Defining a Genre: The Golden Age Musical

For many enthusiasts of musical theatre, the mere mention of "Golden Age" evokes the most positive and smile-inducing thoughts and feelings. The era of Golden Age musicals, beginning in the early 1940s and spanning into the early 1960s, was a period in which the musical theatre genre grew from revues and follies into fully-formed book musicals. Spurred by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II with their classic Oklahoma, the focus turned towards telling story through a specialized structure in which actors would dialogue and segue into song when the moment required such expression. Before this era, stories generally were loosely tied together with an existing canon of songs, often written by the creative geniuses in Tin Pan Alley (think George & Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohen). When Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote Oklahoma, no one had commercial success writing a show that required the audience to follow a story so intricately woven with songs written for that very purpose. In fact, when it first premiered, Oklahoma was far from a hit. Yet over time, it rose to its place as the grandfather of American Musical Theatre. 

So many classics that we enjoy today in our community and regional theatres hail from this era. Composers and lyricists such as Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Brigadoon), Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Mack and Mabel), and Leonard Bernstein (On the Town, Candide, West Side Story) made the Golden Age what we recognize it as today. All of these juggernauts collaborated with librettists to create original content, making each show a unique treasure. By 1960, the American public had fallen in love with the musical, as evident by not only the rise of Broadway as the center of the theatre world but also in the numerous screen adaptations of these shows. The Golden Age musicals defined the genre of musical theatre. To this day, people arguably think of these musicals when one says musical theatre.

The masterpieces of today owe much to the writers and shows of the Golden Age. The structure of the musical hasn't relatively changed since then, nor have the fundamentals. An example can be found in the groundbreaking hit of last season, Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda, being the genius he is, deserves his own post and will get one. But the one thing he understands is what makes a musical a musical. LMM makes significant use of themes to

  • establish character, as in King George's theme. King George is intended to be this vindictive character and was in real life. This fact is juxtaposed with the tambor and dynamics of his theme that sharply contrast his nature. In turn, it makes King George playful and the comedic relief in the show. 
  • push the story along, using moments later in the show to signify changes in the direction of his characters. as in the numbers Washington on Your Side and The Election of 1800. This is also known as a reprise. While not used deliberately and explicitly in Hamilton, these two numbers highlight how the power and influence within the newfound country has changed from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton. In "Washington on Your Side", Thomas Jefferson disparages Alexander Hamilton for how he has weaseled his way into the Washington administration. Subsequently, in "The Election of 1800", we see how Thomas Jefferson has come to rely on Alexander Hamilton's relevance in his win in the election for the presidency. 

So, while the musical certainly changed the game for musical theatre, Hamilton relied on the very foundation that the Golden Age musicals set. Interestingly, Broadway is experiencing a resurgence in these classic shows. Revivals seems to be driving much of the success of Broadway today, with current revivals of Hello, Dolly! breaking records like Hamilton has and revivals of My Fair Lady and Carousel slated for this upcoming season. The Golden Age musicals are forever. They tell stories that are timeless and offer reprieve from the ever increasing doldrums of life and polarized society.