Musical Theater from the Opera Perspective
Beginnings on Broadway
Time Period: 1800-1870
Attending the theater to see plays performed was the main source of entertainment of the day. Plays had orchestras that would entertain audiences before the performance and during intermissions. Over time, the music became an increasingly significant part of the theater experience. In 1866, a Parisian ballet troupe was scheduled to perform in New York but a fire burned the theater to the ground. The producers appealed to another -- theater that was preparing a play called The Black Crook -- and the two groups agreed to join forces to create a musical extravaganza involving a drama, an orchestra, and dancers. A resounding success, the American musical was born.
Time Period: 1875-1920
Gilbert and Sullivan
Time Period: 1890-1930
The Golden Age of Broadway
Time Period: 1910 to 1940
This time period represented some of Broadway's most productive years; new musicals were abundant, audiences were plentiful, and a new batch of composers and songwriters offered musicals of increasingly high artistic quality. Shows that found popularity during this era included Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Babes in Arms, and Anything Goes.
An Era of Prolific Composers
Time Period: 1940-1970
Oklahoma! was the first of many successes for Rodgers and Hammerstein, who continued to create new musicals throughout the 1940s and 1950s including Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.
NEA CD: "Some Enchanted Evening" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone
The 1950s introduced another unique musical with staying power: West Side Story by composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was the only conductor of the New York Philharmonic ever to compose a musical, and it is no surprise that his scores are complex, with influences from classical, pop, jazz, and Latin music. West Side Story is based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and with its universal themes of love and loyalty to family, the work has connected with audiences over the years, and remains one of the most frequently produced musicals today. Bernstein followed West Side Story with Candide, an ambitious musical based on the writings of Voltaire. With its complex musical score, Candide has found a place on stage at many of today's opera houses.
NEA CD: "Somewhere" from Bernstein's West Side Story, Michelle Prentice, soprano
Changing Tastes and Trends
Time Period: 1970 to present
In the 1990s, with public interest in musicals declining and production costs increasing, creative teams began working with corporate partners to finance new productions. An example of this is the Walt Disney Corporation, which financed stage productions of its films Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The new millennium brought a renewed interest in comedic musicals, and their success took the theater world by storm. Shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray, and The Producers have become some of the hottest tickets on Broadway and in touring productions around the country.
The Opera Connection
Following their successful collaboration with Disney on The Lion King, Elton John and Tim Rice recently created a musical based on Verdi's opera Aida. This practice is not uncommon, as many of today's popular musicals are based on operatic works. The musical Rent, written by Jonathan Larson, is based on Puccini's La bohème and focuses on the relationships of struggling young people trying to make a life and a name for themselves in the big city. Larson updated Puccini's opera to feature a rock score and changed the setting from Paris to New York City, but the challenges facing the characters, as well as the strong emotions felt among them, are timeless.
Another popular opera story, Madama Butterfly, has played to packed houses as the musical Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. The opera explores the tragic love story between a young Japanese geisha and an American soldier at the turn of the 19th century. The musical sets the story in Saigon during the Vietnam War, but the passion between the young couple and the tragedy that overtakes their lives remain the same.
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