Styles & Forms | Musicals | Soundtracks & Theatre

From the eclectic musical melting pot of ragtime, Gilbert & Sullivan, early jazz, Viennese operetta, blackface minstrel shows and authentic Deep-South blues emerged the Broadway show tune. ‘Show’ and ‘tune’, of course, are the essential indicators of musical style.

The music created for Broadway musicalsand, subsequently, for the musical form whatever its geographical origin – is conditioned by its theatrical and dramatic role within a show, as well as the need to have the audience humming the tunes as they leave the theatre.

The first generation of musical-theatre composers, who included George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, were tunesmiths of the highest order. Many were Jewish émigrés. As young men they eagerly embraced the music of a different displaced community of an earlier generation, the African-American. Perhaps it was their distinctly melodic Jewish Cantor tradition, combined with the emerging music of the black ghetto, that was to create the unique, vibrant and soulful sounds of Broadway, represented by songs ranging from ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘On Your Toes’ to ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. Whatever the reason, this generation gave birth to what is sometimes called the Golden Age of the musical, dating, roughly, from Show Boat in 1927 to Gypsy in 1959. The father of them all was Jerome Kern. When asked what Kern’s place in American music was, Richard Rodgers replied, simply: ‘Jerome Kern is American music.’

In Kern’s Show Boat, part of the distinguishing purpose of the music was to explore the themes of the show. ‘Ol’ Man River’ has a majestic simplicity, creating a sense of time passing that brings both change and continuity, while ‘Life Upon The Wicked Stage’ has a cheerful mischievousness, brilliantly capturing the ‘playful’ character of showgirls. And if Kern gave musical theatre its first melodic voice, then it was his lyricist collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein, who gave musical theatre an understanding of its theatrical and dramatic role.

The Theatricality And Drama Of Musical Theatre

Although he was not a composer, Hammerstein brought theatricality and dramatic intent to the musical form. His music and songs, usually referred to as ‘numbers’, are geared for theatrical presentation. There are dance numbers, production numbers (involving elaborate sets and costumes), closing numbers, and so on. The songs are often written for a specific time within the show. The ‘11 o’clock number’ will have enough punch and energy to give the show a lift when, late in the second act, it might start to sag a little – the title song from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’, from Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls, are examples.

Equally important is dramatic function. In The King And I, when the head wife of the king sings ‘Something Wonderful’ to the children’s governess, Mrs. Anna, the song not only reveals the wife’s feelings for her husband and a side of...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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