The History Of Musical Theatre
The lights go up.
The curtain opens.
And the music begins.
It’s a musical theatre performance, and it’s been one of the most captivating forms of entertainment around the world for nearly two centuries.
But where did it all begin — and how has it evolved? From the earliest musical theatre performances to smash Broadway hits like Hamilton, this blog will take you through a journey of song and dance that you won’t soon forget.
So grab some snacks, take your seat, and get ready — because the show is about to begin.
Looking to see Broadway shows in San Diego? Then you need to visit San Diego Musical Theatre — your local way to see Broadway!
Read on to learn more about our current San Diego Broadway lineup and get your tickets today.
What Is Musical Theatre?
First of all, it’s important that we define the genre known as musical theatre — even though that is a nearly impossible task in its own right.
Musical theatre takes many shapes, forms, and notes, but at its core it’s a dramatic performance which takes place in a theatre and combines elements of song, dance, dialogue, and acting.
Now simply referred to as “musicals,” these performances have been taking place for hundreds of years. But of course, not everyone was singing about societal issues and rapping about America’s founding fathers from the get-go. This unique form of art had to start somewhere.
The Early Days
It’s often said that the roots of modern musical theatre were planted way back in ancient Greece, when people would stage performances of comedies and tragedies using music and dance.
As the years went on, the performances evolved and became more elaborate — from improvisations by clowns during the European Renaissance, to the early days of theatre in New York City that were overseen by P.T. Barnum in the 1850’s.
Still, opera was the most popular form of theatre throughout Europe during that time — that is, until The Black Crook debuted in New York City in 1866.
The Black Crook had a runtime of more than five hours, but its original music and dance choreography helped the story progress and captivate audiences for 474 performances.
Eventually, the American musical theatre scene shifted from downtown New York City to midtown and eventually found a home near Times Square, on Broadway — and the rest, as they say, is history.
Rodgers And Hammerstein
The genius musical duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, known as simply Rodgers and Hammerstein, influenced the American musical scene in a big way during what’s now referred to as the “golden age” of musical theatre.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first majorly successful joint venture was Oklahoma!, which made its Broadway debut in March of 1943.
The show was successful to a degree which had never before been seen in musical theatre, running for more than five years and 2,000-plus performances.
After that, the duo had the star power to produce a number of other shows, but arguably one of their most famous productions was the World War II romance tale/cultural dialogue South Pacific.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals were legendary for their propensity to incorporate thought-provoking, culturally relevant themes — many of which are still topical to this day. The two went on to write and produce a number of other wildly successful musicals, won countless awards, and Rodgers even had a Broadway theatre named after him (which is now the home to the hit show Hamilton).
Additional works from the mind of Rodgers and Hammerstein include:
- Carousel (1945)
- State Fair (1945 film)
- Allegro (1947)
- The King And I (1951 musical, 1956 film)
- Me And Juliet (1957)
- Cinderella (1957 television performance)
- The Sound Of Music (1959 musical, 1965 film, 2013 live TV performance)
About South Pacific
South Pacific was, by all accounts, a game-changer for the musical theatre world. Not only does the musical portray the themes of love and duty during World War II, but it also brilliantly tackles the issue of racism.
South Pacific played on Broadway for nearly 2,000 performances and is still the only musical production to win Tony Awards — the musical theatre version of an Oscar — in all four acting categories.
In all, South Pacific won 10 Tonys and is still running in community theatres around the world.
Now, you too can experience Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit masterpiece as part of our 2018 San Diego Musical Theatre Broadway shows.
San Diego’s South Pacific production runs from April 27 through May 27, 2018.
Rock And Roll
By the 1950’s and 1960’s, and especially through the 70’s and 80’s, musicals really started to adapt and evolve.
One of the most popular non-Rodgers and Hammerstein joint was of course West Side Story, the 1957 classic which put a modern twist on the classic tale of Romeo and Juliet.
Anchored by the musical theatre eruption, Broadway became a hub for culture and entertainment — a fact which still holds true to this day.
The “Rock and Roll” era bore a new type of musical, which utilized up-tempo music and explored themes that were relevant to society (following the path which was largely paved by South Pacific), including racism, sexism, homosexuality, and more. Popular shows during this period of musical theatre included:
- Fiddler On The Roof (1964)
- Hair (1968)
- Grease (1972)
The New Age
When Andrew Lloyd Webber broke onto the scene with Evita in 1980, the world of musical theatre was again changed.
Suddenly, it was a brand new age. Andrew Lloyd Webber followed his first hit with another wildly successful show, Cats, which is based on the work of renowned writer T.S. Eliot.
Cats is still the fourth-longest running show to ever hit Broadway with a stunning 7,485 performances. Number one is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s follow-up success The Phantom Of The Opera, which has seen 12,574 performances and counting since its debut in 1988.
Modern musicals like these have changed the game and broken records galore since they first hit the stage. Additional “new age” musicals and their Broadway records include:
Chicago (original production in 1975, revival in 1996 — 8,899 shows and counting)
- The Lion King (1997 — 8,502 shows and counting)
- Les Miserables (1987 — 6,680 shows through 2003)
- Wicked (2003 — 6,037 shows and counting)
- Rent (1996 — 5,123 shows through 2008)
- The Book Of Mormon (2,954 shows and counting)
- Hairspray (2002 — 2,642 shows through 2009)
- Hamilton (2015 — 1,125 shows and counting)
The History Of San Diego Musical Theatre
San Diego Musical Theatre has been bringing the magic of musicals to the area scene since it opened in 2006.
Since then, we’ve overseen more than 352 performances and productions — including many of the hit Broadway shows we mentioned above.
Our non-profit, community theatre is your local way to see Broadway shows in San Diego! Take a look at our upcoming Broadway season, which includes South Pacific, Hairspray, and Young Frankenstein, and get your tickets to the show today!