Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Between the Lines - Musicals - The Early Years


Anyone who knows me knows I love musicals, so during 2020 I am going to do a very short history of musical theatre over six bimonthly posts. This will by no means be an exhaustive account, but I will aim to highlight key writers, productions, and styles for each period. So, come with me and let’s start the fun...

The origins of musicals are debatable. Some point to the combination of music and drama in Ancient Greece. Others look to the interspersion of popular ballads in 18th century plays, such as Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. While others claim modern musical theatre grew out of operetta. You could argue how far back to go all day, but for the purposes of this post I am going to kick things off in the 1800s.

By the middle of the 19th century, the popularity of comic and romantic opera was at its height, and from this opéra bouffe emerged, the greatest proponent of which was Jacques Offenbach. His best-known work is Orpheus in the Underworld (still regularly performed today)—a zany take on Greek myth, incorporating the ‘Galop infernale’ of can-can fame. Many other shows followed, penned by Offenbach and others, both in France and in other parts of Europe. Another notable piece (again often still revived) is Johann Struass’ Die Fledermaus.

For a while the English contented themselves with adaptations of these foreign hits, but by the mid 1860s they were attempting some works of their own. Enter W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Through Gilbert and Sullivan, English opéra bouffe finally found its voice, and there followed a string of hits through the 1870s and 1880s, including HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. The shows written by Gilbert and Sullivan are rarely off the stage these days, partly through professional productions, but mostly thanks to their popularity with amateur operatic societies.

Then followed the Gaiety Theatre musicals of the 1890s and 1900s. These bright and bubbly musical comedies included lively songs and dances, were usually set in the modern era, and included many laughs and cases of mistaken identity along the way.

To find out what happened next, come back in March!

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