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What is a Musical?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments
By Charred — On May 25, 2011

@miriam98 - From what I’ve seen, every genre has its formats. Plays take to the stage because they rely more on the expressiveness of the dialogue. In the same way, musicals tend to take to the stage for similar reasons—they rely more on singing and choreography than they do on the subtler elements of film.

You’re more likely to see a Broadway musical than a musical in film because the actors tell their story more through their own vocal prowess than through visual elements like scenery. In the Cabaret musical, for example, there is a simple love story set in Western Germany, and of course the love story takes place in a cabaret between a Jewish man and a German lady, so of course it lends itself to a musical format.

By miriam98 — On May 22, 2011

@everetra - As to your question about why we don’t see more of this stuff in film, I just think it just takes a lot more production effort to make a musical. Yes, there are the actors who must sing, but then there are composers, choreographers, different lighting schemes and so forth.

I don’t know if the general public likes these films or not. Some people, clearly young people, think musicals are old-fashioned. But I say, there’s a market for everything and Hollywood should produce more of these kinds of films.

By David09 — On May 21, 2011

@everetra - I prefer Hairspray the musical myself. I guess because the star is an overweight girl who learns to dance, sing and make it big. That’s what makes it a different kind of movie for me. It’s kind of opposite of what you would expect from a typical Hollywood movie where the leads look like models from glamour magazines.

By everetra — On May 18, 2011

I love the Sound of Music. In my opinion it’s the best film ever made. I know that’s a shock to some people—supposedly Citizen Kane is supposed to be the best film ever, but I’ve never understood that. It pales in comparison to the Sound of Music.

What I want to know is why filmmakers don’t make more musicals like they used to. Is it because there aren’t enough talented actors who can both dance and sing, or do the movie moguls think the public doesn’t care for this genre anymore?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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