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Why is the History of Musical Theater European-American?

14 min read
Savoy Theatre

But Why is the history of musical theater (or theatre) European-American? A quick browse of sites like Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica have a large amount of detail starting with the Greeks and the Romans (Greco-Roman theater). They go on to the Renaissance, operettas, and then the influence of colonial and federal America on the genre. However, besides some reference to the Peking opera, other regions are barely mentioned.

But what makes it European-American?

Musical theater is considered a genre

“Musical” describes “theater,” as “spoken dialogue” or “dance” might describe theater. “Musical” shows the difference between a performance that is fully spoken, fully danced, a mix of both, and so forth.These differences in theater are mainly part of European theater history.

On the other hand, the eastern regions of Asia, much of Africa, and a lot of South America have a longstanding history of dance, song, and music being used all together in a performance. Unlike Europe after the Greco-Roman period, this has never been lost.

Religion and rituals

For most of these regions, performing arts came from religion-based rituals. Even the music and the movements were related to these rituals. Over time, as religion uncoupled itself from society and art, performing arts were used for recounting history, or telling stories. Illiteracy in many places meant oral storytelling was normal. Eventually, these would develop into performances. (The Ballad of Mulan, brought to life on cinema and in stageplays, is one example, although not necessarily musical.)

The West Asia outlier

Western Asia (Turkey, the Arab peninsula) is an interesting outlier in this history. Civilizations prior to the Greco-Roman period already had long oral storytelling in verse form. At the height of the Greco-Roman period, the empire covered practically the whole Mediterranean Sea, from North Africa to West Asia to Eastern Europe. Practically every Roman city had an ampitheatre, and most probably stageplays with music and dance were performed.

While Europe’s musical theatre tradition fell apart with the fall of the Roman empire, elaborate song-and-dance storytelling had merged with the known forms of theater in West Asia. As a result, this region has a generally unbroken history of music, dance, and theater.

In that sense, musical theater is not a genre for most of these regions. Rather, theater and musicality have never been separate. 

What are the themes of the history of musical theater?

The main themes of musical theater in history are “entertainment” and “popular.” Entertainment means it was not just a school or social requirement. It was designed for people to enjoy. Popular, on the other hand, did not mean it was widely known. Rather, it appealed to a wide range of audiences, from high society to the general population.

There are, of course, always exceptions. We will take a look at that later. 

When was the word “musical” first used?

The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay and first performed in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1728, was the first performance to have the elements of a “musical.” It was also the first “ballad opera.” The whole performance used popular music (ballads, at the time). The Beggar’s Opera was a satire about the expensive, high society Italian operas so much in vogue at the time. 

How did Europe’s musical theatre go from Greco-Roman roots to The Beggar’s Opera? How did New York become the next center of musical theater?

Greek and Roman history

Greek tragedies and comedies

What we know as Greek mythology was of course, for the ancient Greeks, religion. The first Greek plays were tragedies. A tragedy was a moral play about the consequences of giving into personal fatal flaws. Supposedly, the tragedies came from religious rituals associated with Dionysius, the god of theater. 

As the performances became more popular, they also became more competitive. A city official would choose poets, and require them each to submit three tragedies and a “satyr” or parody drama. (If you are thinking that “satyr” sounds a lot like “satire,” you are not wrong.) 

The parody drama developed into its own form, the comedy. And here is where we get into the origins of musical theater. 

The Greek comedy had three parts. The first part, the parados, was fully a song-and-dance routine setting the story. The second part, the agon, was a verbal contest between principal actors. It moved the story forward, and could take place in multiple scenes. The last part, the exodos, was the closing with another song-and-dance routine. (If you think exodos sounds a lot like “exodus,” that one is a bit obvious.)

The Greek empire began in 800 BCE and ended in 146 BC, when Greece was conquered by the Roman empire. The culture began to fully change in 31 BC, when the Roman empire successfully took over northern Africa (Egypt). 

Roman additions

The Roman empire was quite different from Greece, especially with an advanced military and standardized administration. However, it took to Greek theater without interrupting the tradition. This was the first musical theater development that did not come from religious roots. Instead, Roman theater absorbed the structure of Greek comedy, and added elements from their own and other cultures as well. 

In 476, the Roman empire ended, breaking Europe up into multiple territories. As each region began to form itself, many cultural elements changed. Languages were rediscovered, cultural elements unearthed, and the widespread Roman traditions were halted, in their Roman form anyway. 

The Middle Ages

Musical theatre was somewhat halted during the Middle Ages (roughly 400 to 1499). The performing arts continued, and traveling acting troupes still made their rounds. Churches often put on plays to tell stories, coupled with religious music. But musical theatre, as something that belongs in a physical theater, had generally ended. This is why, despite spanning 1,000 years, this is the shortest historical section in the article. 

The Middle Ages began with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. In that vacuum, the Catholic Church emerged as the most powerful organization. As a moral authority spanning multiple kingdoms and territories, the Catholic Church and its religious orders had a lot to say about what was culturally and socially allowed. This led to a rise in religious texts, art, architecture, and music. The classical works (Greco-Roman writings) declined in circulation, and therefore in popularity. 

The Renaissance

The Renaissance period (1400 to 1600) literally means “rebirth.” It began in Italy, so it is no surprise that the forerunner of musical theatre, opera, began there as well.

However, let us backtrack a little. If the Greco-Roman works were no longer being circulated, how did they make it back into popularity?

The role of the Crusades and Western Asia

Let us return to the outlier of the continents, Western Asia. As we mentioned in an earlier section, the Islamic nations of Western Asia had also been under the Roman Empire at one point. When the Empire collapsed, they continued to preserve and circulate the Greco-Roman works, as well as their own. 

The Crusades began in 1095, and continued until 1291. The crusaders, who came from all over Europe, marched to Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire (also Christian). From there, along with soldiers from Constantinople, they marched to take Jerusalem from the Muslim Seljuq Turks. By that time, they had marched through—and sacked—multiple towns and cities. Besides wealth, the crusaders brought home books. Among these were Greco-Roman writings.

In 1453, when the Renaissance had just hit its stride, the Ottoman Turks attacked, and defeated, Christian Constantinople. Those who sought refuge in Europe brought their books with them. Among these, again, were the Greco-Roman writings.

The role of the Black Death 

Through trade ships to Italy, the Black Death made its way into Europe in the 1300s. The Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague, was supposedly spread by rats, fleas, and other infected animals. It was extremely contagious, and a minimum of up to 50 million European residents died in that period alone. In some places, it killed up to 70% of the population.

A modern risk analyst proposes that the Black Death, by greatly lessening the work force, gave the peasant and farmer class more leeway to negotiate for salaries and benefits. At the same time, since Europe was plunged into a terrible recession, the power of the Church was also lessened.

Tithes, offerings, and profitable partnerships between churches and landlords fell away. The building of wonderful structures such as cathedrals and monasteries was halted. There was no money or workers to support the construction.

As the most powerful organization, the Catholic Church was turned to both for economic assistance and leadership. Equally challenged by the plague, the Church was not able to provide either of those to the people. Plague-ravaged Europe lost faith in its religious leaders, leaving a spiritual and emotional vacuum that remained even as they recovered from the disease. 

Climbing the society ladder in Florence, Italy

We discovered what caused the cultural vacuum after the Middle Ages. Now let us look at the financiers of the Renaissance.

In much of Europe, the socio-political structure was feudal. In other words, the struggle was between those who owned land, and those who farmed it. But in the Italian city-states, it was the merchants who held the power. Since you could move upward in society by creating wealth, many families did just that.

One of those families was the Medici family. Wealthy merchants, they settled in Florence and became a political powerhouse. Eventually, they became rulers of Florence, reversing it from a republic into a monarchy. As rulers, and owners of the Medici Bank, they cemented their place in society by becoming patrons of artists. And the art world was in full Renaissance mode.

This included rediscovering the many Greek and Roman plays that had been written. The Florentine Camerata, in particular, adapted Greek stageplays into music. Dafne, composed in in 1597 by Jacopo Peri, is considered by many to be the first opera. William Shakespeare’s use of Greek gods and spirits in his plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is also a clear example of this return. 

From the opera buffa (comic opera) to the operetta

Opera grew into multiple branches. One of these branches was the opera buffa, or the comic opera. This is no surprise, especially since the operas were being derived from Greek and Roman stageplays. As we showed at the beginning, the Greeks wrote both tragedies and comedies. 

Comic opera was the forerunner of the operetta. The first operetta, or little opera, was written around 300 years after the debut of the first opera. French composer Jacques Offenbach created Orpheus in the Underworld (obviously based on another Greek myth). It was short and satiric, popular and entertaining, and paved the way for similar creations by British composers W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan for the English operetta, and those who came after them.

Gilbert and Sullivan

Gilbern and Sullivan are, of course, not the only lyricists and composers to make an impact on the operetta world. But let us take a closer look at them, because historically they had the most impact on the next big market: America.

Both William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were clear products of the Renaissance. William Gilbert, the lyricist, paid an extreme amount of attention to stage delivery and presentation. Gilbert dictated the way that actors said their lines and how they expressed them with their actions. At the time, neither directors nor writers would take so much interest in the way the actors delivered their times. 

Arthur Sullivan first came to fame by composing an orchestral score for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Eventually, he and Gilbert would collaborate on an opera called Thespis. Thespis is about the gods of Olympus taking a break and changing places with a troupe of performing artists while they’re at it. 

Following the comic tone of the operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan used satire and comedy to cover up poined social commentary, in the same way as The Beggar’s Opera. Financially, they partnered up with Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Comedy Opera Company to continue producing operettas. Because of their performances at London’s Savoy Theatre, they became known as the Savoy triumvirate.

From London to New York

In a way, Gilbert and Sullivan discovered their growing market in New York through piracy. Their operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore, was run over 100 times in American theaters before the D’Oyly Carte Company ever crossed the Atlantic. They were even met at the port by cast members in H.M.S. Pinafore costumes. 

Obviously, Gilbert and Sullivan were a hit. They came into America in 1878, 13 years after the Civil War (ended in 1865). Post-Civil War America was characterized by a new sense of national identity, and also by a rising middle class.

This means, economically, more households could afford to go to higher-end theater. Socially, more households were looking for entertainment that appealed to their education and tastes, without being as expensive as high society opera and theater. 

Gilbert and Sullivan perfectly fit the bill. They were unashamedly and explicitly tailored for the middle class. The music they produced was easily picked up and sung by local theater companies and audience members alike. 

But what makes Gilbert and Sullivan a turning point for musical theater history in America? 

An integrated story

Before Gilbert and Sullivan, American theater productions were more performances than anything. There was more of a theme than a story, and the purpose was entertainment. More often than not, the performances were carried by star singers and actors. These celebrities had a lot to do with the performance in general. If they felt like ad libbing or adding their own elements to the performance, they could.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s productions had none of that. They began by writing a strong story. Only after that would they develop the lyrics, and then compose the music. The acting troupes were trained professionals, and no one person carried the production. Strong story, witty lyrics, and full-orchestra music was very different from American music-based theater performances at that time. 

Why didn’t it last?

If we look at the history of musical theater in America, the story usually begins with Gilbert and Sullivan in the later 1800s, then jumps straight to Broadway and the Golden Age of musical theater during the Second World War. 

The reason is that the Gilbert and Sullivan style of musical theater lasted in Ameria only so long as Gilbert and Sullivan were running the shows themselves. While they were certainly popular, they could not completely or persistently overturn the preference for popular music and star performances. 

As a result, when the D’oyly Carte Company withdrew in 1890 for a number of reasons (lack of profit, the producers’ worsening health), subsequent musical theater compositions did not match their quality. Without knowing how Gilbert and Sullivan used an administrative powerhouse to build their performances, local companies relied on popular music and stars to promote American-created operettas. 

An equation can help simplify it:

Story + Lyrics + Music = Gilbert and Sullivan

Music + Lyrics + Story (maybe) = after Gilbert and Sullivan

By 1900, Gilbert and Sullivan were no longer in fashion. 

The Golden Age of Broadway

If Gilbert and Sullivan fell out of fashion in 1900, why are they considered a turning point? Mainly because that equation, Story + Lyrics + Music, came back to Broadway in the 1940s with another famous duo, Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

Actually, they had a lot more in common than that. Let’s break it down. 

A dynamic duo. Like Gilbert and Sullivan, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were a lyricist-composer pair. This does not just mean that they worked together. While they had previously collaborated as students in Columbia University, they worked apart for many years on Broadway before collaborating on Oklahoma!  They had a good relationship and complemented each other’s styles—necessary for well-integrated productions.

A dedicated production team. Gilbert and Sullivan could put on the spectacular shows they did because of an excellent theater team, and great administration. Rodgers and Hammerstein paid the same amount of attention to the running of their shows. Every element of stage and music contributed to the telling of the story. 

A leaning towards social commentary. Because Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote story-based musicals, they could use the story to present critiques on social issues. The King and I, for example, talked about both racism and sexism hidden in the story of a schoolteacher who teaches the children of the king of Siam (modern-day Thailand).  

What created the Golden Age of Musical Theater?

Interestingly, musical theater made a comeback at the height of Broadway’s decline. Radio was on air, movies were rolling, and the stage was back to pre-Gilbert-and-Sulllivan entertainment value. The Great Depression also cut into the general population’s capacity to spend on things like stage performances. 

However, several things happened. One was the Second World War in Europe, which restricted the cultural flow to America. The musical and cultural influences that would emerge at this time were by, now, distinctly American. The second was America joining the Second World War. 

There are many studies that look at what made Oklahoma! so different from its predecessors. What made a previously unpopular style of musical suddenly popular?

A strong storyline. After Gilbert and Sullivan, before the Golden Age, the story was not an important part of stage performances. However, with a Depression just ended and a War just joined, a powerful alternate storyline came in to grip the audience’s imagination.

An idyllic setting. The musical is set in Oklahoma in 1906, with rivalry between cowboys and farmers, and a secret love story between a cowboy and a farmer girl. The story, which is about unity, standing together against outsiders, and living an “ideal” llife of peace, fit perfectly as a counter-narrative to the audience’s reality. 

An American flavor. Gilbert and Sullivan succesfully entered the American musical scene after the Civil War because there was relaxation in Anglophobia. Otherwise, they may have never crossed the Atlantic, because the themes and settings of their stories were British or European. Oklahoma!  on the other hand was a clearly American setting, with American character groups, music, and ideals. It was a rallying point for a nation at war.

Once Oklahoma! had set the stage and gained popular interest, the market was created. Other musical productions that marketed themselves as “musical plays.” But if they did not deliver the same level of storyline and production, they were quickly differentiated from plays that were serious about their storyline and integrated the elements to support the story. 

The way forward

After the Golden Age, musical theater did not leave its place on the stage. The Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein equation of a good story + compelling lyrics + popular music has continued to define the best of the genre. Including, of course, some of the latest productions, like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen.

As long as this equation continues to assure audiences that they will spend both their time and money well, musical theater is likely to continue in popularity. However, as this article is written in 2020, we have yet to see the full impact of the new normal on the future of this genre. 

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