- (Musical theatre, Musical comedy)The origins of the American musical are foggy at best. Music and drama have been inextricably linked since the dawn of theatre, but the American musical, as it came to be recognized in the 20th century, undoubtedly emerged from a range of 19th-century cultural traditions including folk music, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, European opera and operetta, and sundry other entertainments. Many historians identify the 1866 production of the melodrama The Black Crook as an inciting event, since the play, set in an enchanted forest, featured ballet sequences with dancers in pink tights playing wood nymphs. The influence of English operettas by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had an impact after 1870, but by the 1880s U.S. audiences had developed a taste for European-style operettas.These entertainments took on a decidedly "American" character after the mid-1890s, particularly through the contributions of George M. Cohan, who wrote, composed, and starred in a series of musical comedies featuring simple plots about "Broadway" wiseguys, country bumpkins, and one-dimensional villains, all bundled together with mainstream values and the infectious patriotism typical of the varied ethnic groups crowding into the United States. The melodic tunes featured witty, colloquial lyrics celebrating the vigor and inventiveness of Cohan's stage persona as a brash, good-natured, proud Irishman.The vitality springing from the immigrant experience also produced a generation of Jewish-American composers and lyricists led by Irving Berlin (1888-1989), a remarkably prolific songwriter who preferred writing for musical revues, but who also composed scores for notable "book musicals" late in his career, including Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1950). That same generation produced Jerome Kern (1885-1945), whose Princess Theatre musicals in the 1910s brought greater sophistication, cohesion, and wit to the musical comedy prototype Cohan had created. In this era, musical comedies typically emphasized interpolated tunes and star performers over story or a consistent score. In this period, Al Jolson (1885-1950) soared to stardom under the Shubert producing banner, and he dominated musical comedy into the late 1920s when he moved to Hollywood to star in the first feature-length "talkie" motion picture, The Jazz Singer (1927).The definitive star-maker of this era was Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., who produced an annual revue called The Follies beginning in 1907. His earliest stars included his first wife, French soubrette Anna Held (1873-1918), for whom he produced some European-style musical vehicles. The stars of the Ziegfeld Follies have endured in the cultural memory since many moved from Ziegfeld to stardom in book musicals, films, and radio and television,* including Will Rogers (18791935), Bert Williams (1874-1922), Fanny Brice (1891-1951), Eddie Cantor (1892-1964), W. C. Fields (1880-1946), and others. Virtually every important songwriter of the period contributed material to the Follies, but in association with Kern, Ziegfeld produced book musicals Sally (1920) and Sunny (1925) for Marilyn Miller (1898-1936), who introduced Kern's "Look for the Silver Lining" in the former. Ziegfeld also produced the book musical Whoopee (1928) to star Eddie Cantor and its score featured several enduring hits, including "Makin' Whoopee" and "Love Me or Leave Me," by the songwriting trio of B. G. De Sylva (1895-1950), Lew Brown (1893-1958), and Ray Henderson (1896-1970), whose collegiate musical Good News (1927) became one of the biggest hits of the era.Ziegfeld's most enduring production was the 1927 musical drama Show Boat, adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II* (1895-1960) from Edna Ferber's novel of the same name, with a score by Kern and lyrics by Hammerstein. The result was a milestone in the evolution of the musical form, featuring a mix of comedy and drama (with tragic overtones) in a story of itinerant performers working on a Mississippi River showboat between the 1880s and the 1920s. Although some of its elements are typical of musical entertainments of the time (including minstrel shows and operetta), Show Boat's fully dimensioned characters and a dramatic story daring to explore the previously taboo subject of miscegenation were boldly adventurous by popular entertainment standards of the time. An uncommonly cohesive book providing a strong framework for a rich score well-integrated into the plot and the personas of the characters were matched by standout songs, including "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "You Are Love," and the show's leitmotif "Ol' Man River," which attained classic status. In the late 1920s, Show Boat demonstrated that the musical stage could present serious stories, well-dimensioned characters, and important themes, but its model did not immediately inspire imitators. Show Boat's original production was not a popular success despite a cast including legendary "torch singer" Helen Morgan (1900-1941) as Julie La Verne, the racially mixed tragic catalyst of the plot.Most musicals before 1930 remained light-hearted, loosely constructed amusements, although the period produced a generation of composers and lyricists destined to perfect the musical theatre form and expand its content and the variety of its form, including composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) and his lyricist brother, Ira (1896-1983), Cole Porter (1891-1964), Richard Rodgers (19021979), Lorenz Hart (1895-1943), and others. Their contributions, as well as the continued achievements of Berlin, Kern, Hammerstein, and others, created a golden age of American musicals from 1930 to 1960.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.
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