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What Is Musical Theater? - History & Terms

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Musical theater is a very popular form of entertainment, but what exactly is it? In this lesson, we'll explore the history of musical theater and see how it came into its current definition.

Musical Theater

Ah, the theater. Even in the world of cinematic blockbusters and on-demand television, the theater has maintained a tight hold on American cultural imagination. Actually, theater is still popular around the world, but when we talk about this concept in the United States, we're almost always referring to musical theater. Musical theater is a form of dramatic production combining acting, singing, and dancing to tell a story. We tend to call these productions musicals, or sometimes Broadway musicals based on their preeminent venue. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll cheer, you'll sing; it's an artistic experience unlike any other.

Musical theater is still a very popular form of entertainment
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Defining the Musical

Before we get into the history of musical theater, we need to define this concept a little more clearly. In Western theatrical traditions, there are three main kinds of dramatic performance involving music. Ballets communicate their story almost entirely through dance, with little to no dialogue. Few people confuse musicals and ballets. Where this gets trickier is with operas. Operas are dramatic productions in which the dialogue is nearly entirely sung by the performers. In an opera, even simple lines like ''hello'' and ''hurry up'' are sung as parts of the symphonic score. In musicals, the actors will often sing, but most of the mundane dialogue and much of the plot is spoken and acted. That's one of the defining differences between musicals and operas.

History of the Musical

Now that we're clearly established that musicals and operas are different, let's look back at the origins of the musical: the opera. Yes, I know it's confusing. In the 18th century, operas were one of the most important forms of theater in Europe, but there were many kinds. We're familiar with the serious and complex operas of the educated and wealthy, but there were also comical operas of both high-brow and low-brow varieties. These operettas were very popular amongst many social classes, were much less serious, and told simpler stories often through popular songs. One of the most notable examples is The Beggar's Opera, a 1728 satire about thieves and prostitutes told through both popular bar songs and famous operatic melodies.

This popular, comedic opera grew in Europe, but to see it turn into musical theater we have to travel across the Atlantic to the United States. Americans, who did not strictly adhere to European concepts of class privilege, favored forms of entertainment that were more accessible to all. These took off in the 19th century in the form of minstrel shows. These basic theatrical productions generally included a small cast of satirical characters, defined by larger-than-life personalities and stereotypes. These productions generally occurred in three acts. The first included the entire company (cast) on stage where they told stories through songs. The second act, called the olio, was more like a variety show featuring dances, songs, and comedy routines. The third act was a short play that generally poked fun at various members of society in what we would now find often racist and prejudicial ways.

Poster for a minstrel show
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Throughout the 19th century, minstrel shows grew in size and popularity but were also refined into other art forms, such as vaudeville and burlesque theater. Each of these included a combination of acting, singing, and dancing. They were performed by traveling theater troupes, who organized into established tour routes and companies by the 1880s. The more popular these became, the more American theater was refined.

The Musical Is Born

In 1866, a theatrical performance appeared called The Black Crook which brought in a troupe of standard ballet dancers to add a new level of entertainment to the show. By combining the variety and entertainment of vaudeville with a full theatrical plot told partly through acting and partly through music, The Black Crook became tremendously popular, and set many foundations for the genre of musical theater.

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