Musical theatre, or just musicals, is an art form at the intersection of theater and music. It is a relatively new genre, and widely regarded as distinct from opera, though the distinction between the two genres can often be rather poorly defined. There is also some overlap between "concept albums" and musicals. A concept album is a piece of popular music that consists of several discrete songs that nonetheless dwell upon a common theme or tell a coherent story. Indeed some musicals were initially written as concept albums and vice versa.
|“||No matter what you do on the stage
Keep it light, keep it bright, keep it gay!
Whether it's murder, mayhem or rage
Don't complain, it's a pain
Keep it gay!
—Broadway adaptation of The Producers
The term "musical theatre" originated as a descriptive term for any theatrical performance that included music, but today specifically refers to a piece of theater where much — or all — of the dialogue is sung. Although considered by most experts to be a distinct genre from opera, the distinction between the two art forms is often not very well defined, and there are several high-profile works that straddle the boundaries of the two. Many musicals contain some spoken dialogue, but many are entirely sung-through (or rapped-through) with no spoken dialogue at all. An actor in a musical can be reasonably expected to be a "triple threat" who is reasonably competent in singing, dancing and acting.
While not all musicals include choreography or dancing, it is often said "When the emotions get too strong for speaking, the actors sing and when the emotions get too strong for singing, the actors dance".
A major limitation of musical compared to theater is that while it is primarily a narrative form (unlike opera where the plot is often secondary), a minute of song usually contains fewer words than a minute of spoken dialog and due to the structure of song much of that is repeated. Musicals thus have to place a great emphasis on reminiscence themes, choreography and other cues to transport what would be done by text in other theatrical productions. Those factors and the relatively recent emergence of the art form have led some to dismiss the musical as incapable of telling the complex stories of theater or reaching the musical complexities of opera, but there are in fact no limitations on what musicals can do, and a well made and performed musical has no reason to be considered a "lesser art form" in any way. That said, countries that subsidize certain operas or theaters as "high culture" usually do not do the same for musicals.
The origins of musical theatre are said to be in a genre of opera known as the operetta, which featured light-hearted plots, catchy music, and often risqué humour as well. This genre originally developed in France, Austria and Germany in the 19th century, with Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II being the most famous composers of this genre. The genre would spread from the Continent to Britain, where it would develop in its own unique direction with the work of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and to America, where it would be further developed by the work of Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart. It was these forms that would eventually evolve into modern-day musical theatre.
The first musical is said to be The Black Crook, which premiered on Broadway on 12 September 1866. Although musicals have developed within the last two hundred years, they only became extremely popular in areas like New York's Broadway in the early 20th century and were a major form of entertainment in the United States for over 50 years. During the 1930s, musicals reached their greatest audience and became an important form of entertainment in America.
One way to distinguish the predecessors of modern musicals from the modern form is the tone of the work. While many early forms of musical entertainment went for nothing but laughter, modern musicals can be quite sad and dark or even political, transmitting a serious message. Many historians of musical theatre consider Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat (1926) the first modern musical, because unlike the popular musical comedies of George M. Cohan and his predecessors, it dealt with controversial issues — in this case, miscegenation (interracial marriage) and racial discrimination — and used a mixed-race cast. While many light-hearted musical comedies have continued to be written and performed, quite a number of serious musicals have made an impact since 1926 (too many to mention, but South Pacific [1949 opening on Broadway], West Side Story  and Rent  are a few examples).
The concept musical is a genre popularized starting in the 1960s, centered around a theme or a setting, rather than a plot. Some famous authors are Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Starlight Express) and Stephen Sondheim (Pacific Overtures, Assassins). There is a certain overlap with a "concept album" which is an album organized around a common theme or plot - some musicals have started out as concept albums either in conception or release. (e.g. "Hamilton" or "American Idiot")
A more recent development in musical theatre is the jukebox musical, which is a musical that makes use of only pre-existing songs and does not feature any original songs, the most famous examples being Mamma Mia (ABBA), Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), Rock of Ages (1980s glam metal) and Motown: The Musical. While most film musicals have traditionally been adaptations of stage musicals, the trend began to reverse with 42nd Street in 1980, followed by The Producers in 2001, with Disney in particular having scored successes with stage adaptations of their film musicals like The Lion King, Aladdin and Mary Poppins.
In musical theatre, the term book is used to refer to spoken text and staging directions, while lyrics are sung texts. However, sometimes all of the above are covered in a libretto.
Perhaps the best known venues for musicals are Broadway in New York City and the West End in London. As this indicates, many of the world's best known musicals were written in English, and the English language market is still the most important. Most venues tend to only show one musical at a time, with repeat performances as long as there is sufficient demand, and then replace it with something new when interest wanes. As such the revenue of individual venues greatly depends on the success of their productions and it is quite some feat to have the same show performed for years or even decades on end. As musicals are an art form notoriously hard to translate well (much of the lyrics depend on rhyme, timing and word play and both text and music are important and need to work as a harmonious whole with all parts supplementing each other) musicals often have problems "exporting" which however doesn't stop authors and producers from trying. Interestingly this sometimes leads to musicals enjoying a much longer and more successful run abroad in a different language market than at home as the translated text somehow "works" better and/or manages to hit a note with the different audience. For example, Les Misérables was only a modest success when the original French version premiered in Paris in 1980, while the English version became a global sensation after its London premiere in 1985, to the point that the London version is better known than the original even in France itself. Similarly, perhaps due to cultural differences, there have been West End hits that were flops on Broadway and vice versa. Examples of the former include Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Chess (1986) and Aspects of Love (1989).
What Broadway is to musicals in the US, the West End is to musicals in England, to the extent that the terminology "off-West End" has been created in analogy to "off-Broadway" (originally a geographic designation, now mostly one of seating capacity). However, shows written for the English market often have a stint at Broadway and vice versa.
- 1 Apollo Victoria Theatre. At 2328 seats, this is the largest musical theatre on the West End of London. From 1984 to 2002 (18 years in all) it played host to Starlight Express (though the Bochum venue has since beaten this 18-year run by over a decade).
- 2 Piccadilly Theatre.
- 3 Victoria Palace Theatre. This theater was built in 1911, and was extensive renovated in 2016/17. As of 2018 Hamilton is played here and it is easier to get tickets here than at Broadway.
For several decades, Broadway has been the place most associated with musicals. Despite American English in general preferring the spelling "theater", most venues on Broadway use the somewhat idiosyncratic (but not uncommon in major American cities) spelling "Theatre" as is the generally accepted spelling in British English.
- 4 Gershwin Theatre. At 1933 seats, this is the largest venue by seating capacity on Broadway
- 5 Broadway Theatre.
- 6 Richard Rodgers Theatre. This theater has been the site of eleven winners of the Tony Award for "Best Play" - more than any other on Broadway, including the Broadway debuts of Hamilton and In the Heights, as well as 1776 and Guys and Dolls
- 7 Starlight Express Theater, Bochum. A venue built for the eponymous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, putting on that show (and nothing else) since June 1988. The play is notable for featuring a lot of roller skating and the venue is built to accommodate that.
- 8 Hamburg Harbor Musical Venues. The Stage Entertainment GmbH, one of Germany's biggest musical theatre companies owns two venues right next to each other in Hamburg, Theater im Hafen Hamburg which has been showing Der König der Löwen (Lion King) since 2001 and 9 Theater an der Elbe which opened in 2014 and ran four different shows in the next four years.
- 10 Mehr!-Theater am Großmarkt. At 2418 seats and some 3,500 spaces for standing room-only events, this is Hamburg's biggest musical theatre venue, run by the same company that also runs the Starlight Express venue in Bochum, but unlike the latter, this venue is not intended to play host to a single production but rather has frequently changing events, including stand-alone concerts or guest performances by touring theaters. The venue was integrated into the existing Großmarkt, a large wholesaler largely focused on perishable goods.
Many of the songs in the musicals were eventually turned into jazz standards because the melodies had good structures and chord sequences for improvising on. While musicals have eventually branched into several types of music and Hamilton famously is a hip-hop musical about "a man who embodies hip-hop" (Alexander Hamilton, according to the musical's creator Lin Manuel Miranda), there is a distinct style of music usually employed for at least some songs in a musical, called "show tunes". Another common feature of musicals is not so much one of musical style but rather of lyric content, the so-called "I want song" which usually appears within the first quarter hour of the show and is usually sung by the main character expressing her or his (unfulfilled) desires and/or motivations, i.e. what the character wants, thus establishing the character and possibly setting up the conflict driving the narrative. Those songs are among those musical numbers most likely to "survive" outside the musical and become popular even among people who don't know the musical. Examples of such songs include "No Matter What", which is better known for the chart-topping cover version by Irish band Boyzone, but was written for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind (1996), and "You'll Never Walk Alone", which has been adopted by supporters of Liverpool FC as their club anthem and is better known as such, but was written for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel (1945). In fact, there have been cases of individual songs becoming massive hits even when the entire production as a whole was a flop.
Many of the earlier songs in musicals had simple melodies; they were designed so they would be easy for the musical's performers to sing. This usually meant that the notes did not make large jumps as they did in many of the songs for movies of the same era. For this reason, songs like "Invitation" and "Green Dolphin Street", which were written for films, are harder to sing than the songs in musicals. However in the last third of the 20th century, the demand for singing talent in movie actors has become rarer, the result being that musical stage actors typically have more singing ability than film actors, resulting in movie adaptations of musicals sometimes having to overdub the singing or excising songs that would be too complicated for the actors.
When musicals are performed, the songs often include introductions, but these are often omitted in concert performances.
At most Broadway and West End musicals, merchandise is sold at the venue. Typical examples of merchandise include colouring books, mugs, t-shirts and detailed programme booklets.
When attending a performance, you are generally expected to remain silent at all times. Children are generally welcome as long as they can sit still and do not make too much noise. You can applaud at the end of a particularly challenging musical number, as well as at the end of the performance, though cheering like at a ball game is not appropriate. Try to be at the performance venue on time; if you are late, you will usually not be let in until the next interval or intermission so you do not distract the performers and other audience members.
Dress at a musical tends to be smart casual. That said, you generally will not be denied entry as long as you are not topless or dressed in rags.