The history of musical theater is an interesting one. From the earliest plays of Ancient Greece, music has been an important part of the theatrical experience. During ancient times, it was most often in the form of a short musical interlude. At the time of the Renaissance, it was popular to have a musical piece at the close of each act. But how did musical theater as we know it today begin, with music and dialogue telling a coherent story?
Musicals as we know them today have their roots in opera. An opera is a dramatic presentation in which the story is told through music, similar to modern musicals. Opera got its start in Italy, around the turn of the 17th century. In opera, there is generally no spoken dialogue; sung passages and dramatic arias move the plot along. This is similar to popular sung-through musicals of today, such as Evita, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.
Even more closely related to the modern musical were operettas; in particular, the English operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan produced during the Victorian era. The topics and themes of operettas, as well as their style, was generally much lighter than in traditional opera. Operettas did occasionally feature small bits of spoken dialogue.
Musicals on Broadway
Musicals on Broadway got their start in 1866, with the presentation of The Black Crook. This musical extravaganza came about when a fire destroyed the venue where a ballet troupe was scheduled to perform. The producer of The Black Crook struck a deal with the ballet troupe, and they joined the show, which now had songs and elaborate dance numbers incorporated into the production. After The Black Crook, many more Broadway shows, as well as off-Broadway plays were musical in nature.
Many people consider the first true example of the modern musical to be Showboat, which premiered on Broadway in 1927. Showboat was unique, in that it featured the first-ever completely integrated book and score, the style that would become the standard form for musical theater.
Early musicals were most often light, comedic diversions. But starting with Showboat, some playwrights chose to depart from this convention, and give audiences more dramatic, topical plots and themes. In musical theater today, anything goes. From frivolous musical comedies to serious, dramatic pieces, there is something for every taste to be seen. From London's West End to Broadway and across the world, musical theater continues to be a popular form of entertainment.