A musical, at least in the modern sense, is a play or film that combines acting with singing (and often dancing). It derives from the French opera comique, which interspersed dialogue with singing and usually ended on a happy note, and operettas and light operas, which did the same. In operettas, opera comique and light operas songs often included arias and were composed often specifically for opera singers. Early versions of the musical knew no such bounds, and were heavily influenced by the various burlesque shows that were so popular. The first musical is considered to be The Black Crook, which premiered in New York in 1866.
Broadway and the London stage both became popular for featuring this form of drama, with numerous musicals premiering and gaining success in the mid to late 19th century. They appealed much more to a general audience than did opera, since they were typically lighter in tone, franker and sometimes bawdy, and more general in subject matter. Many consider, though, that it was the composers W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (most often known as simply Gilbert and Sullivan), who truly brought popularity to the form with their 1878 hit The H.M.S. Pinafore. Though more operetta than truly the modern musical genre type, the play was suited to a family audience. Gilbert and Sullivan’s subsequent works were greeted with great interest and remain popular.
Several musicals in the early 20th century conform more to the modern style. For instance the 1903 Babes in Toyland, remains quite a hit. Early composers of musicals include George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. The first filmed music theater, and also one of the first “talkies” is the notable The Jazz Singer which made a great impact on the film world, not only for being one of the first films to combine both audio and visual experience, but also because it was a musical.
By the 1930s, classic musicals began to emerge including Porgy and Bess, Anything Goes, and Babes in Arms. Interest became significant in filming these, and many of the 1930s musicals became popular motion pictures, influencing some of the “giants” in theater that would almost run the genre in the 1940s through the 1960s.
It’s impossible to discuss musicals without discussing the significant contributions of composers like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (Rodgers and Hammerstein), whose run of musicals were often filmed, and made an indelible impression on the form in general. Their most noted works includeOklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music all of which were made into immensely popular films. Other composers like Leonard Bernstein who wrote West Side Story, Jerry Bock who wrote Fiddler on the Roof and Meredith Wilson who wrote The Music Man bear mention.
As the musical became more modernized, theme could dramatically range from the overtly comic, to the dark and murderous, as in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, or the socially conscious like Rent and The Color Purple. Musicals became not just about being funny anymore, though these still existed, and they weren’t for all general audiences. Plays like Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Funny Lady, Gigi, Hair, Rent, and Godspell were designed for more mature audiences and dwelt on much more mature and serious thematic elements, even if they did also feature some comic elements.
Furthermore, certain composers, like Andrew Lloyd Weber, almost created throwbacks to opera with musicals like The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, and Les Miserables, where much more singing in true operatic form emerged, and dialogue was minimal. On the other hand, the comic style of the form still existed in relatively pure form, especially with Walt Disney films. Most animated Disney films have been musicals, and some have even inspired Broadway hits like the extremely well received The Lion King.
For a time, the musical form fell out of style in films, with the last truly successful film being an adaptation of Grease in 1978. Though Disney musicals enjoyed popularity, the 1985 A Chorus Line adaptation fell flat. A few left of center films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors became cult classics.
However, popularity of the filmed forms of the genre in the 2000s is attributed to the roaring success of the 2001 film Moulin Rouge. Other filmed musicals soon followed, meeting much praise from critics and audiences. These include Chicago, Dream Girls, Hairspray and Sweeney Todd. Television also bowed to the musical’s popularity by producing “sung” episodes, in varying degrees of success. Stephen Bochco’s Cop Rock was an instant failure, but the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode Once More with Feeling is embraced as one of the best episodes of the series.