musicals, earlier known as musical comedies, plays that incorporate music, song, and dance. These elements move with the plot, heightening and commenting on the action.

Mixing the sprightly songs and sketchy plots of operetta with the topical numbers of the revue, musical comedy began in England at the end of the 19th cent. In the United States during World War I the colorful extravaganzas of George M. Cohan ushered in an era of patriotic and spectacular productions. Thereafter musical comedy flourished primarily in the United States. A few mid 20th-century works, such as Porgy and Bess (1935) and Carousel (1945), are essentially American operas. But much more often the musical comedy songs were light and popular, with emphasis placed on chorus dancing rather than on singing. Such stars as Lillian Russell and DeWolf Hopper were followed by Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, Jack Donahue, Ray Bolger, Fred and Adele Astaire, Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, and Alfred Drake. Many of these musical stars appeared in the works of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

With the 1943 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, the form was transformed. Instead of stringing songs together along a flimsy plot line, the play organically integrated music, song, and dance with a detailed and complex plot, a synthesis that greatly influenced subsequent musical comedy. The later introduction of social problems and plots based on established literary works, as in West Side Story (1957) by Leonard Bernstein (based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) and My Fair Lady (1956) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (based on G. B. Shaw's Pygmalion), caused such productions to be termed simply musicals. In the late 1960s the “rock musical” came into prominence with the production of Hair (1967); variations of this style included the religious Jesus Christ, Superstar (1971) and a version of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971). The popularity of musicals created a new form of summer stock theater, the “music tent.”

The musical film has enjoyed popularity since the release of Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer in 1927. The form developed from the Busby Berkeley spectacles of the 1930s to the scintillating gaiety and virtuosity of the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers comedies, the operetta films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and filmed biographies of musical celebrities and film figures. Noted singers and dancers who appeared in film musicals include Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Mario Lanza, Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Shirley Jones, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand. In the 1940s numerous romantic and patriotic musicals were produced. By the next decade musicals had come to depend heavily upon Broadway hits and previous film successes for subject matter. Outstanding among original motion-picture musicals are Top Hat (1935), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

In the second half of the 20th cent. many stage musicals, on and off Broadway, became more complicated and sometimes more spectacular. They often featured diverse and controversial themes or flashy and technically complex productions. Notable among these musicals are Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's A Chorus Line (1975); Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), and Passion (1994); and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita (1978), Cats (1981), The Phantom of the Opera (1986), and Sunset Boulevard (1993).

See studies by L. Engel (1967), D. Ewen (rev. ed. 1970), A. Wilder (1972), and S. Green (1971, repr. 1982); E. Mordden, The Hollywood Musical (1981) and his many volumes on the Broadway musical; M. Gottfried, Broadway Musicals (1979); B. Rosenberg and E. Harburg, The Broadway Musical (1992); R. Barrios, A Song in the Dark (1995); M. Steyn, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight (1999); L. Stempel, Showtime (2010); J. Viertel, The Secret Life of the American Musical (2016); W. A. Everett and P. R. Laird, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical (2002).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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