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Saturday, 6 August 2016

Musical theatre

During the 18th century, the most popular forms of musical theater in Britain were ballad operas, which included lyrics written to the tunes of popular songs of the day (often spoofing opera).

John Gay's The Beggar's Opera was the most popular ballad opera; the first recorded long-running play of any kind, it ran in 1728 for a-then unheard of 62 successive performances at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, which was managed by John Rich. Its success made 'Gay rich and Rich gay'.

The Black Crook opened on September 12, 1866 at the 3,200-seat Niblo's Garden on Broadway. The show is considered to be the first example of an American musical in that its popular songs and dances were interspersed throughout a unifying play and performed by the actors. Despite being five-and-a-half hours long, it ran for a huge 474 performances, and revenues exceeded a record-shattering one million dollars.

Poster of musical theatre The Black Crook, representing the finale

In musical theatre  it was not until about 1870 that the 'chorus girl' became a player in her own right. At first she was asked to do no more than move gracefully in unison with her companions, often accompanied by fairly static 'chorus boys.'

The first stage production that was considered a musical comedy was a show that was transferred from the Prince of Wales Theatre to the Gaiety Theatre in London in 1892. Staged by George Edwardes, the show called In Town featured a chorus line of Gaiety Girls.

A Gaiety Girl proved equally successful in London in 1893, and a production of the show played in New York in the same year. When it was reviewed in newspapers, it was designated a musical comedy and regarded as a new form of entertainment.

Theatre programme from 1894

The early musicals were usually two-act shows with an emphasis on song and dance. Plots were kept simple: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The young lovers always had at least one duet, and there was always a comic character to lighten the plot. In 1927 Jerome Kern combined multiple forms of ballet, music and theater to invent the modern musical with Show Boat.

Show Boat opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Broadway on December 27, 1927. The first massively popular musical comedy, it told a serious dramatic story about the lives of a family of showboat performers from the 1880s to the 1920s. With lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat pointed the way to the musical plays of the 1940s and 1950s.

Sheet music Wikipedia Commons

Edmond Rostand's drama, Les Romanesques was produced in Paris in 1894; its story of innocent young love was adapted in the 1960 American musical The Fantasticks. The show premiered at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a small Off-Broadway theatre in New York City's Greenwich Village, on May 3, 1960. The Fantasitick's original off-Broadway production ran a total of 42 years and 17,162 performances, making it the world's longest-running musical.

After six months at the off-Broadway New York Shakespeare Festival Theater, Hair opened at the Biltmore Theater in New York, in 1968. It was the first rock-musical to play on the Great White Way.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, influenced by the Jesus Movement that was becoming popular among hippies and other young 'trendies', a number of Bible-based musicals were premiered. Among them were Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's popular musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, which was a modern look at Christ's build up to his crucifixion and his relationship with Judas Iscariot. Another was Godspell, of which the star, David Essex later commented: "Though I wouldn't say it (Godspell) made me a Christian, I certainly became aware of the incredibly good sense of Christ's teachings."

Here is a list of well known songs sung in musicals.

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