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'History Has Its Eyes on You': 5 Musicals That Changed Broadway

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |


Before Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and The Band’s Visit, these shows broke serious ground

Shelf life, as well as a significant influence on how the musical theater form evolves, are often the criteria by which innovative musicals are assessed. Recent Best Musical Tony winners – such as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and The Band’s Visit – each take bold steps outside of the box, and have the potential to be recognized by posterity as game-changing musicals. Time will be the official test of their legacy, but here are their precursors: five groundbreaking musicals of decades past that have already wielded great influence on how musical theater has evolved.

 

The cast of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The cast of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

1927: Show Boat

In the 1920s, musical theater basically fell into two categories: the operetta and the lighthearted musical comedy. This is what populated myriad theaters around the Great White Way. When composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II decided to adapt Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel Show Boat for the musical stage, a few surprising things happened. Operetta and musical comedy found a happy marriage in serious musical theatre storytelling. Show Boat was quite unlike anything that came before, exploring difficult issues such as racism and miscegenation. It also successfully attempted to use musical theatre song to further plot and character development, featuring a mostly integrated score that would be the precursor to Oklahoma!.  

1943: Oklahoma!

If Show Boat laid the foundation for the integrated musical, Oklahoma! represents the full realization of its possibilities. Hammerstein, paired with composer Richard Rodgers, took what he gained while creating Show Boat and parlayed that into the enormously successful musical adaptation of Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grown the Lilacs. Show Boat, for all its success, didn’t cement the change in musical theater writing; it simply demonstrated the possibilities. It would take sixteen years before its influence was perfected with Oklahoma!, a marvel of how book, music and dance – thanks to the groundbreaking work of choreographer Agnes de Mille – could meld as one, establishing the Rodgers and Hammerstein model that would influence musical theater writing for decades to come.

1957: West Side Story

A clever reimagining of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet with street gangs taking place of battling families, West Side Story is arguably one of the most beloved musicals of all-time. As inventive as the book and score are, it was Jerome Robbins’ choreography that made West Side Story a true game-changer. Robbins used dance in a relentless way, keeping it at the forefront of establishing the tension within the storytelling while also allowing it to reveal characters’ emotions, wants and needs. Yes, choreographers had done this before, but Robbins brought dance to new realms of possibility. West Side Story is the apex of storytelling with dance in musical theater, the standard to which other dance-filled musicals will always be compared.

1960: Bye Bye Birdie 

Some readers might do a double take when they see Bye Bye Birdie among the game-changers of Broadway musicals, but further inspection reveals that this show ushered in rock ‘n roll as a viable genre of music for musical theater storytelling. Bye Bye Birdie arrived on Broadway in 1960, and the Charles Strouse/Lee Adams score is written mostly in the traditional musical theater style. However, the story focused on how an Elvis Presley-like musician (Conrad Birdie) and his rock ‘n roll music corrupt the teenagers of a small, wholesome American town. With that, the score needed a few Elvis-style songs, and they came in the form of “Honestly Sincere,” “One Last Kiss” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” Bye Bye Birdie opened the door for a rock influence in a Broadway musical and, by the end of the decade, its efforts gave us the foundation for a musical sensation like Hair.

1970: Company 

Composer Stephen Sondheim is, himself, one of the biggest game-changers of the musical theater, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that one of his musicals shattered the rules on form and content. In 1970, his musical Company, written with book writer George Furth, took a different tack to musical theater storytelling. Instead of exploring plot, Company explored theme, in what is considered by many as the first great concept musical. A series of vignettes about marriage are strung together, tethered by the central character of “Bobby,” a bachelor who is having a hard time figuring out why he has trouble connecting and committing to the women in his life. Each scene, with a different marriage as the focus, plays out before Bobby’s and the audience’s) eyes, shaping how we look at marriage. It was a bold musical for its day, but certainly expanded the parameters of how a musical story could be told.  

 

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.

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