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Broadway musical

While librettos, storylines, choreography music and staging have seen enormous changes since the 1940s, Broadway musicals have grown in popularity and scale in the United States and abroad. Nonetheless, the annual Tony Awards for excellence often raise questions about the dominance of familiar works and variety reviews over new forms, audiences and sites for the future.

Following the Second World War, musicals turned from comedic, sexy dance-oriented pieces towards more romantic, complex and lyrical works in the tradition of Jerome Kern’s Showboat (1927). Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Richard Rogers revitalized the genre with Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The Kïng and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959)—bringing on stage such “nonmusical” themes as death, miscegenation, globalization and Nazis. Another team, Frederick Loewe and Allan Jay Lerner, added Brigadoon (1948) and My Fair Lady (1956) to the canon. These golden decades also saw Cole Porter’s urbane wit (Kïss Me Kate, 1948), the urban underworlds of Guys and Dolls (Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, premiered 1950) and Leonard Bernstein’s gang opera West Side Story (1957), with Jerome Robbin’s magnetic choreography.

Broadway’s hegemony was reinforced by starladen Hollywood films of major hits (sometimes showcasing “non-singing” stars). Yet despite traditional hits in the 1960s (Camelot, 1960, which loaned its aura to the Kennedy years; Hello, Dolly!, 1964; Fiddler on the Roof, 1964), composers and producers began to chafe at traditional formats. Shows such as How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961), with satiric, antisentimental tones, paved the way for the dark visions of Nazism and sexuality in Cabaret (1966). Despite challenges to character development and a “songs and scenes” layout, rock music and youthful attitudes came on stage with Hair (1967), Jesus Christ Superstar (1972) and The Wiz (1974), which also marked the increasing recognition of blacks on center stage.

While classic musicals became staples of local theaters and school productions across the US, Broadway musicals in the 1970s and 1980s moved towards more eclectic productions, such as those of darkly toned composer Stephen Sondheim (Company, 1970; Sweeney Todd, 1979; Into the Woods, 1987) and the choreographic vitality of Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line, 1975) and Bob Fosse (Chicago, 1975). English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, with Tim Rice, fostered an alternative “mega-musical” model with lavish, long-running lyrical productions like Cats (1981), The Phantom of the Opera (1987) and Sunset Boulevard (1993). Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1994) and The Lion Kïng (1998) also translated family animated films into long-running Broadway spectacles.

Despite continuing complaints about the prohibitive cost of production and tickets and the presence of stage “elephants,” the genre still allows experimentation and renewal.

This vitality may be seen in the 1996 youthful Rent (Tony and Pulitzer winner), in continuing exploratory revivals of older musicals and in the success of off-Broadway and regional theater productions even more than Broadway itself.

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