A brief history of the Musical

by Piero Scaruffi
A chapter of my History of Popular Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

To purchase the book

(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")

The Musical

New York: the Musical

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

A significant break with the formats of the vaudeville and the burlesque had been represented by the musical farce The Mulligan Guard Picnic (1878), scored by David Braham and starring comedians Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart, an evolution of the "Mulligan Shows" that Harrigan and Hart had performed around the country for years. Harrigan was the genius behind the storyline and the dialogues, which were taken mostly from everyday's life. This time the audience was laughing at itself, because Harrigan's focus was on ordinary lives. Both the vaudeville and the burlesque had required minimal linguistic skills in the audience, being mostly "physical" (singalong melodies, body movement, facial expressions, stereotyped characters, imitation and parody) while Harrigan's farces represented a significant step towards a more literate form. Ditto for the singers, who were sopranos (Edna May, Lillian Russell, Vivienne Segal) and contraltos (Fay Templeton), not prostitutes turned chanteuses.

Charles Hoyt's A Trip To Chinatown (1891), that included the tune After the Ball, and Whoop-Dee-Doo (1904), the vehicle for comedians Joe Weber and Lew Fields (still in the style of the burlesque), were some of the musical farces that were able to compete against Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, the real hits of the 1890s, imitated in New York by productions such as Reginald DeKoven's Robin Hood (1891), John Philip Sousa's El Capitan (1896), Leslie Stuart's Florodora (1900), whose six female stars (the "Florodora girls") became instant celebrities, Howard Talbot's A Chinese Honeymoon (1901).

Bob Cole's A Trip to Coontown (1898) was the first musical comedy entirely produced and performed by blacks in a Broadway theater (largely inspired to the routines of the minstrel show), followed by Will-Marion Cook's ragtime-tinged Clorindy the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), staged at the "Casino Theatre", and the highly successful In Dahomey (1902), that turned Antigua-born comedian Bert "Mr Nobody" Williams and minstrel George Walker into influential models for all black entertainers.

The European operetta was transplanted to New York by works such as Reginald DeKoven's Robin Hood (1890), Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland (1903) and Naughty Marietta (1910), with Sweet Mysterty of Life, Rudolf Friml's The Firefly (1912), mostly composed by immigrants.

The first complete artist of the musical comedy was George Cohan, a veteran vaudeville performer and successful songwriter (I Guess I'll Have To Telegraph My Baby, 1898), who composed the lavishly-choreographed musical melodrama Little Johnny Jones (1904), that, like its predecessor The Governor's Son (1901), shunned the random, implausible plots of the musical comedies for a coherent and cohesive storyline. It included the classics Yankee Doodle Dandy and Give My Regards to Broadway, and was blessed with unprecedented success, repeated by 45 Minutes From Broadway (1906), with Mary's a Grand Old Name, George Washington Jr (1906), with You're a Grand Old Flag, and several more. He also wrote That Haunting Melody for Vera Violetta (1911).

Cohan's equivalent in Britain was Lionel Monckton, who created the first British musical in which the songs "were" the plot (rather than the musical being a mere parade of mostly unrelated songs): The Arcadians (1909).

Russian-born Irving Berlin (Israel Baline), a former singing waiter, fused the worlds of Stephen Foster, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway in his simple, unpretentious hit songs: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911), that sounded more like a military march than a ragtime, Everybody's Doing It (1911) for Eddie Cantor, Play a Simple Melody and Syncopated Walk, off his first musical, Watch Your Step (1914), influenced by ragtime, composed for dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, God Bless America (1917) and Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning (1918), off the musical Yip Yip Yaphank (1918), A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody (1919), the signature song of the Ziegfeld follies. Their exuberance became the soundtrack of the Broadway musical in its infancy, merging syncopation (the craze of Tin Pan Alley) and melodrama. Later, Berlin continued to compose songs that defined their era: Mandy (1919), All Alone (1924), Blue Skies (1927), Marie (1929), Easter Parade (1933), White Christmas (1942). His best musical was perhaps Annie Get Your Gun (1946), that contained There's No Business Like Show Business and Anything you Can Do.

Jerome Kern's melodies highlighted musicals, staged in humble venues, such as Sally (1920) that were relatively humble and ordinary compared with the opulence of the extravaganzas that were being staged by the larger theaters. Jerome Kern had re-invented the "musical" by integrating music and story in everyday settings (not the fantasy lands of the operettas), thus wedding Sullivan's aesthetics and Cohan's aesthetics. He then began a collaboration with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II that peaked with Show Boat (1927), his masterpiece, based on the novel by Edna Ferber, a realistic saga produced by Ziegfeld that included several moments of high pathos (the spiritual Ol' Man River, Make Believe, You Are Love, the cakewalk Can't Help Lovin' That Man and Bill, the latter two the songs that turned Helen Morgan into a star). Kern then scored Roberta (1933), with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and Yesterdays, Mark Sandrich's film Top Hat (1935), with The Piccolino, Isn't This A Lovely Day, Cheek to Cheek and Top Hat White Tie and Tails, Swing Time (1936), with The Way You Look Tonight, the ambitious and experimental High Wide And Handsome (1937), with The Folks Who Live On The Hill, Lady Be Good (1941), with The Last Time I Saw Paris, etc.

George Gershwin's songs, versified mostly by his brother Ira Gershwin, represented a step forward in rhythm and sophistication, because Gershwin was fluent in both pop, jazz and classical music, a fact best represented by the jazz opera Blue Monday Blues (1922), the main attraction of George White's "Scandals" in 1922, the symphonic Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and the folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935), containing Summertime. After writing an Al Jolson hit, Swanee (1919), Gershwin entered the arena of Broadway musicals with Lady Be Good (1924), that launched the career of dancer Fred Astaire and established the trend of having the title-song as one of the main hits. Other musicals included Someone To Watch Over Me (1926), S'Wonderful (1927), the ballet An American in Paris (1929), I've Got a Crush on You (1930), I Got Rhythm (1930), that launched the careet of Ethel Merman (the band included Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Jack Teargarden, Gene Krupa), and a political satire, Of Thee I Sing (1931) that became the biggest hit of the decade. His Cuban Overture (1932) was one of the first Latin pieces to become popular in the USA.

Shuffle Along (1921) was entirely produced and performed by blacks (including the still unknown Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson). The music, including the hits Love Will Find a Way and I'm Just Wild About Harry, was scored by a veteran of the vaudeville and the minstrel-shows, Eubie Blake, who had already scored several ragtime hits. But, more importantly, it introduced white audiences to a wealth of negro dance styles, from tap dancing to jazz dancing, that had been developing in the clubs of Harlem. The success of that musical allowed Blake to score The Chocolate Dandies (1924), another showcase for negro dances that turned Josephine Baker into a star. Blake also crafted hits such as You Were Meant For Me (1923), Dixie Moon (1924) and "Memories of You" (1930). In the meantime another black composer, jazz pianist James Price Johnson, had scored Runnin' Wild (1923), whose main hit, Charleston, launched the biggest dance craze of the decade.

Ray Henderson, one of the most successful Tin Pan Alley composers, as proven by Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody (1918), Georgette (1922), That Old Gang Of Mine (1923), It All Depends on You (1924), Bye Bye Blackbird (1925), Alabama Bound (1925), I'm Sitting on Top of the World (1925), The Thrill Is Gone (1931), Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries (1931), teamed up with lyricists Lew Brown and Buddy George DeSylva, a trio that became a legend. They wrote Birth of the Blues and Black Bottom for George White's Scandals of 1925. Their youthful, exuberant Good News (1927) started the trend of satires of college life and incorporated most dancing styles of the time, such as the Charleston (The Varsity Drag), besides their hit The Best Things in Life Are Free. Their musicals were not particularly original but always contained a hit song or two: You're The Cream in my Coffee in Hold Everything (1928), Button Up Your Overcoat and You Are My Lucky Star in Follow Through (1929). They also composed Sonny Boy for Lloyd Bacon's film The Singing Fool (1928) and Keep Your Sunny Side Up and If I Had A Talking Picture of You for their own film Sunnyside Up (1929), one of the most innovative of the early musicals, as well as music for their sci-fi fantasy film Just Imagine (1930).

In the years after World War I, the musical became New York's premier form of entertainment. Harry Tierney's Irene (1919) and Vincent Youmans' No No Nanette (1925), the epitome of the "Roaring Twenties", with Tea For Two and I Want To Be Happy, were the most influential Broadway musicals, while Youmans' Wildflower (1923), with Bambolina, Czech-born Rudolf Friml's Rose Marie (1924) and The Vagabond King (1925), with Only a Rose, and Hungarian-born Sigmund Romberg's Student Prince (1924), with Gaudeamus Igitur and The Drinking Song, The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928), with Lover Come Back to Me, were still in the old format of the operetta. Will Ortman's Holka-Polka (1925) is only important because it marked Busby Berkeley's debut and his first experiment with eccentric choreography.

Bert Kalamar and Harry Rubenstein, that had already composed Who's Sorry Now (1923) and I Wanna Be Loved By You (1928), scored the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers (1928), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933).

London's main novelty at the time was Noel Coward, the new talent that made a splash with his first musicals: This Year of Grace (1928), that included A Room With a View and Dance Little Lady, and Bitter Sweet (1929), including I'll See You Again and If Love Were All, The Third Little Show (1931), with Mad Dogs and Englishmen, plus the revue Cavalcade (1931), with Twentieth Century Blues.

His competitors in Britain were Noel Gay (Richard Armitage), whose fortune peaked with Me And My Girl (1937), that included The Lambeth Walk, and Ivor Novello (David Davies), whose main musicals were Crest Of A Wave (1937), with Rose Of England, and Perchance To Dream (1945), with We'll Gather Lilacs

Richard Rodgers was the next giant of American pop music after Irving Berlin. With lyricist Lorenz Hart he composed a number of Broadway hits that already included some of Rodgers' memorable melodies: Manhattan (1925), My Heart Stood Still (1927), With A Song In My Heart (1929), Blue Moon (1934), The Most Beautiful Girl in the World (1935). This phase peaked with Babes In Arms (1937), the musical with My Funny Valentine, Johnny One Note and The Lady is a Tramp, and Pal Joey (1940), one of his most innovative works (considered the first musical about an anti-hero). Having refined the craft, Rodgers proceeded to revolutionize it after he partnered with Oscar Hammerstein II with Oklahoma (1944), a daring work that did not rely on gags or girls or catchy melodies but on a "dramatic" story and "dramatic" characters (the songs were monologues and dialogues, not just lyrics), a musical that employed avantgarde dancers (choreographed by Agnes DeMille) instead of chorus girls (and whose dancing numbers were about the story and not mere stage effects). It was also the first musical ever recorded in its entirety on an LP. Rodgers' most experimental work was Allegro (1947), a melodic fantasia rather than a simple sequence of songs. Along the way they charmed the audience with immensely popular tunes such as You'll Never Walk Alone (1945), The Gentleman Is A Dope (1947), Some Enchanted Evening (1949), South Pacific (1949), Whistle a Happy Tune (1951). The album of The Sound of Music (1959) charted for seven years. Rodgers' and Hammerstein's musicals crystallized an American view of the world, that relied on traditional moral values and faith in the USA as a paradise on Earth.

The Great Depression and the talking movie were supposed to bury the Broadway musical, but, instead, the 1930s turned out to be its golden age. In a sense, the Broadway musical cannibalized both its enemies: it turned the Great Depression and its mood into an epic theme, and it turned the talking movie into a vehicle to perpetuate the musical itself. The big losers were the erotic revues (Ziegfeld's "Follies", White's "Scandals" and Carroll's "Vanities") that looked antiquated and definitely out of touch with the zeitgeist of the Great Depression.

Arthur Schwartz's Three's A Crowd (1930) and especially The Band Wagon (1931), the ultimate "backstage" musical, scripted by playwright George Kaufman and containing Dancing In The Dark, and Harold Rome's Pins and Needles (1937) were musicals that reflected their times. So was Vernon Duke's all-black allegory Cabin In The Sky (1940), that made vocalist Lena Horne's fortune (but, despite the cast of black stars, it contained no black music but melodic ditties such as Takin' A Chance on Love). Russian-born Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky) also composed April In Paris (1932), Autumn in New York (1934) and I Can't Get Started Without You (1936) for other revues. Expelled from Germany, Kurt Weill also analyzed American society in Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), the psychoanalytical thriller Lady in the Dark (1941) and Lost in the Stars (1949), scripted by Maxwell Anderson. Not so in London, where the hits were Ivor Novello's The Dancing Years (1939) and Noel Gay's Me and My Girl (1937), two rather shallow works.

However, the real genius of the decade was Cole Porter, the first New York songwriter who was not afraid to talk about sex, as he proved in Paris (1928), Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929) and The Gay Divorcee (1932), as well as in tunes such as I'm In Love Again (1924), What Is This Thing Called Love? (1929) and Love for Sale (1930). His melodic craft reached its zenith with Anything Goes (1934), followed by several other top-notch musicals and by tunes such as I've Got You Under My Skin (1936), In The Still of the Night (1937), My Heart Belongs to Daddy (1938), etc. His greatest triumph came with the "backstage" musical Kiss Me Kate (1948), based on William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, followed by Can-Can (1953) and the jazzy soundtrack for Charles Walters' film High Society (1956), featuring Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Hollywood: the Musical Films

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Music had been part of cinema since its inception, but the musical score was neither controlled by the film producer nor the same for each projection: it was up to the theater to decide which musicians to hire (usually only one per projection, an organist) and it was largely up to the musician to write or improvise the music for the film. Rudolph Valentino popularized the tango in Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), but it was the dance, not the music, that caught the imagination of world audiences. Many of Valentino's fans had no idea what a tango sounded like.

Occasionally the studio would provide the theaters with "suggestions" on what kind of music to play. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) first came with an orchestral "soundtrack" prepared by Joseph-Carl Briel that featured music by Liszt, Verdi, Beethoven, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, then came with an original score composed by Victor Herbert. Classical composers were frequently asked to work on such film scores. In France, Arthur Honegger composed the music for Abel Gance's La Roue (1923) and Napoleon (1927), while Erik Satie composed music for Rene' Clair's Entr'acte (1924). In Russia, Edmund Meisel composed the music for Sergei Eisenstein's masterpiece Potemkin (1926), an even more sensational and organic piece of music. Several more classical composers scored the music for important silent films. For the theaters that could not afford an orchestra, the American Photoplayer Company introduced a seven-meter long player-piano, the "Fotoplayer Style", that could play orchestral music as well as sound effects, so that each theater could customize its own sountrack (about 10,000 were built between 1910 and 1928). And it was for a film, Alan Crosland's Don Juan (1926), that 16-inch 33 1/3 RPM records were introduced (a size and a speed determined by the size and speed of a reel of film).

What studios did provide was "theme" songs, that usually accompanied the movie: Charmaine, composed by Erno Rapee for Raoul Walsh's What Price Glory (1926), based on a Hungarian waltz from 1913, Diane, composed again by Erno Rapee for Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven (1927), Ramona, another waltz, composed by Mabel Wayne for Edwin Carewe's Ramona (1928), etc

In 1926 Alan Crosland's Don Juan was released with a musical soundtrack prepared by the studio. The evening opened with a short musical film in which movement and sound were synchronized, the first public demonstration of Lee Forest's "Vitaphone". Another short musical film was made in 1927 of Xavier Cugart's tango orchestra.

The "talking" movies were officially born with Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927), a musical adaptation of Samson Raphaelson's The Day of Atonement (1926), already staged on Broadway, but turned by the Warner studios into a suite of melodies from disparate sources (Tchaikowsky, Hebrew folk music, Irving Berlin's Blue Skies) and a vehicle for pop star Al Jolson. This film was, actually, mostly silent. Lloyd Bacon's The Singing Fool (1928) was more of the same, but Ray Henderson's Sonny Boy became a nation-wide hit (the soundtrack included several older Henderson-Brown-DaSylva songs), and caused an avalanche: the Hollywood studios started hiring Broadway stars (Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Marilyn Miller) as well as foreign stars (Maurice Chevalier) and providing them with vehicles for their debut on the big screen. Charles Reisner directed the Hollywood Revue (1929), which was really a Broadway revue starring Marie Dressler next to Hollywood comedians such as Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and that included Nacio Herb Brown's Singin' in The Rain and You Were Meant for Me. The "Ziegfeld Follies" were immortalized in Thornton Freeland's musical film Whoopee (1930), that included Walter Donaldson's Making Whoopee and My Baby Just Cares for Me, was choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and turned Eddie Cantor into a star. The studios also began transposing Broadway hits to the big screen, and one of them, Roy Del Ruth's 1929 version of Sigmund Romberg's The Desert Song (1926), is credited with being the first fully musical operetta of cinema, followed by an adaptation of Irving Berlin's The Cocoanuts (1925) for the Marx Brothers, and by Harry Pollard's version of Jerome Kern's Show Boat (1927), all of them in 1929.

After these tentative marriages of picture and sound came the first serious talking movies: King Vidor's Halleluja (1929) was the first musical drama, dedicated to negro music (mostly spirituals plus Irving Berlin's Waiting At The End Of The Road), Ernst Lubitsch's The Love Parade (1929) was the first musical comedy (protagonist Maurice Chevalier), scored by Victor Schertzinger (Dream Lover, March of the Grenadiers), Rouben Mamoulian's Applause (1929) was the first "backstage" musical, starring Helen Morgan and including Jay Gorney's What I Wouldn't Do For That Man?. But perhaps the first real musical should be considered The Broadway Melody (1929), scored by Nacio Herb Brown and directed by Harry Beaumont, the composer being much more important than the director (Wedding of the Painted Doll, You Were Meant for Me).

Nacio Herb Brown was a towering figure of the era, crafting (besides those 1929 hits): the instrumental Doll Dance (1921), Singin' in The Rain (1929), Pagan Love Song (1929), The Broadway Melody (1930), Paradise (1932), Eadie Was A Lady (1932), Beautiful Girl (1933), Temptation (1933), All I Do Is Dream of You (1934), You Are My Lucky Star (1936), I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin' (1936), Good Morning (1939), I'm Feelin' Like a Million (1938), Alone (1940), Make 'Em Laugh (1952), all them created for movie soundtracks.

After one year, the novelty was already old news, and the cinematic musical seemed dead. Instead, along came choreographer Busby Berkeley and composer Harry Warren (real name Salvatore Guaragna), already the author of Rose Of The Rio Grande (1922), I Found a Million-Dollar Baby (1930) and You're My Everything (1931), a couple that crafted Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street (1933), with Lullaby of Broadway, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me and 42nd Street, Mervin LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), with High Life, I've Got To Sing A Torch Song, Pettin' In The Park, Remember My Forgotten Man, Shadow Waltz, especially The Gold Diggers' Song/ We're In The Money, and Lloyd Bacon's Footlight Parade (1933), with Honeymoon Hotel and Shanghai Lil. Berkeley redefined the musical as a visual and dynamic show in which the opulence is not due to the stage effects but to the colorful and geometric patterns created by the dancers. Thus 1933 became a watershed year. The golden age of the Hollywood musical had just begun.

Warren's later hits (written for a variety of films) included: I Found a Million Dollar Baby (1931), You're My Everything (1931), I Only Have Eyes For You (1934), The Girl At The Ironing Board (1934), The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (1934), Lulu's Back In Town (1935), September In The Rain (1937), You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby (1938), Daydreaming (1938), Jeepers Creepers (1938), Chattanooga Choo Choo (1940), There Will Never Be Another You (1942), You'll Never Know (1943), On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe (1945), The More I See You (1945). He wrote more than 900 songs. The soundtracks and the songs make Warren one of the most influential composers of both Hollywood and Broadway of all times.

Broadway veteran Vincent Youmans scored the hits (Carioca, Flying Down To Rio) of Thornton Freeland's Flying Down To Rio (1933), another important step in the development of the cinematic musical because it inaugurated the legendary dancing/singing couple of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They were the stars of Mark Sandrich's 1934 version of Cole Porter's The Gay Divorcee, that included only one Porter original and a set of new songs (notably Con Conrad's The Continental and Needle in a Haystack), William Seiter's 1934 version of Kern's Roberta and, finally, their quintessential musical, Mark Sandrich's Top Hat (1935), scored by Irving Berlin.

Harold Arlen, the veteran of the "Cotton Club", was called in to score Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939), the musical that turned Judy Garland into a star, and Arlen delivered one of most famous ballads of all times, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Arlen's other Hollywood hits were: Last Night When We Were Young (1935), Lydia the Tatoo'd Lady (1939), Blues in the Night (1941), perhaps his artistic peak, That Old Black Magic (1942), Happiness is a Thing Called Joe (1943), Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (1944), Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home (1946). He wrote more than 400 songs.

Two important "musicals" of the age did not follow the Hollywood dogmas: Sergey Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), scored by classical composer Sergey Prokofiev, and Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), a cartoon that introduced stereo sound. Also notable was Michael Curtiz's Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a musical biography of George Cohan.

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope starred in a series of musical comedies, starting with Victor Schertzinger's The Road To Singapore (1940) and ending 22 years later. Both became enormously popular. Bob Hope's signature song was Leo Robin's Thanks For The Memory (1938).

The Post-war musical

See my list of the best musicals of all times.
Rock | Germany | Japan | Italy | France | Scandinavia | Latin America | Africa | India | Jamaica | Country | Soul | Musical | Film Music | Blues | Rhythm'n'Blues |Pop

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

Other histories | Main music page