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Editor: Jacqueline Edmondson
Date: 2013
Document Type: Table; Topic overview
Pages: 11
Content Level: (Level 4)

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For much of the twentieth century the Broadway musical hit song was so fully integrated into the mainstream of American popular music that many people upon first hearing a hit show tune might have had no idea that the song originated in a Broadway musical. Whether they first heard a local marching band play the patriotic rouser “[You’re a] Grand Old Flag” from George M. Cohan’s musical George Washington, Jr. (Broadway opening, 1906), caught a stunning 1960s television appearance by Paul Robeson singing his signature “Old Man River” from the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II classic Show Boat (1927), or broke it down in a 1999 hip-hop club to Jay-Z’s “Ghetto Anthem” remix of “Hard Knock Life” from the musical Annie (1977), Americans’ love of Broadway music has been grounded chiefly in the hit show tune that broke away from the original show’s song list to shine on its own in the galaxy of American popular music. Yet the popular show tune is still the child of a Broadway musical, and as such, the Broadway hit single is a pop song of a unique cultural order and stripe.

What is “a Broadway Musical”?

As a subgenre of American music and theater, the “American Broadway musical” of today is a relatively self-limited, unambiguous term. A Broadway show, by definition and contract, opens in one of forty official Broadway theaters, so designated by the Broadway League (the New York–based professional association of American commercial theater producers and presenters, self-described as “the national trade association for the Broadway industry”). Thirty-nine of these theaters are located in the Times Square theater district of midtown Manhattan; one, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, is housed in Lincoln Center in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. No matter how good, popular, or “Broadwaylike” an original American musical might be, if it never opens in one of these forty theaters, it is not a Broadway musical. Historians generally identify the “Americanness” of any Broadway show and its music through the nationality of its principal creative team. Typically, but not always, a musical assumes the national identity of its composer and lyricist, although few would contest the status of Disney Theatrical Productions’ The Lion King (1997) as a major American musical despite the fact that composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice are English.

Sidebar: HideShow

Original Broadway Cast Albums

Decca Records’ original cast album of Oklahoma! in 1943 was so successful that it led to the creation of “the original Broadway cast album” as a viable commercial record genre for much of the mid- to late twentieth century. Although there had been a handful of Broadway cast recordings released sporadically prior to 1943, this album initiated the now standard industry practice of releasing a cast album for virtually any Broadway show that can sustain a reasonable run (Hischak 2007). Noting Decca’s success with Oklahoma! (the album sold an astonishing one million copies in its first year), record company rivals Columbia, RCA Victor, and Capitol quickly joined the chase and secured their own recording rights to new Broadway shows (Malet 2010). The phenomenon of the Broadway cast album brought new, increased attention to whole scores of particularly well crafted or musically innovative shows and provided an additional platform for launching individual songs as hits. Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956); McDermott, Ragno, and Rado’s Hair (1968), Sondheim’s Company (1970), Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), and more recently Larson’s Rent (1996) and Andersson and Ulvaeus’s Mamma Mia! (2001) are among numerous musicals that have drawn special critical and/or audience attention to their entire scores (as did other shows by Rodgers and Hammerstein, including South Pacific [1949] and The Sound of Music [1959]).

The cast album, invariably recorded in a studio and not during an actual onstage performance or rehearsal, rarely replicates precisely what the audience hears during a performance. Songs are often cut, trimmed, or rearranged to meet the restrictions of the recording process (Maslon 2004). However, audiences and record buyers have either not known or not cared about these variances and since the days of Oklahoma! have embraced the Broadway cast album as a bona fide representation of their favorite shows. Today “the cast album” category is often expanded or renamed (generally as “sound track”) to include not only Broadway cast albums but also film and television sound tracks and other cast albums. The cast album is no longer as popular as in the mid-twentieth century, however.


Hischak, Thomas S. 2007. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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Sidebar: HideShow


Smaller theaters in New York that hold 100 to 499 seats are considered “off-Broadway.” Plays, musicals, and revues may be produced and performed in these smaller spaces, then if they are successful, move to a larger Broadway theater. Some off-Broadway shows that later had runs on Broadway include the rock musical Hair, A Chorus Line, Godspell, Spring Awakening, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Off-off-Broadway shows, also called indie theater or independent theater, are performed in spaces with fewer than 100 seats.

Jacqueline Edmondson

In general, Americans think of the Broadway musical as a twentieth-century cultural phenomenon, more or less contemporaneous with the rise of such distinctly American art forms as jazz and commercial film. To be sure, today’s musical had a whirlwind adolescence during the era of Tin Pan Alley (roughly 1890s–1930s); matured in the midcentury golden age of the Rodgers and Hammerstein–inspired “book” or “integrated” musicals; smashed traditions in the 1970s and 1980s with the avant-garde sensibilities of Stephen Sondheim and groundbreaking “rock musicals”; and ushered in an era of spectacle-driven megamusicals at the end of the century, led by London’s Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats; Phantom of the Opera, 1988) and American media giant Walt Disney Company (Beauty and the Beast, 1994; The Lion King).

However, musical theater historians generally agree that the first original American Broadway musical was the 1866 garish spectacle The Black Crook, by the now long-forgotten composer George Bickwell, lyricist Theodore Kinnick, and author Charles M. Barras. More favorably embraced by history is The Black Crook’s producer/ director William Wheatley. As theater manager for the prestigious Manhattan opera house Niblo’s Garden, Wheatley hoped to open his fall 1866 season with something genuinely remarkable. Claiming to have spent an unprecedented $250,000 to produce the show, Wheatley endowed his extravaganza with lavish sets and backdrops exceeding even the most costly Europeanstyle operetta productions of the time, several incongruous appearances by a suggestively attired troupe of young French ballerinas, and a melodramatic love story of European intrigue (The Black Crook refers to the occult practices of the show’s Germanic villain)—all with songs interspersed within scenes creating the rhythm of a vaudeville or minstrel show rather than a formally scored operetta.

With a running time of five hours, the show was longer, brasher, and more scandalous (owing to the ballerina leg show numbers, familiar at the time in lowbrow burlesque halls but not “legitimate” opera houses) than anything previously seen on New York stages. For all these reasons, it was unparalleled as a commercial success. It ran for sixteen months, three to four times longer than many hit musicals of the day. Wheatley claimed quite credibly that the show grossed over $1 million, making it the first New York show ever to have done so. The Black Crook now stands firmly in Broadway history as the first genuine long-running Broadway hit. Although none of the show’s songs survived as American song classics, The Black Crook gave the American musical a historical reference point: a landmark for something new, wildly popular, and truly indigenous to American theater and music.

By the turn of the century New York commercial theater was made up of several diverse genres. Dominated in prestige and commercial investment by European and European-inspired American operettas and operas, early Broadway was also home to various minstrel shows, music hall revues, burlesques, and vaudevilles—all more or less original American theatrical forms by comparison to opera or operetta. Although not yet a major source of American popular songs, Broadway at the turn of the century did provide some grist for the rapidly growing sheet music publishing industry housed in lower Manhattan’s Tin Pan Alley— principally, although not exclusively, through vaudeville shows and music hall revues. By 1900 Englishmen W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s operettas HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance had been hits in America for twenty years. Notable songs from these shows, such as “We Sail the Ocean Blue” (Pinafore) and “Poor Wandering One” (Pirates), were already well known to a generation of Americans. Moreover, American opera ensembles had seized upon published and bootlegged scores of Gilbert and Sullivan shows to mount their own productions of these surefire audience pleasers. In 1903 Victor Herbert, a classical musician, composed the artful musical Babes in Toyland, whose signature song “Toyland” remains a popular holiday classic to this day. In 1904 the aforementioned George M. Cohan, a hardscrabble road vaudevillian from Providence, Rhode Island, composed, wrote, and starred on Broadway in the musical Little Johnny Jones. The original production ran only six weeks, but it produced for all eternity the definitive Broadway anthem, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and Cohan’s career signature song, “Yankee Doodle Boy.” Impresario Flo Ziegfeld launched numerous American classic songs from his vaudeville/ burlesque-influenced Follies, which ran almost annually on Broadway from 1907 to 1931. Ziegfeld’s Follies quickly became a greenhouse for American pop songs. The second edition of the Follies in 1908 produced the still-popular “Shine on, Harvest Moon.” Later editions of the Follies introduced or launched into popularity “If You Were the Only Girl in the World,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Second Hand Rose.”

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The Golden Age of Musicals
From Joseph P. Swain, “Musicals,” in Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture, ed. Thomas A. Greenfield (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-ABC-Clio, 2010), 377–391.
Title Date Composer Lyricist
Oklahoma! 1943 Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein II
One Touch of Venus 1943 Kurt Weill Ogden Nash
Carousel 1945 Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein II
Annie Get Your Gun 1946 Irving Berlin Irving Berlin
Street Scene 1947 Kurt Weill Langston Hughes
Finian’s Rainbow 1947 Burton Lane E. Y. Harburg
Brigadoon 1947 Frederick Loewe Alan Jay Lerner
Kiss Me, Kate 1948 Cole Porter Cole Porter
Where’s Charley 1948 Frank Loesser Frank Loesser
South Pacific 1949 Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein II
Guys and Dolls 1950 Frank Loesser Frank Loesser
The King and I 1951 Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein II
Paint Your Wagon 1951 Frederick Loewe Alan Jay Lerner
Wonderful Town 1953 Leonard Bernstein Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Kismet 1953 Alexandr Borodin George Forrest, Robert Wright
The Pajama Game 1954 Richard Adler Jerry Ross
Peter Pan 1954 Mark Charlap, Jule Styne Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Damn Yankees 1955 Richard Adler Jerry Ross
Fanny 1954 Harold Rome Harold Rome
The Most Happy Fella 1956 Frank Loesser Frank Loesser
My Fair Lady 1956 Frederick Loewe Alan Jay Lerner
Candide 1956 Leonard Bernstein various
West Side Story 1957 Leonard Bernstein Stephen Sondheim
The Music Man 1957 Meredith Willson Meredith Willson
The Flower Drum Song 1958 Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein II
The Sound of Music 1959 Richard Rodgers Oscar Hammerstein II
Fiorello! 1959 Jerry Bock Sheldon Harnick
Gypsy 1959 Jule Styne Stephen Sondheim
Camelot 1960 Frederick Loewe Alan Jay Lerner
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying 1961 Frank Loesser Frank Loesser
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum 1962 Stephen Sondheim Stephen Sondheim
Hello Dolly! 1963 Jerry Herman Jerry Herman
Fiddler on the Roof 1964 Jerry Bock Sheldon Harnick
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Good Neighbors: Broadway Musicals, Tin Pan Alley, and the Birth of Modern Broadway

Tin Pan Alley, the ever-hustling songwriting and publishing business on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was located within walking distance of many of New York’s most active theaters. Tin Pan Alley had been flourishing since the late nineteenth century, generating hit songs of the day through publication of sheet music to satisfy Americans’ intense demand to have pianos in their homes and a steady stream of new popular songs to play on them (Furia 1992). Musicians known as song pluggers were employed by Tin Pan Alley producers to travel to stores, restaurants, beaches, parks, and street corners, performing the newest songs in hopes of attracting the attention of New York listeners and, eventually, the American public at large. The neighborhood theaters of Broadway provided a logical and eventually lucrative venue for finding new audiences for new songs. But despite the geographical proximity between Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, a full crossfertilization between the two was slow in coming. With the exception of New York vaudeville houses and lowerclass variety theaters, during the first decade of the new century Tin Pan Alley neither placed many of its own original songs in the musicals and operettas of Broadway nor culled many songs from New York’s legitimate theaters to market as sheet music hits. Unlike the songs from operettas or musicals written in the operetta tradition, Tin Pan Alley songs of the early 1900s were based on straightforward formulas. Melodies were almost invariably built on a strict thirty-two-bar chorus—the hook or “money part” of the song that would draw family and friends around the living room piano for an evening of celebration and sing-a-long home entertainment (Furia 1992). Lyrical themes of Tin Pin Alley tunes were no less restrictive than their chorus structures and thus of little use to operetta, with its multiple characters, varying moods, and intersecting plotlines.

Nonetheless, the physical proximity of the two songbased industries, the number of New York musicians carving out their livings with jobs in both Tin Pan Alley and New York theater, and the enormous success of the sheet music industry itself would have eventually led to what later became the robust commercial relationship between Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. But it took World War I to bring about a genuine rapprochement between these two neighbors. By the end of World War I America had become somewhat disenchanted with its earlier worship of European culture in general and operetta in particular— often mocking the genre and its signature waltz numbers as “Viennese schmaltz” (Furia 2010). More important, the American musical stage began developing themes and plots that reflected the lyrical content of popular Tin Pan Alley tunes, while Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths began to enlarge upon the lyric and melody formulas of the pre–World War I Tin Pan Alley era.

It was in this period between the mid-1910s and the 1930s that, for the first time, some of the most successful composers and lyricists working in Tin Pan Alley also became famous for the songs that were finding their way into Broadway revues and musicals. Notwithstanding the remarkable accomplishments of such predecessors as the aforementioned Cohan and Herbert, the luminaries of this new generation have since become consecrated as the inventors of modern Broadway, who married the American popular song to the Broadway show tune: George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (“The Lady Is a Tramp”), Irving Berlin (“Puttin’ on the Ritz”), Cole Porter (“I Get a Kick Out of You”), and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”) (Starr and Waterman 2008).

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These artists not only developed the Broadway musical into a wellspring of popular songs, they also expanded the artistic complexity of the musical form, increasingly drawing on American musical and lyrical idioms as well as themes and plots—effectively “Americanizing the American musical” (Furia 1992, 37). Landmark productions in this surging adolescent period of the American musical included The Princess Theatre Musicals from 1915 to 1920. Largely the experimental product of composer Jerome Kern and a handful of lyricists, this series of small shows represented an early self-conscious attempt to make of the American musical an integrated piece of work—with music, lyrics, and dialogue composed as a unified whole. The result was an increasingly thoughtful approach to developing characters and themes in musicals that would influence the composition of Broadway musicals for the next quarter of a century. Many of these Tin Pan Alley veterans would go on to create the first generation of modern Broadway musical masterpieces. In 1927 Kern teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II to create Show Boat, for many historians the show that launched the era of the modern American musical. Its masterful score and seriousminded treatment of race relations and class prejudice in America have made it one of Broadway’s most revered works, musical or otherwise. The Gershwins contributed two landmark works during this period. Of Thee I Sing (1931), a modern love story as well as a biting satire on American politics, helped the politically shy American musical step boldly into the realm of contemporary satire. It was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (1935), apart from producing one of the most enduring American show tunes in history (“Summertime”), enjoys wide critical acclaim as one of the best American operas ever written. Cole Porter imbued both his lyrics and music with enough sophistication and wit to match the legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan without being in any way derivative of the English giants. Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) not only hatched a nest of hit songs (“I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and the title song “Anything Goes”) but also gave flight to the career of Ethel Merman, the first post–World War I era major Broadway musical star (and later critically ordained as the quintessential Broadway “diva”). Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s hit musical Pal Joey (1940) took the daring step of making the male lead a dishonest, cruel, despicable human being who nonetheless held the sympathies of the audience. The show’s lasting popularity was aided considerably by its show-stopping torch song classic, “Betwitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

These and many other inventive, sophisticated new musicals came into being under circumstances that seemed decidedly ill-suited to a renaissance of creative innovation in commercial musical theater. The decade of the Great Depression dealt a hard blow to Broadway theater and a fatal one to Tin Pan Alley. Many theaters and theater production companies closed down for good. Broadway not only fought for its survival against the general poverty gripping the nation, but also contended against loss of creative talent to the newly emerging radio industry across town and the burgeoning film industry across the country. Broadway theatergoers, accustomed to having two hundred or more new plays and musicals opening every season in the late 1920s, saw those numbers fall precipitously year by year in the decade that followed. Vaudeville shows and burlesques were becoming passé, and neither survived the Depression. Sheet music producers of Tin Pan Alley discovered initially that radio and the commercial recording industry both enhanced and rivaled their own business interests. But by the end of the Depression, sheet music had begun to surrender to radio, recordings, and phonographs its position of prominence as the means by which Americans heard, learned, and purchased their new favorite tunes.

The artistic boldness and range of the musical grew steadily throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, with the national trauma accompanying World War II scarcely impeding the musical’s artistic progress any more than did the Depression. In fact, America’s all-encompassing military, economic, and psychological involvement in World War II raised the roiling question of the country’s changing national identity and its emerging place on the world stage—an oddly fortuitous circumstance for the development of the Broadway musical. Not unlike the country itself, the American musical would discover in the World War II era an entirely new self-identity: a new aesthetic, a new sophistication, and new status throughout the nation and beyond—having found them in Oklahoma, of all places.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Era: Book Musicals, Cast Albums, and a Golden Age for Broadway

The first collaboration by Broadway veterans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma! (1943), arguably had more impact on the way musicals were subsequently written, composed, choreographed, staged, written about, marketed, and viewed by the public than any other musical in history (Greenfield and Brainard 2010). Commercially, Oklahoma! ran for a then-unprecedented two thousand plus performances and five years, redefining what a hit show could be. To the earlier Princess Musicals tradition of integrating song, story, and dialogue, Oklahoma! added new depth of character, including modern psychology and expressionisticinspired dream staging. The show used the “book” of the musical as the anchor for all other aspects of the production, giving new prominence to the term “the book musical” and establishing literary coherence as the dominating aesthetic for writing and staging Broadway musicals for the next twenty years. With modern dance visionary Agnes de Mille as choreographer, Oklahoma! generated new ideas for integrating dance into Broadway musicals that influenced choreographers for decades to come. Instead of opening with the conventional grand attention-grabbing ensemble number, Oklahoma! opened quietly with the male lead (Alfred Drake as Curly) casually walking across the stage singing the solo, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” one of half a dozen hit songs from the show. Oklahoma!’s original cast album was the first big-selling American recording of its kind and virtually launched the original Broadway cast album as a standard record industry genre (see sidebar).

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Performance of Rodgers and Hammersteins musical Oklahoma! on Broadway 19431948, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The musical epitomizes the development of the book musical and Rodgers and Hammerstein were awarded a

Performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma! on Broadway 1943–1948, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The musical epitomizes the development of the “book musical” and Rodgers and Hammerstein were awarded a special Pulitzer

The artistic achievements Rodgers and Hammerstein established with Oklahoma! set new standards for the Broadway musical in the postwar era. Broadway now entered a twenty-year-period that has become known variously as the golden age of the American musical, the era of “the book musical,” and the era of the “Rodgers and Hammerstein–type” musical. This period, starting with Oklahoma! in 1943 and running through Fiddler on the Roof in 1966, brought forth an extraordinary pool of talent and an explosion of productivity in Broadway musical composition, lyric writing, dance, and theatrical direction, combined with “a heightened consciousness of the aesthetics of music, drama and, above all, a rich and popular musical language suited perfectly to such aims” (Swain 2010, 379). Along with Rodgers and Hammerstein, the golden age ushered in the composers and lyricists whose work has come to define the twentieth- century American Broadway musical: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe (Brigadoon, 1947; My Fair Lady, 1956); Leonard Bernstein (On the Town, 1944; West Side Story, 1957); Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, 1950; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1961); Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly! 1964); Meredith Willson (The Music Man, 1957); and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, 1964). Of course, subsequent works by Rodgers and Hammerstein, such as Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959), kept resetting the artistic standards for the competition and sustained the duo’s prominence among their peers until Hammerstein’s death in 1960 (see sidebar).

The richness of these golden age musicals and the songs they produced served both as the source of their commercial strength and ultimately the cause of their later decline in popularity. The book musical era coincided with the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s, as a newly affluent, predominantly white, middle-class youth population evolved into a powerful music-buying consumer demographic. The great hit songs of the golden age musicals, though popular with their parents and grandparents, found little favor among America’s quick-spending, jitterbug-dancing postwar teenagers. Broadway shows were, in the parlance of the day, “totally square.” What chance did “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific, “Somewhere” from West Side Story, “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady, or “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof have against Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” (1956), Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” (1958), The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964) or The Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love” (1965)? Rock ’n’ roll in all its variant forms eventually drove show tunes and adultoriented popular music off mainstream AM radio and relegated cast albums to the backrow bins of record stores. By the mid- to late 1960s, the aging audience for Rodgers and Hammerstein–type musicals was loyal but diminishing as a consumer force in the music industry. Rock music and Broadway musicals were still, as they had been since the beginning of the rock ’n’ roll era, far apart. But that would change abruptly.

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So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen to Book Musicals: Rock and Roll is Here to Stay...on Broadway

Just as the bridge between Tin Pan Alley and mainstream Broadway musicals had been built by composers and lyricists working in both industries, the advent of rock music as a powerful force on Broadway was born of young New York artists piecing together a living in mainstream Broadway shows, rock and jazz clubs, Off- Broadway, and other gigs as they could get them. In the late 1960s composer Galt McDermott was a Canadian jazz and funk musician living in New York when he was approached by authors and lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado to write songs for what would become Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical. Rado was a New York musician, actor, and aspiring writer of musicals, performing and recording with his own pop band and taking acting jobs in both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. Ragni was an actor with a background in New York’s radical experimental theater movements, whose open disdain for Broadway’s tame commercialism was something of a brand trademark. Ragni and Rado brought the idea for Hair to Shakespeare in the Park producer Joseph Papp in 1967. Papp produced Hair that year in a limited six-week run to help launch his new nonprofit Public Theater. The Off-Broadway Hair drew favorable reviews and terrific word of mouth response. Rado and company picked up enough financial backing to enlarge the production and mount a Broadway opening in 1968.

Hair on Broadway was a sensation. It shocked audiences, especially older audiences, even as it somehow intrigued and charmed them. The show heralded new rules for Broadway musicals, including the advent of rock ’n’ roll–based hit show tunes; nudity; deemphasizing the conventional book musical leading man–leading woman love story in favor of loosely connected, ensemblebased multiple plotlines; unabashed sexuality; interracial sex; drug use; antiestablishment politics; and a laying out of Broadway’s welcome mat for America’s youth and counterculture. Original cast and cover versions of songs from Hair soon charted high on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles listings. For the first time ever, songs from a Broadway show were being played in rotation on rock ’n’ roll radio stations across the country, including “Easy to be Hard,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” and the title song, “Hair.”

With Hair demolishing the barrier between rock music and Broadway (to the considerable dismay of Rodgers and Hammerstein–era traditionalists), Broadway producers were emboldened to infuse rock music and other youth culture influences into new shows to lure young audiences to the theaters and get their shows’ hit songs played on the radio. Among the more noteworthy endeavors in this vein have been Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Grease (1972), The Wiz (1975), and Godspell (1976), and later, The Who’s Tommy (1993), Rent (1996; the longest-running musical in this genre) and popular “jukebox musicals”—based on a score of preestablished popular songs rather than new songs written for an original show—like Mamma Mia! (2001), Movin’ Out (2002), Jersey Boys (2005), and Rock of Ages (2009).

The market for the Rodgers and Hammerstein–type book musical was bound to fade into the background at some point owing to its aging fan base, but Hair is largely credited with (or vilified for) having boisterously accelerated the book musical’s fall from prominence. The more venerated golden age book musicals and even earlier hit shows would continue to make their presence felt on Broadway through periodic revivals aimed at diehard traditionalists and even younger audiences eager to see current popular stars in “old” shows (such as Dukes of Hazard TV star Tom Wopat in a 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls, country singer Reba McEntire in a 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, or Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in a 2011 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). Nonetheless, other new talents, influences, and trends were developing on Broadway at the close of the golden age and were no less important than Hair in pointing the American musical toward new horizons.

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The new, younger Broadway audiences were not only interested in rock culture but generally more open to new musical styles and dramatic ideas than were their older counterparts. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II and a lyricist for several golden age musicals early in his career (Gypsy, West Side Story), rose to prominence as a composer and lyricist in the 1970s and 1980s by experimenting with avant-garde dissonant musical scores and nontraditional story formats. His 1970 musical Company recounts in quasi-anecdotal form a single man’s anxieties about whether to marry or stay single. The show proved to be a breakthrough in what has come to be known as the “concept musical”: a show whose plot consists of an episodic exploration of a theme rather than a linear story line. Company found a loyal following among young adults educated during the 1960s feminist and gay rights movements and fully prepared to accept ambivalence about matrimony and heterosexuality as a perfectly sensible resolution to a romantic musical comedy. A favorite of professional vocalists for the challenging melodic and lyrical structures of his songs, Sondheim has written very few radio-friendly, “easy listening” or pop commercial hit singles (“Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music [1973] being a rare exception). Even his most commercially popular musicals after 1973, including Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987), produced no blockbuster hit singles.

Arguably the most extraordinary concept musical to emerge in this period was A Chorus Line (1975), choreographer- director Michael Bennett’s stark re-creation of a Broadway dance audition in all its nerve-wracking brutality. The cast of dancers emerge onto a barren wasteland of an audition hall, their identities hidden behind their audition “head shots.” The director’s disembodied voice calls upon them to dance and tell their stories, rendering his judgments upon them as the show progresses. Their tales unfold in a broad swath of pained and wistful stories drawn or adapted from interviews Bennett had taped with real Broadway dancers. The show broke all previous longevity Broadway records, playing 6,137 performances in fifteen years. While currently the fourthlongest-running show in Broadway history, it remains the longest-running American musical. Significantly, the show gave new visibility and prestige to Broadway dancers, enhancing the status of top choreographer-directors for decades to come. The long-running, choreographyrich 1996 revival of Chicago and choreographer/director Susan Stromann’s storytelling-through-dance Contact (2000) are among the numerous dance-driven shows that owe their “legs” to A Chorus Line.

Sounds and Fury: European Megamusicals, Disney, and Downloads

If rock music, Stephen Sondheim, and A Chorus Line brought to Broadway the most artistically significant musical, lyrical, and structural innovations of the post–Rodgers and Hammerstein era, it was some big-thinking Europeans and the Walt Disney Company that would set the new standards in musical staging, spectacle, and marketing. In 1982 England’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, then in is mid-thirties, had been a highly respected musical composer for over a decade. He had earned a Tony Award for the musical score of Evita (1979) and Tony nominations for the scores of Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1982). Furthermore, Jesus Christ Superstar had carved out a special place in musical theater history as a momentum-generating successor to Hair in the early development of the rock musical and for the unprecedented release of its original cast album in London and New York in advance of the show’s having opened in either city. (The album was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, producing singles on the American charts: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Superstar.”) But none of this background prepared Broadway for what was to become of Cats (1982), Webber’s unlikely musical adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s 1930 light verse book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The first European megamusical “imported” from London to Broadway, Cats was beloved by American audiences for its spectacular junkyard set that overflowed the stage, outlandish costumes and makeup, athletic, innovative choreography, and the technological climax wherein a steaming hydraulic tire lifts two cats/actors toward a metaphoric heaven (“the Heaviside layer”). The simple episodic plot of Cats reflected the now-familiar “concept musical” and made the show accessible to children as well as adults—a rarity on Broadway at the time. Between its enormous fan base and an extravagant marketing campaign conceived by Webber’s producing partner, fellow Brit Cameron Mackintosh, Cats eventually surpassed A Chorus Line as the longest-running musical ever on Broadway. (Cats closed in 2000 after 7,845 performances.) The show’s most famous song, “Memory,” became a hit recording and a concert standard for numerous singers, but it was the visual spectacle of the production itself that made the show phenomenally successful.

When it became clear that Cats was not merely a novelty show but a trendsetting phenomenon, Mackintosh and Webber were regularly vilified by American critics and theater professionals for pandering to the public with artistically shallow spectacle and technical effects rather than rich lyrics or genuinely original music. But the two Brits would have none of it, and neither would their worldwide audiences, whom they masterfully had learned to cultivate and please. In 1987 Mackintosh produced Les Misérables by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. This adaptation of Victor Hugo’s nineteenth-century novel focuses on the plight of several displaced French peasants, specifically charismatic ex-prisoner Jean Valjean’s flight from the law. The production was loud, gaudy, and in what was becoming a Mackintosh trademark, highlighted by a breathtaking technical stage effect: a rotating barricade that takes up most of the stage space and seems to rival the dimensions of a two- or three-story house. Like Cats before it, Les Mis (as it is popularly known) originated in Europe and transferred to Broadway. It, too, eclipsed the run of the top American musical A Chorus Line and settled behind Cats as the then second-longest-running musical of all time.

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In 1988 the American professional theater community was still reeling from the commercial and creative impact of this “British invasion” of Broadway when Mackintosh transferred Webber’s visually magnificent Phantom of the Opera—with its flying one-ton chandelier and splendid lake of candlelight—from London for its Broadway opening. Twenty-three years later Phantom is still running on Broadway, having become by far Broadway’s longest-running show ever and a marketing phenomenon in its own league. With worldwide ticket revenue of all productions and authorized merchandise and licensing estimated in excess of $5 billion, Phantom is the single most lucrative enterprise in the history of the entertainment industry, even surpassing worldwide grosses of top movies.

Adding to the woes of American detractors of visually extravagant musicals was media giant The Walt Disney Company’s foray into Broadway theater production. Disney was inspired by the success of Webber and Mackintosh’s family-friendly, mass appeal, spectacledriven megamusicals. In 1994 the company formed its own subsidiary, Disney Theatrical Productions (known commonly as Disney Theatricals), “to bring the Disney brand to Broadway” (Abrams 2010, 165). Disney had a propitious beginning on Broadway with Beauty and the Beast (1994). The show ran for thirteen years and ranks among the top 10 longest-running Broadway shows of all time. An adaptation of Disney’s popular 1991 animated film of the same name, Beauty as a musical actually grew out of a short mini-show staged in Disney theme parks. Hit songs “Be Our Guest” and the show’s title song, already popular from the film, would appear again in the Broadway musical. In 1997 Disney followed up Beauty with a stage adaptation of its 1994 animated film The Lion King, which by then was already on its way to becoming the most successful animated feature film in history. Julie Taymor, a novice on Broadway but a well-known director and puppeteer in experimental and international theater circles, designed and directed the Broadway show. The Lion King on Broadway eclipsed the extraordinary success of Beauty and the Beast. As they did with Beauty, The Lion King audiences thrilled to the imaginative staging of familiar hit songs from the film, including “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” all written for Disney by British pop legend Elton John and Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice. Disney Theatricals has enjoyed other successes with less visually extravagant productions, including Aida (2000), Tarzan (2006), and an adaptation of the beloved 1964 film Mary Poppins (2006), with the forty-plus-year-old hit film songs “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” stopping the show every night.

Disney’s corporate influence on Broadway extended beyond theater production into property purchase and theater restoration as well as corporate leadership in the now famous cleanup of Times Square in the late 1980s and 1990s. Although Disney was only one of several private and public entities involved in the project, it became the corporation most closely associated with Times Square’s transformation from a haven for pornography, prostitution, and drug trafficking into a clean, safe, family-friendly entertainment district. Although widely hailed as a welcome transformation, “some New Yorkers lament that the theater district has taken on the pointedly non–New York appearance and feel of a Disney theme park” (Abrams 2010, 165).

In the last quarter of the twentieth century Disney Theatricals and European megamusicals had indeed brought forth the major new production values and marketing strategies to Broadway shows. As for the hit Broadway song, however, the most obvious changes came in the form of new applications of technology in music production and marketing that radically altered the music and recording industries as a whole. Digital downloads, online videos, and even cell phone ringtones all accompanied a seismic expansion of commercial music genres and markets.

For the last forty years, good songs from new Broadway shows—and even some old shows—have continued to find audiences, often initially by the traditional means of becoming a hit single whose release coincides with the show’s opening. But increasingly producers and artists have been enhancing record or cast album sales through heretofore inconceivable ways of moving into new technology or adapting to newly emerging musical styles. In the 1970s, for example, producers introduced the practice of turning show tunes into dance mixes for clubs and dance track recordings. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (1979) became the most popular song from the Broadway cast recording (sung by the star of the American production, Patti LuPone). Several other cover versions, including one by pop singer Olivia Newton-John, were reasonably successful as well. But the song became a worldwide dance hit when Madonna recorded a disco version after starring in the 1996 film adaptation of the musical. “Hard Knock Life,” a hit children’s chorus number from the traditional-style book musical Annie (1977), made the charts in 1999 when hip-hop artist Jay-Z remixed it as a dance record and retitled it “Ghetto Anthem.” Jay- Z’s version spent fifty-six weeks on the Billboard hip-hop charts. In 1983 La Cage Aux Folles, a breakthrough musical by Jerry Herman that poignantly addressed prejudice against gays as it reveled in its campy celebrations of gender “confusion,” launched the show-stopping number “I Am What I Am.” Herman had intended the song to serve as an anthem and inspiration for gays and lesbians in the theater audience and beyond. He succeeded. Popular disco singer Gloria Gaynor, a particular favorite artist in gay and lesbian dance clubs, covered the song in 1983. Her version spent ten weeks on the Hot R&B/hip-hop charts. In 2003 Linda Eder did a remake of the song, which became a hit again through digital download sales (see Greenfield and Brainard 2010, passim).

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YouTube, which was founded in 2005, has become a critical element in enhancing recognition and sales of new and old music, and Broadway songs are no exception. Hairspray (2002), adapted from avant-garde filmmaker John Waters’s nonmusical film homage to his Baltimore upbringing in the early 1960s, produced a surprisingly strong-selling Broadway cast album. A 2007 film adaptation of the musical yielded an even stronger sound track that peaked at number two during its thirty-five-week run on the Billboard 200 top album chart. The film sound track made hits of two songs from the original show, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” and “Without You,” with considerable assistance from download sales and popular YouTube clips from the film and stage cast performances. Similarly, composer Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked (2003) featured the hit song “Defying Gravity,” which was released as a single by the show’s costar, Idina Menzel, within a year after the show opened. Eight years later, Wicked is still running on Broadway and has blanketed the United States with several successful touring productions. Clips of “Defying Gravity” remain a YouTube staple, with some five million hits on Menzel singing the song in character or in concert.

Curtain Call

For all its many distinct evolutionary phases, the Broadway musical relies more heavily for its survival on naturally selecting its own strongest characteristics rather than driving earlier versions of itself into extinction. In any Broadway season lineup, one can readily find the iconoclastic trendsetters breaking new boundaries, the contemporary mainstays holding down the cultural and commercial base, and traditionalists revisiting or revising Broadway’s storied past. Broadway’s 2010–2011 season, for example, found The Lion King’s director Julie Taymor reinventing the concept and the budget for the visually spectacular megamusical with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2011). Commonplace, grandmafriendly rock/jukebox musicals such as the longrunning Mamma Mia! and the firmly established Jersey Boys contended with a noisy new neighbor, American Idiot (2010), a self-consciously loud, angry youth fable based on punk rockers’ Green Day’s best-selling album of the same name. Landmark productions Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Chicago (which have a combined fifty-two years running on Broadway among them) surrendered the mantle of history to two major revivals mounted in 2011: Frank Loesser’s golden age mainstay from 1961, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Cole Porter’s late Tin Pan Alley–era classic Anything Goes.

“Revivals are nice, but revel in the new,” advised New York Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley in 2011, chiding Broadway producers, artists, and audiences to keep looking forward not backward for inspiration and joy in theater. The history of the Broadway musical suggests that Mr. Brantley might be preaching to the chorus if not the choir. Persistently seeking the new while never entirely discarding its traditions, the Broadway musical has developed the endearing habit of reveling where it may.

Further Reading

Abrams, Steve. 2010. “Disney Theatrical Productions.” In Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture, edited by Thomas A. Greenfield, 164–166. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Brantley, Ben. 2011. “Revivals Are Nice but Revel in the New.” New York Times Online, February 16. .

The Broadway League. n.d. “About the League.” .

Furia, Philip. 1992. The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Furia, Philip. 2010. “Show Tunes: From Tin Pan Alley to Pop Radio.” In Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture, edited by Thomas A. Greenfield, 572–578. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Greenfield, Thomas A. 2010. “Oklahoma!” In Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture, edited by Thomas A. Greenfield, 430–434. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Greenfield, Thomas A., and Sue Ann Brainard. 2010. “Show Tunes: The Rock Era, Disney, and Downloads.” In Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture, edited by Thomas A. Greenfield, 578–586. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Hischak, Thomas S. 2007. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Knapp, Raymond. 2005. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Malet, Jeff. 2010. “Oklahoma! A [sic] Historical Perspective.” Georgetowner Online. .

Maslon, Laurence. 2004. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Bulfinch Press.

Patinkin, Sheldon. 2008. “No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance: A History of the American Musical. Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Simon, Paul. 2010. “Isn’t It Rich?” New York Times Online, October 27. .

Starr, Larry, and Christopher Waterman. 2008. “Giants of Tin Pan Alley.” Engaging the World. .

Stempel, Larry. 2010. Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Swain, Joseph P. 2010. “Musicals.” In Broadway: An Encyclopedia of Theater and American Culture, edited by Thomas A. Greenfield, 377–391. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Walsh, David, and Len Platt. 2003. Musical Theater and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Thomas A. Greenfield and Kaitlyn C. Allen

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3162200065