What is Musical Theater?

The connection between music and theater can be traced back thousands of years, but musical theater is a relatively new genre. A “Greek chorus,” a group of singers or chanters, was frequently used ancient Greek playwrights. This ensemble of actors would serve as a sounding board for the main characters or as the audience’s conscience. Professional musicians and singers would occasionally appear onstage for the audience’s entertainment or as part of the drama, such as during a wedding or funeral scene. Some dramatists and composers eventually collaborated on projects that combined drama and music. This eventually led to the creation of musical operas, which were the forerunners of modern musical theater performances.

Professional composers collaborate closely with playwrights on the story’s arc in musical theater productions, which can have comedic or dramatic themes. For example, composer Cole Porter’s musical play Kiss Me, Kate combines elaborate musical productions with a dramatic storyline about two actors reconciling their failed romance behind the scenes, based on Shakespeare’s comedy Taming of the Shrew. The plot of Irving Berlin’s musical Annie Get Your Gun is based on the true story of sharpshooter Annie Oakley and is set in a romantic show business setting. Music is frequently used in musical theater to explore the characters’ inner thoughts or motivations.

Musical theater was one of the most popular forms of entertainment for the masses before the advent of radio, film, and television. Individual musicians would often perform one after another in music halls in the United Kingdom and larger cities in the United States, but there was rarely a sense of continuity between the acts. Early musical theater productions, such as Showboat, demonstrated how songs written specifically for the theme or plot line could successfully enhance a dramatic production. For example, if a character wanted to express sadness, he or she could sing an emotional ballad like “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine” in musical theater.

To create spectacular productions, modern musical theater productions frequently employ cutting-edge stage technology and top-notch composers. Because choreographers like BusBerkeley could stage elaborate musical production numbers not possible on a traditional stage, musical theater lends itself to film. When Gene Kelly, the dancer and singer, performs “Singin’ in the Rain,” the audience is supposed to understand that he is not literally dancing all over the rainy streets of New York City, but rather expressing his inner emotions after meeting Debbie Reynolds, the love of his life. In other musical theater productions, the cast will frequently break into a spontaneous dance number to show support for a central character. Many musical theater productions also allow performers to sing duets, solos, and rousing crowd pleasers known as “11 o’clock songs,” which are typically performed at 11 p.m. on Broadway.

While other comedic or dramatic plays may use music in their plots on occasion, musical theater gives the “book,” or dramatic plot, equal weight. Some songs may go on to become hits, while others may only be used to advance the plot or reveal a character’s innermost thoughts. Many popular musicals, such as Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and A Chorus Line, can run for several years, while others may only run for a few performances before closing. Others have gone on to become successful films after debuting on Broadway or in London’s West End.