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Musical theatre

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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.


The term "musical theatre" was originally 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 dialog 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 which straddle the boundaries of the two. Many musicals contain some spoken words, but many also consist entirely of sung (or rapped) words with no spoken words 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". Another aspect that is sometimes used 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, transporting a "serious" message.

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 less 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 leitmotifs, 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 distinct art form have led some to dismiss 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 first ever 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 an extremely popular activity in places like Broadway around the 1920s and were a major form of entertainment in the United States for about thirty years. During the 1930s, musicals reached their greatest audience and became an important form of entertainment in America.

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" and "Rock of Ages". While most film musicals have traditionally been adaptations of stage musicals, the trend has begun to reverse in the 21st century, with Disney in particular having scored successes with stage adaptations of their film musicals like "The Lion King", "Aladdin" and "Mary Poppins".


Map of Musical theatre

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 originally 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 opened 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).

West End[edit]

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 originally 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) Apollo Victoria Theatre on Wikipedia Apollo Victoria Theatre (Q2984248) on Wikidata
  • 2 Piccadilly Theatre. Piccadilly Theatre on Wikipedia Piccadilly Theatre (Q7190566) on Wikidata
  • 3 Victoria Palace Theatre. Originally built in 1911, this venue saw extensive renovation in 2016/17. As of 2018 Hamilton is played here and it is more feasible to get tickets here than at Broadway. Victoria Palace Theatre on Wikipedia Victoria Palace Theatre (Q7926899) on Wikidata


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 Gershwin Theatre on Wikipedia Gershwin Theatre (Q1515007) on Wikidata
  • 5 Broadway Theatre. Broadway Theatre (53rd Street) on Wikipedia The Broadway Theatre (Q2925870) on Wikidata
  • 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 both the Broadway debut of Hamilton and In the Heights as well as 1776 and Guys and Dolls Richard Rodgers Theatre on Wikipedia Richard Rodgers Theatre (Q7328714) on Wikidata



  • 7 Starlight Express Theater, Bochum. A venue purpose built for the eponymous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, putting on that show (and nothing else) since June 1988 - for three decades and counting. The play is notable for featuring a lot of roller skating and the venue is built to accommodate that. Starlight Express theatre (Q1476029) on Wikidata


  • 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 has seen four different shows in its four year existence as of 2018. Theater im Hafen (Q835524) on Wikidata
  • 10 Mehr!-Theater am Großmarkt. At 2418 seats and some three and a half thousand 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 is integrated into the pre-existing Großmarkt a large wholesaler largely focused on perishable goods. (Q22952556) on Wikidata


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) desire(s) and/or motivation(s) 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 originally 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 originally 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 twentieth 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 usually forgotten over time.

Important songwriters/lyricists[edit]

  • Gilbert and Sullivan were a duo of 19th century English musical figures who wrote wildly successful and still widely quoted and parodied works like "H.M.S. Pinafore" and "The Pirates of Penzance". Even if you think you don't know their work, songs in the style of the "Major General Song" have become a staple of musical comedy not only in the Anglosphere. However, Gilbert and Sullivan actually wrote operettas, not musicals.
  • George Gershwin was one of the best-known figures in earlier musicals; he composed the tune "Summertime" in the 1920s. His brother, Ira Gershwin, was a well-known lyricist who wrote the lyrics to many of his hit songs.
  • Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II were a composer-lyricist pairing that gave rise to many all-time classics such as "The King and I", "The Sound of Music", "Carousel", "South Pacific" and "Oklahoma!".
  • Lorenz Hart was an important lyricist in the musicals whose tunes are found in the American songbook.
  • Jerome Kern wrote a tune called "The Song is You" in the 1930s.
  • Cole Porter was a composer and lyricist who gave rise to "Kiss Me, Kate", the musical that won the inaugural Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as several other well-known ones such as "Anything Goes" and "Fifty Million Frenchmen".
  • Stephen Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist who was involved in many old-time classics such as "A Little Night Music", "Sweeney Todd" and "West Side Story"
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber, perhaps the most successful name in the game, was the mastermind behind several hugely successful musicals enjoying decades long runs in both London and New York as well as abroad (bizarrely, his musical "Starlight Express" while only moderately successful in the Anglosphere is an enduring phenomenon in Bochum). Besides writing musicals, Lloyd Webber is also the founder of Really Useful Group, which owns several musical theatre venues and associated businesses.
  • Lin Manuel Miranda is the author of the moderately successful "In the Heights" and the pop culture phenomenon "Hamilton" about the founding fathers, also a singer in his own right, starring in the title role of the original Broadway Hamilton. He has won a Pullitzer Price an Emmy a Grammy and a Tony being "just" an Oscar short of "Pegot" a feature few artists of any kind have ever achieved




See also[edit]

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