The Golden Age of the American book musical on Broadway spans about 40 years. It began with the 1927 premiere of Show Boat by Kern and Hammerstein and came to an end in 1964 with Fiddler on the Roof by Bock, Harnick and Stein. In this four-part series, we’re going to consider what defines the genre, what circumstances led to the development of the book musical, and what some of the important musicals from the period are. In Part 1, we define the genre- American book musical.
Musicals Prior to Show Boat
It’s important to remember that once the book musical was created that particular genre was not the only type of musical being produced by composers, lyricists and book writers. But the book musical was, overall, the dominant genre for almost 40 years and it is, perhaps even more importantly, a genre indigenous to our nation. American artists created the book musical.
Show Boat is considered to be the first true book musical. Prior to Show Boat other popular musical theatre genres in the U.S. were English operetta, musical comedy, the musical revue, the minstrel show, the extravaganza and burlesque. Some of these types of musical theatre were similar to the book musical and although many came from other counties, each was made “American” in some way or another.
Music Prior to the Book Musical
These musicals tended to focus on music and singing first, and then lyrics and story last. Characters were either one or two dimensional and the plot in each, if there was one, was thin. Depending on the genre, the music in these pieces usually had some sort of an American sound. Still, the style of music varied a lot with operetta bearing the heaviest European influence and the minstrel show and musical comedy offering that American Tin Pan Alley sound, which was often connected to jazz, blues, ragtime or folk music. Book musicals might certainly be influenced by European traditions but they had a sound that was to some degree connected to American musical styles, modes and genres.
Defining the American Book Musical
What elements comprise the American book musical? There are five basic aspects that delineate the genre.
- There is an emphasis on character. The characters tend to be realistically drawn, which means their actions are motivated by what they want. Also, the characters have background stories that connect them to the other characters. Their actions are usually psychologically verifiable.
- There is a focus on story. Around the central plot, there are numerous subplots. The stories are well structured and have a beginning, middle and end.
- Music, lyrics and dance are motivated by characters, situations and/or the plot.
- These musicals are dialogue heavy. Characters tend to speak in what is an overall realistic manner.
- The music is influenced by American idioms, the lyrics, which are poetic, are connected to American English and the book uses dialogue that is written realistically.
These are the five major elements that define what we call the American book musical. When utilized creatively, artistically and in a balanced fashion, they work together to offer an evening of entertainment that is a unified, artistic entity.
Forces at Work
These elements were not born out of thin air and the American book musical did not spontaneously appear on Broadway stages. There were numerous forces at work that led to the creation of the book musical in America. In Part 2, The American Book Musical Forces at Work, we look at what influences, innovations and individuals were responsible for the birth of this unique genre.