Where Did Musicals Come From?

A mini-history of the precursors to the American musical

The Broadway cast of Something Rotten
Something Rotten - The first musical?. Getty

Believe it or not, there was a time before musicals existed. (I know. I'm just as incredulous as you.) But that sort of raises a question: What was the first musical? And when did it appear?

Well, it's really difficult to say. Many of the books on musical-theater history seem to focus on The Black Crook (1866), but that's really just an arbitrary starting point. The Black Crook is certainly fascinating, and I use it as a point of departure in my own course on musical-theater history, because it was the first successful, long-running, American-born musical production.

But to say it's the first musical is to miss the many predecessors and traditions that contributed to the development of the American musical. 

Historically, music has been incorporated into theatrical performances since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans in the centuries before the Common Era. Music was also a major part of commedia dell'arte performances in Europe in the 15th through the 17th centuries. And, of course, there's opera, which has been a major artistic force since the 16th century.

However, musical theater as we know it today began to emerge in earnest in the 19th century. Various influences, both American and European, came together to create the modern art form that is musical theater. What follows is a breakdown of some of the most important genres that contributed to that development process.

Not to give away the punchline or anything, but all of the following discussion is basically headed toward one person and one show: Oscar Hammerstein II and Show Boat (1927).

One of the many reasons that Hammerstein is the most important person in the history of musical theater is that he essentially created the American musical by blending together the American and European influences into one cohesive whole. (See "The Most Influential People in Musical-Theater History.") 

EUROPEAN INFLUENCES 

Before the very early part of the 20th century, if there was anything of quality to see in American theaters, it very likely came from abroad. As you'll see below, the American influences on musical theater were fragmented, meandering, and unintegrated. (But also fun.) So, while the American wing got its quality act together, audiences looking for cohesive, well-turned shows could turn to one of the following genres. You'll notice that the word "opera" figures prominently in all of the genre names. That's because these forms were to a large extent derived from opera, and were often protests against the hifalutin grandeur and pretension that overtook opera during it heyday.

  • Ballad operaOne of the first opera offshoots was ballad opera, a fiercely satirical genre best exemplified by John Gay and The Beggar's Opera. Ballad opera was a cheeky British response to the dominance of serious Italian opera in the 18th century. Some of the key differences were that ballad opera interpolated popular tunes, often with meaningful intent, and eschewed recitative in favor of spoken dialogue, much of it of an off-color nature. Ballad opera also featured an inversion of social classes, with lowlifes and thieves in authority positions, not so subtly implying that the people running the government were no better than criminals. The Beggar's Opera is considered the first ballad opera, was one of the most successful, and is the only ballad opera that is still performed today.
  • Comic opera: Also known as opéra bouffe, comic opera flourished in the 19th century. Composer Jacques Offenbach was the standard bearer of the opéra bouffe form, creating almost 100 works, mostly from 1850 to 1870. Offenbach's works often satirized government, particularly Napoleon III and his court. Offenbach also took delight in targeting the pretensions of grand opera. In fact, one of his best-known works, Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) was intended as a savage send-up of Christoph Glück and his Orfeo ed Euridice. In England, the primary creators of comic opera were W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their popular series of operas for the D'oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre. Librettist W.S. Gilbert aimed his satiric barbs squarely at the foibles of British nobility and at government corruption, particularly in the more mature Gilbert and Sullivan works, such as The Mikado and Iolanthe
  • Operetta: There's a considerable amount of overlap between comic opera and operetta. In fact, many people use the word "operetta" to refer to Gilbert and Sullivan, although they themselves referred to their works as comic operas. But what distinguishes comic opera from operetta is that, at least over time, operetta took on more serious overtones. In fact, it got downright stuffy at times, particularly in the Viennese tradition, one notable practitioner of which was Johann Strauss II (Die Fledermaus, 1874). Later on, Franz Lehár (The Merry Widow, 1907) and Oscar Strauss (The Chocolate Soldier, 1908) carried on in the Viennese vein, although Lehár has been credited with reinvigorating a form that had become a bit musty and self-important. Victor Herbert pioneered the American operetta tradition, particularly with his smash hit Naughty Marietta in 1910. Operetta in America disappeared for the duration of World War I (after all, we were fighting the parts of the world that operetta tended to celebrate). The form made a strong but brief comeback in the 1920s thanks to composers Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song, 1926) and Rudolph Friml (Rose-Marie, 1924). 

AMERICAN INFLUENCES 

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Americans were a bit too focused on nation-building to spend much time creating and attending new musical works. When things settled down, and folks started looking for some entertainment, the offerings were of a decidedly rough character, ranging from sensational side shows and dime museums to not-exactly-family-friendly saloon performances. 

  • MinstrelsyAs horrifying as it is to contemplate, the first indigenous form of American entertainment was the minstrel show. Performers would don black greasepaint on their faces and act out skits, sing songs, and perform dances that portrayed African Americans in a derogatory fashion. It's a shameful tradition, to be sure, but it's important to understand the context. White Americans were fearful of what would happen should slavery be abolished, and minstrel shows served to allay those fears by portraying slaves as content with their lives and freed slaves as bumbling fools. Minstrel shows were considered clean family entertainment, and lasted from the 1840s to about 1900. As late as the 1940s, Hollywood was still portraying minstrelsy with wistful nostalgia. The minstrel tradition also contributed many songs that are still sung today, including "Camptown Races" and "Dixie." 
  • VaudevilleThe predominant form of American entertainment from roughly 1880 to 1930 was vaudeville, which began as a family-friendly alternative to the more rough and salacious fare offered in saloons and elsewhere. A vaudeville show consisted of a bill of short, unrelated acts. Eventually the bill became codified, with preferred positions at the end of the first half and in the second-to-last spot in the second act. (The final spot was reserved for a lousy act that would drive the audience out of the theater so the next crowd could enter.) Chains of vaudeville theaters cropped up around the country, including the Orpheum, Pantages, and Keith-Albee Circuits. Tens of thousands of entertainers made their living by traveling around the country with the same act. Vaudeville acts included singers, jugglers, comedians, dancers, fire-eaters, magicians, contortionists, acrobats, mind readers, and strong men. Vaudeville also served as a showcase for celebrities, athletes, and pretty much anyone with a bit of notoriety to exploit. (See Chicago.) 
  • Burlesque: OK, now here's a word that requires a little backstory. When we hear "burlesque" today, we tend to think of strippers like Gypsy Rose Lee and baggy-pants comics making crude jokes. But that's a relatively new meaning for the word. During the Victorian Era, burlesque was actually a very popular form of family entertainment. The word "burlesque" actually means something closer to "parody" or "caricature." Burlesque entertainments in the 1800s would take a well-known story -- for example, those of Humpty Dumpty, Hiawatha, or Adonis -- and use it as a framework for songs and dances that may or may not have had anything to do with the story. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the United States, burlesque increasingly took on more of the "bump it with a trumpet" accoutrements that we associate with the word today. 

All of these entertainment forms eventually coalesced. The European forms gave rise to American operetta. The American forms produced the early musical comedies. As I mentioned above, Oscar Hammerstein essentially served his apprenticeship in both of these forms during the 1920s, which put him in the ideal position to bring the two traditions together in 1927 with Show BoatJerome Kern, the composer of Show Boat, was likewise schooled in both the American and European modes and was thus invaluable in making Show Boat the landmark that it is.

These two men took the best of the two disparate traditions and brought them together. From the American side, they took the modern characters that American audiences could identify with, the more realistic situations, and the honest human emotion. They also adopted the focus on making shows fun and entertaining. From the European side, they took the stronger sense of integration and craft in both the music and the lyrics. They also embraced the impetus toward addressing social issues in the world around them. Show Boat thus marks a major milestone in the history of musical theater, paving the way for the innovation to come, much of it from Mr. Oscar Hammerstein himself. 

[For a more detailed history of all of the forms above, I highly recommend John Kenrick's excellent book, Musical Theatre: A History.]