, 1936 and 1943. A final Ziegfeld Follies show was produced in 1957, but was a failure.

When Showboat opened in December 1927, it was unlike anything The Great White Way had ever seen. The early part of the 1920s had been filled with lighthearted comedies, such as No No, Nanette and Funny FaceShowboat featured dramatic themes and the first-ever completely integrated book and score.

In 1935, the Gershwin brothers and DuBose Heyward debuted Porgy and Bess. It featured an all African-American cast, which was quite controversial at the time. While considered a masterpiece by many, it has also been criticized for its racist portrayal of African-Americans.

The Golden Age
In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first show, Oklahoma, was produced. The duo would go on to write some of the most beloved Broadway Musicals in history, including Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music.

When Brigadoon premiered in 1947, this show marked the first major success of one of Broadway's other power duos, Lerner and Loewe. They had been collaborating for about five years when Brigadoon premiered, and they would continue to work together for many years, creating such memorable shows as My Fair Lady in 1958 and Camelot in 1960.

A New Era
Produced in the midst of the politically turbulent 1960s, Hair was quite a departure from the musicals of the '40s and '50s, with its counter-culture themes and rock-inspired score. With high energy and a sparse use of costumes and sets, it opened the door for a more aggressive, nontraditional form of musical, compared with the elaborate song-and-dance shows that dominated previous decades.

In 1977, the hugely successful Annie debuted. Its young star, Andrea McArdle, drew much acclaim for her portrayal of the charming red-haired orphan. Broadway show tickets sold fast for this optimistic, upbeat musical, which represented a return to happier shows following a decade of grittier, more dramatic musicals.

Cats began its successful 18-year run in 1981. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, already well established with shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, would later go on to write Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running show on Broadway. 

In 1987, Les Miserables opened on Broadway. This popular show continues to be one of the most-performed musicals worldwide. Les Miserables is a sung-through musical, where all dialogue is sung, as in operas.

The '90s and Beyond
In recent years, the trend on Broadway has been to adapt films and books into musical productions. Mel Brooks found huge success with a musical version of his comedy, The Producers. Off-Broadway plays have also found mainstream success, led by Jonathan Larson's hit show, Rent.

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Learn about the history of musical theatre and the Broadway musicals' history, then check our list of Broadway musicals that everyone should see.

Learn about the history of musical theatre and the Broadway musicals' history, then check our list of Broadway musicals that everyone should see.

Learn about the history of musical theatre and the Broadway musicals' history, then check our list of Broadway musicals that everyone should see.

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