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Musical Styles  >  Parlor and Concert Stage


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections, ranging from classical arias to parlor songs to minstrel tunes, underscore American audiences' appetite for vocal music both at home and at the theater.

  • Angels ever bright and fair

    This aria from George Frideric Handel's opera Theodora, is given a slow and stately performance by the soprano Lucy Isabelle Marsh.

  • Old Folks at Home

    In this 1912 recording of a famous song by Stephen Foster, Elsie Baker performs with a lusty contralto accompanied by orchestra.

  • Dixie

    Daniel Decatur Emmett's popular tune about the South is given a jaunty performance as a duet by bass vocalist Frank C. Stanley and tenor Bryan G. Harlan.

  • Massa's in de cold, cold ground

    Stephen Foster's well-known parlor song is performed by contralto Marguerite Dunlap. The recording dates from 1912.

  • Gems from Flora Bella

    A medley of popular tunes from the musical theater production Flora Bella by composers Charles Cuvillier, Milton E. Schwarzwald and lyricists Victor Schertzinger, Peter Waxman and Earl Carroll. Featuring the Victor Light Opera Company.

Music performance in the United States takes place both at home and on the concert stage. Music written for each of these venues has been of equal importance to the development of American music. The performance of secular music in the United States developed, just as it had many centuries earlier in Europe, along two parallel paths. First, musical gatherings in the private homes of the musical elite beginning in the mid-eighteenth century brought together the best musical talent that major cities, such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, had to offer. These gatherings would typically feature performances by local musicians of chamber music and song chosen from the popular European repertoire of the day such as the chamber music of seventeenth-century Italian composer, Arcangelo Corelli and excerpts from the operas of George Frideric Handel. These private musical gatherings eventually led to the establishment of local music societies or philharmonic societies, which sponsor music performances. One of the oldest extant examples of a philharmonic society in the U.S. is the Philharmonic Society of New York, which was founded in 1842 by Ureli Corelli Hill and would later become known as the New York Philharmonic.

Second, staged performances of English ballad operas began to draw Colonial audiences as early as 1735, when the first theatrical season in Charleston, South Carolina was opened with Flora, or Hob in the Well, a 1729 British work with text by Colley Cibber and music by John Hippisley. English ballad operas were stage-plays with musical numbers interspersed throughout, much like the modern American musical. One of the most popular ballad operas of the Colonial period was The Poor Soldier (1783) with text by John O'Keeffe and music by popular English composer William Shield. There were two major opera companies producing ballad operas in the Colonial period. William Hallam's London Troupe, later re-named the Old American Company, began in Williamsburg, Virginia but moved to New York City. Their competition was the New Company, founded in 1792 by the singer/actor, Thomas Wignell and the composer Alexander Reinagle. The New Company regularly performed in the lavish, two thousand seat, New Theatre on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. These two companies established New York City and Philadelphia as centers for musical performance in Colonial America.

The vibrant musical life of cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston during the Colonial and Federal periods drew immigrant musicians to the United States many of whom opened retail music stores and taught music lessons. This helped to develop a more broadly educated musical public and a market for musical instruments and sheet music to be played in the home.

Arturo Toscanini gives a piano lesson to his grand-daughter, Sonia Horowitz, while his wife, Carla, looks on at their home in Riverdale, a suburb of New York City. 1944. Photoprint by Black Star. Prints and Photographs Division, LOT 3768

By the late 1830s, native-born American song composers, such as Stephen Foster and George Root were writing popular songs, known as Parlor Songs, many of which were written for amateur musicians to enjoy in the comfort of their own parlors, where many families kept their piano. The songs were written in a sentimental style, encompassing a wide range of topics from political strife to comic buffoonery. In addition to parlor songs, Foster and Root both composed songs for the minstrel show stage, a form of musical stage entertainment consisting of dancing, singing and comic skits performed, initially, by white performers with their faces blackened by burnt cork. Early troupes included The Virginia Minstrels, led by Daniel Emmett, the composer of the song "Dixie," who included "low-brow" bawdy humor in their performances. By contrast, the Ethiopian Serenaders promoted their performances as "blackface concerts" adding sentimental songs and excerpts from popular operas to their repertoire. This was a very successful formula as their first major concert was for President John Tyler at the White House in 1844. A tour of England a few years later by the Serenaders left a place in the United States minstrel circuit for Edwin P. Christy and his Christy's Minstrels to gain popularity. Christy was an advocate for the music of composer Stephen Foster and the troupe specialized in the performance of Foster's songs. Although the blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century are morally repugnant to modern audiences, they should be acknowledged as an important part of American musical history, giving rise to the vaudeville stage at the turn of the 20th century and eventually to modern American musical theater.

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Five recordings from Library of Congress collections.

Since its grand beginnings as Italian court entertainment at the turn of the seventeenth century, opera has been an art form that strives to portray a heightened reality, transporting the audience to a time and place beyond its own. Opera is a seemingly magical concoction of theater, music, and dance that has ignited the imaginations of young and old, rich and poor, for over 400 years.

Opera was initially conceived as an imitation of the theatrical practice of Ancient Greece. Girolamo Mei (1519-1594), the foremost Italian scholar of his day studying the music of Ancient Greece, believed that Greek dramas were performed in a style somewhere between speech and song which led to the Italian style known as monody, a precursor of operatic recitative. This was the musical basis of the first operas composed in Florence in 1600, but as opera gained popularity over the next few decades in the courts of Mantua and Rome, composers quickly began to intersperse song forms and choruses into the recitative-style of declamation to add musical variety to a long evening's entertainment.

Opera took an important turn from the courtly to the commercial when the first public opera house was opened in Venice in 1637. Venetian opera concentrated on theatrical spectacle, cutting down the amount of recitative in favor of elaborately decorated arias and trading in the austerity of Greek drama for fantastical plots and stage machinery.

Rigoletto in Berlin theatre, ca. 1930

Detail from [Scene during opera "Rigoletto" in Berlin theatre, ca. 1930]. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction NumberLC-USZ62-43455

By the mid-seventeenth century, Italian opera composers were in demand in courts across Europe. In 1647, Roman composer Luigi Rossi (1597-1653) brought the first Italian opera company to France adding a ballet scene to his opera Orfeo in keeping with their theatrical tradition. Although it was not until the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) took control of the Paris Opéra in 1672 that a native French opera tradition was firmly established.

Antonio Cesti (1623-1669) brought Italian opera to the Habsburg Court in Vienna in 1668. His success was such that it began the dominance of the Italian opera style in German speaking countries and most of Europe until the second half of the 18th century. During this period, Italian opera became an international style championed by the leading composers of the day, regardless of their country of birth. The only exception was in France, where the style cultivated by Jean-Baptiste Lully remained dominant until the opera reforms of German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) in the 1770s.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the dominance of Italian opera was waning in favor of distinct national traditions. As those traditions developed, the Italian style was appropriated and combined with theatrical, dance, folk music and instrumental music styles that represented each country's unique musical culture creating the multifaceted art form that 21st century audiences know as opera. Today, opera companies in the United States and abroad rely heavily on works written between the latter-eighteenth century and the first part of the twentieth for their standard repertoire. The works featured on the Songs of America web site are drawn primarily from this "long nineteenth century" in which opera is thought by many to have reached its zenith.

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Art Song


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

  • My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free

    The Francis Hopkinson composotion as performed on the Favorites from the Song of America Tour with Thomas Hampson, baritone, and Wolfram Rieger, piano. Recorded in the Coolidge Auditorium, Washington, DC, October 28, 2010.

  • Jeanie with the light brown hair

    The Stephen Foster composition as performed by Denyce Graves.

  • Ah love, but a day

    The Amy Beach composition as performed by Patrick Mason and Joanne Polk.

  • Zion's Walls

    The Aaron Copland as performed by Jim DeGaetani and Leo Smit.

  • Solitary Hotel

    Samuel Barber's musical setting of the James Joyce poem, as performed by Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger at the Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, on December 7, 2004.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear; ...
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

-- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Although the song tradition in the United States is fairly young compared to that of Western Europe, there are still over two centuries' worth of song composition in America. The birth of the American song coincided with the birth of the country; in fact, the first extant art songs in the United States are credited to Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), a friend of George Washington and signer of the Declaration of Independence. The only American-born composer for whom there is evidence of having written songs prior to 1800, Hopkinson's first song "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free" was penned in 1759. In 1788, Hopkinson dedicated a collection of songs titled A Washington Garland (originally Seven songs for the Harpsichord or Fortepiano) to the future president. This collection, which actually contains eight songs, was modeled on the works of English composers, such as Thomas Arne and Stephen Storace.

An early dependence on the English style of song composition waned and American composers searched for a voice of their own. Between, roughly, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, they found inspiration in the African-American spiritual. A nationwide interest in the spiritual arose with the advent steamboat travel, begun on the Mississippi in 1811, and with exposure to the minstrel show, the first national form of American musical theater. It was from these Mississippi steamboats that Northerners became acquainted with the work songs and spirituals of the "colored folk." Stephen Foster (1826-1864) was one such "Northerner" enamored with the musical heritage of the South. Born in Pennsylvania, Foster composed over two hundred songs, mostly setting his own texts. While the most famous of his songs, such as "Oh! Susanna" (first performed in 1847) and "Old Folks at Home" (1851) were written for minstrel shows, Foster's later songs, notably the ballad "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864), were devoid of Southern traits. Another composer influenced by African-American songs was Ohio native Dan Emmett (1815-1904), whose "De Boatman's Dance" (1843) was later arranged by Aaron Copland. Ironically, Emmett is best remembered today for his tribute to the South, "Dixie" (1859), perhaps the most famous song from the Civil War era.

Toward the turn of the nineteenth century, composers became more ambitious, branching out from what became known as "popular song" and turning their creative energies to the more serious "art song." This trend was sparked by the decision of many American composers to study in Europe; where, as a result, they were exposed to the German lied as well as the French mélodie, song forms that emphasized the fusion of poetry and music. European-trained composers, including Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Charles T. Griffes (1884-1920), and Charles Loeffler (1861-1935), skillfully crafted songs that integrated European aesthetic values into works with uniquely American qualities. And men were not the only composers. Since pianos were found in most nineteenth-century homes, women typically burdened with domestic activities were also able to pursue careers in composition. Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), for instance, made significant contributions to the American song repertoire, thus paving the way for other female composers, including Florence Price (1887-1953) and Elinor Remick Warren (1900-1991).

Indigenous music continued to serve as the source and inspiration for American song composition. Henry [Harry] T. Burleigh's (1866-1949) harmonized arrangements of African-American spirituals, including his well-known adaptation of "Deep River" (contained in Jubilee Songs of the USA, 1916), were some of the first to be presented on the concert stage. His "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1915), to a text by Walt Whitman, is a dramatic account of an African-American woman and her chance meeting with a Union soldier. Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), whose songs were relatively free of European influences, drew heavily upon American Indian melodies in his songs. Due to his difficulty in securing a publisher for his music, he founded the Wa-Wan Press, which operated between 1901 and 1912, for the express purpose of publishing and disseminating music incorporating American folk material.

William Warfield and Leontyne Price

William Warfield seated at piano, his wife, Leontyne Price, standing next to him. 1953. Publicity photo from J. Walter Thompson Company. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-115072

Charles Ives (1874-1954) composed some of the most distinctive songs of America's song heritage, and his song catalog is one of the largest ever produced by an American. A respected business executive, Ives composed mostly at night and on weekends. His financial stability as an insurance professional enabled him to privately publish his first collection, titled 114 Songs (1922). Ives's songs contain quotations from American hymns, war songs, popular songs, and cowboy ballads, and incorporate unusual techniques and effects that bear his distinctive and eclectic stamp.

Notable composers of the American art song from the first half of the twentieth century include Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Copland, whose song output is primarily defined by his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949-50), also arranged two sets of Old American Songs (1950 and 1952). Described as a diversified portrait of America, Old American Songs includes in its earlier set Copland's arrangements of Dan Emmett's "The Boatmen's Dance" and the Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," whereas the later set includes his adaptations of the gospel hymn "At the River" and the minstrel song "Ching-a-Ring Chaw," famous for its nonsense syllable-laden chorus. An accomplished baritone himself, Samuel Barber possessed one of the most lyric compositional voices of the twentieth century. Barber's family was a musical one: his aunt, Louise Homer (1871-1947), was a leading contralto with the Metropolitan opera, and his uncle, Sidney Homer (1864-1953), was a distinguished composer of art songs who served as Barber's mentor for over thirty years. While many of his vocal works are set to texts by European authors and poets, Barber did set American texts, notably James Agee's "Sure on This Shining Night" (no. 3 from Four Songs, op. 13, 1937-40) and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), for soprano and orchestra.

After World War II, several factors affected the development of the American art song. First, American poetry flourished and, by the middle of the twentieth-century, composers were afforded a rich resource of native texts and literature to mine. Consequently, the poet's voice itself began to play an integral role in the creative process of song composition, a trend exemplified in settings of Gertrude Stein's texts by Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) and John Cage (1912-1992). After 1950, another factor affecting the development of American song was the increased use of serial techniques in serious music. This style of composition, typically associated with the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, is also found in the songs of Milton Babbitt (b.1916) and Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). In addition to these trends, composers abandoned traditional piano accompaniments in favor of innovative alternative sonorities, as in the case of Cage's use of closed piano in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), or Babbitt's combination of voice and electronic tape in Vision and Prayer (1961) and Phonemena (1975). Other contemporary composers of twentieth-century American song include Paul Bowles (1910-1999) and Ned Rorem (b.1923).

Although a full account of the American art song is beyond the scope of this introduction, it is hoped that these highlights will serve as an invitation to further explore and appreciate America's song tradition. The American art song, in its relatively brief two-hundred-year-old journey, has not yet traveled very far but it has certainly traveled wide: from the Psalm settings and hymns of the East, to the hillbilly and cowboy songs of the West; from the work songs of the North, to the minstrel songs and African-American spirituals of the South. While it is too soon to predict the direction the American art song will take in the twenty-first century, it is certain to reflect the varied and diverse musical and cultural heritage of the United States.

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Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

The Musical, like jazz, is a quintessentially American art form; and like our country, it has been forged from many influences: comic opera, operetta, English music hall, minstrel shows, vaudeville and others. Musicals are also among the most collaborative of the arts, forged by teams that typically include composers, lyricists, librettists, directors, performers, choreographers, orchestrators, producers, arrangers and designers.

When was the American musical born? Traditionally, it had been dated from The Black Crook (1866), but that is now considered too simplistic an answer. It was more extravagant, dance-heavy and provocative than previous musical entertainments, but its script and score were constantly changing, with songs interpolated from various sources. Among earlier shows, The Archers (1796), while never approaching the success of The Black Crook, had a more meaningful plot. While several European talents, like Jacques Offenbach (1819-80), Johann Strauss II (1825-99) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), influenced the music in musicals, the beginning of a distinctively American sound is largely attributable to Stephen Foster (1826–1864), in songs like "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races" and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River).”

The memorable musicals from the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries are mostly operettas, such as Reginald de Koven’s Robin Hood (1891), John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan (1896), a succession of Gilbert and Sullivan imports (except for their The Pirates of Penzance, which had its world premiere in America, 1879), Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland (1903) and Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (Die Lustige Witwe) (American production, 1907). But the man who came to be recognized as the grandfather of the American musical comedy was George M. Cohan (1878-1942). From 1904 to 1920, Cohan created and produced over fifty musicals, plays and revues. His energy and talents seemed boundless: he sang, danced, wrote scripts and songs, directed and produced. His shows celebrated both an all-American, flag-waving patriotism, and the immigrant experience. The shows were brash, direct, and contemporary and, shockingly for the time, included jargon and slang. His best remembered show, Little Johnny Jones (1904), introduced the first anthem to this new art form, “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Kiralfy Bros "Black crook"

Detail from Kiralfy Bros "Black crook." Boston: Forbes Co., c1882. Lithograph, 74 x 104 cm. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-7239

Overlapping Cohan, and representing a new, more sophisticated style, was the composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945). Kern began his career in 1904 by having songs interpolated into shows whose scores were mostly by other composers, both on Broadway and in London. His work began to be broadly recognized with songs he added to the imported The Girl from Utah (1914). The hit song from the show, “They Didn’t Believe Me,” is often described as the first standard of the classic American songbook.

Kern significantly impacted the evolution of the musical with a series of five shows that (mostly) premiered at the Princess Theatre (Manhattan) between 1915 and 1918. Because the theater was so small (it only sat 299 people), in order to be profitable the productions had to be more intimate – smaller casts and orchestras, fewer sets and costumes. They also catered to a more sophisticated audience, with more believable plots, and songs more closely related to the action. Most of these shows were collaborations with librettist Guy Bolton and lyricist P. G. Wodehouse, whose clever wordplay was much admired and influenced later lyricists Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter.

The Princess shows led to a more lavish collaboration with the most extravagant producer of the time, Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932), best known for his (almost) annual spectaculars, The Ziegfeld Follies (1907-31). Sally (1920), with music by Kern, book by Bolton, several lyricists, and produced by Ziegfeld, starred Marilyn Miller (1898-1936), the radiant musical comedy star of the 1920s. She typically played the Cinderella characters prevalent in this period. In his Follies, Ziegfeld continued to introduce and feature a stream of gorgeous showgirls and one-of-a-kind comics, like Fanny Brice, W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Will Rogers, as well as Bert Williams (1874-1922), who mixed humor with pathos, and was the first African-American performer to be featured in an otherwise all-white show.

Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the rain." c1952. 1 print (poster) : lithograph, color ; 56 x 71 cm. Copyright by Loew's Incorporated. Forms part of: Lester Glassner Collection of Movie Posters. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-09566

While most of the shows from the 1920s and 30s are now forgotten, they produced hundreds of magnificent standards by a group of (mostly) men of extraordinary talent. Among this rarified group were Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Cole Porter (1891-1964), Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960), Lorenz Hart (1895-1943), Ira Gershwin (1896-1983), Vincent Youmans (1898-1946), George Gershwin (1898-1937), Richard Rodgers (1902-79), and Dorothy Fields (1905-74). ).

The most significant show from this period was Show Boat (1927), produced by Ziegfeld, with music by Kern, and lyrics and libretto by Hammerstein. While the score is magnificent, it is primarily Hammerstein’s contribution as a dramatist that made the show so important. Vast in scope, it dealt seriously with racism, miscegenation, addiction, and abandonment. The result was, by today’s standards, arguably the first piece of musical theater. “Ol’ Man River” is both Kern’s and the show’s most iconic song, providing a meditation on the nature of fate as an undercurrent throughout the show.

Two other shows worth highlighting boasted Ethel Merman (1908-84) who, with her powerhouse voice, was a reigning star on Broadway for more than thirty years. She first made her mark in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy (1930), where she shook the rafters introducing “I Got Rhythm.” Of the Gershwins’ Broadway shows, Girl Crazy probably introduced the most standards. And George Gershwin, more than any other composer, introduced the language of jazz to Broadway. Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) is arguably the iconic show of the 1930s – offering the escapism so needed during the Depression. Its broad humor, vivid characters and delicious score have made it the most frequently revived show of the decade.

In addition to the musical comedies of this period, a series of memorable revues offered a topical, funny and daring combination of songs, production numbers, and comic sketches. Two of the finest were Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s The Bandwagon (1931), and Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer (1933). The latter used a newspaper as a framing device (with the weather report represented by the provocative “Heat Wave”). Most memorable was the news report about a lynching, accompanied by Ethel Waters’ searing version of “Supper Time.”

My Fair Lady

Detail from My Fair Lady. Al Hirschfeld, artist. [1956]. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-3935

It would be inexcusable to discuss musicals in America without touching on film musicals. Beginning with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1927, by 1929 film musicals had exploded in popularity. With less work on Broadway during the Great Depression, many of the best songwriters went to Hollywood, bringing a sophistication and inventiveness to that medium. A good example is Love Me Tonight (1932), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald – its look and the way the songs become part of the action remain extraordinary. 42nd Street (1933) popularized the backstage musical, and brought acclaim to the kaleidoscopic choreography of Busby Berkeley. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in a series of dance-heavy, elegant romances, introducing a bevy of standards by Berlin, Kern and the Gershwins. MGM became the studio known for producing the most ambitious and extravagant musicals, such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), and reaching their apogee with An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). But then movie musicals quickly began falling out of favor, and the most successful ones tended to be film adaptations of Broadway shows, such as West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), Cabaret (1972), Grease (1978), Chicago (2002) and Les Misérables (2012), with a handful of Disney animated features thrown in, including Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). In a bit of turnabout, these animated musicals were later turned into live action Broadway musicals.

The Broadway musical evolved dramatically when Rodgers and Hammerstein forged a new collaboration, beginning with Oklahoma! (1943). A new kind of musical, their model became the standard for a generation. More musical plays than musical comedies, they dealt with serious issues, characters changed and evolved via the songs, and every aspect of the shows was of a piece. Humor mostly came from characters and their relationships, rather than jokes. And the music tended to draw from operetta, with sweeping romantic numbers and anthems. Between 1943 and 1951 they were the kings of Broadway, with shows that included Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. The new standard they set for musicals even forced some of their contemporaries to create the best scores of their careers in order to stay relevant – Irving Berlin with Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Cole Porter with Kiss Me, Kate (1948).

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s mantle was at least partially passed to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-86), and composer Frederick Loewe (1901-88), in their series of rich and ambitious musicals: Brigadoon (1947), My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960) – the latter two starring Julie Andrews (1935-), who also starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original television musical, Cinderella (1957), which had an unprecedented viewership of over 107 million.

The 1950s did offer a counterbalance with several particularly successful musical comedies, though their songs now tended to be more directly related to their plots. Highlights include Frank Loesser’s (1910-69) nearly perfect Guys and Dolls (1950), Richard Adler (1921-2012) and Jerry Ross’s (1926-55) distinctive Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955), and Meredith Willson’s (1902-84) celebration of marching bands and small-town America, The Music Man (1957).

My Fair Lady

Poster for West Side Story showing Carol Lawrence dancing with Larry Kert. N.Y.C.: Printed by Artcraft Litho. & Ptg. Co. Inc., [1958]. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-15732

Starting in the late 50s, a new generation with their own unique aesthetics began to change the course of musicals. West Side Story (1957) was among the most radical: it called for a cast of young triple-threats (actors, singers and dancers), it was shockingly violent, the choreography by Jerome Robbins (1918-98) was athletic and near-constant, and Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-90) music was beyond demanding. Bye Bye Birdie (1960) introduced Lee Adams (1924-) and Charles Strouse (1928-) to Broadway, as well as a (mild version of) rock and roll. Jerry Herman (1931-) hit the jackpot with Hello, Dolly! (1964), starring the irrepressible comedienne Carol Channing (1921-), and produced by the controversial but prolifically successful David Merrick (1911-2000). Both shows were directed and choreographed by the inventive Gower Champion (1919-80). Jerry Bock (1928-2010) and Sheldon Harnick (1924) wrote a series of warm-hearted shows, with Fiddler on the Roof (1964) being an unexpected blockbuster. To the surprise of its creators, this show about family and changing traditions, set in a poor Jewish village in 1905 Russia, touched a nerve that resonated internationally. Cy Coleman (1929-2004), with his swinging, jazzy pop sound, combined with the sexy, off-kilter choreography (and direction) of Bob Fosse (1927-87), and the provocative sweetness of Gwen Verdon (1925-2000), turned Sweet Charity (1966) into a hit.

Harold Prince (1928-) began his career as a producer, initially under the tutelage of George Abbott (1887-1995), whose lengthy and hugely successful career included writing, directing and producing for both stage and film. But with Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me (1963), Prince began forging his way as a director as well. His direction of John Kander (1927-) and Fred Ebb’s (1928-2004) Cabaret (1966) made the theatrical community sit up and take notice and he became known for a new type of show, typically referred to as concept musicals. These shows were less plot-oriented, and focused more on ideas, milieus and topics. Starting with Company (1970) he established a collaboration with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim (1930-) that defined a new potential in musicals. Their collaboration included Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973) and Sweeney Todd (1979). Each show was unique in its score, its style and its approach; and Sondheim (who had been something of a protégé of Hammerstein) became widely regarded as the greatest lyricist in the history of the musical, and among its most sophisticated and daring composers.

While songs from musicals had long been a source of popular hits, with the advent of the rock era, they quickly became relegated to a niche market. With the popularity of Broadway waning, and production costs rising, off-Broadway and regional theaters became an increasing source of important new works. Some shows remained huge successes off-Broadway, sometimes running for years and maintaining a strong presence in productions nationally and internationally, such as Harvey Schmidt (1929-) and Tom Jones’(1928-2002) The Fantasticks (1960). Others, having proven their popularity, would transfer to Broadway – often to huge success. Among these shows were: Man of La Mancha (1966), Hair (1968), Godspell(1971), Annie (1977), A Chorus Line (1975), Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and Rent (1994). Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (1948-) was particularly successful in his move from off-Broadway (Godspell) to Broadway. In 1974 he achieved the rare coup of having three musicals playing in New York simultaneously, including Pippin (1972). Though the following years proved more difficult, he found the greatest success of his career (to date) with Wicked (2003 and still running).

Cole Porter

Detail from Cole Porter, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs

The 1970s began a steady decline in the quantity, popularity and success of new Broadway musicals, though there were certainly exceptions. One of the first of those occasional megahits was A Chorus Line (1975), which also seemed to cement the prominence of the director/choreographer . Here Michael Bennett (1943-87) filled the role, following in the footsteps of Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Gower Champion, and to be followed by Tommy Tune (1939-), Rob Marshall (1960-), and others. (Marshall has found particular success with film versions of musicals.)

The 1970s also brought the “British invasion.” Several of these shows had music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948-). Most of his biggest successes were extravagant spectacles first produced in London’s West End, and brought to Broadway by their producer, Cameron Mackintosh (1946-). Lloyd Webber’s pop-rock-opera scores include: Evita (1979), Cats (1982) and Phantom of the Opera (1988), currently the longest running show in Broadway history. Aside from co-producing Phantom of the Opera, Mackintosh’s biggest success to date is Les Misérables (1987), with music by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg (1944-) and lyrics by Alain Boublil (1941-) (the lyrics were translated into English and adapted for London and Broadway).

The state of musicals today is an odd mix. In addition to the prevalence of revivals, there are: jukebox musicals that use a preexisting catalog of songs (most of them not originally intended for the theater), such as Mamma Mia! (1999), an original story that incorporated the songs of the '70s group ABBA, and Jersey Boys (2005), which told the story of the popular '60s and '70s group the Four Seasons, and an increasing number of musicals based on films, such as The Producers (2001), Hairspray (2002), Billy Elliot (2008), and Once (2012). Some fascinating new and experimental works still find success, such as Light in the Piazza (2005), Spring Awakening (2006) and Next to Normal (2009), as does the occasional megahit like The Book of Mormon (2011).

Whatever its future, the musical has brought untold pleasure to millions of people. The best of its songs couple the wit, poetry and evocation of human thoughts and emotions in their lyrics, with music that is variously romantic, thrilling, dramatic, tender and exciting. They can be visually stunning. They can include choreography that’s as heart-stopping as any athletic performance or circus feat. They can feature performers of extraordinary talent and incandescence. Musicals can entertain, move, inform and change us. And they can be a lot of fun.

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