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8.6: Music for the Stage

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    Although music has been part of dramatic performances at least as far back as ancient Greece, American musical theatre has its own unique style, which developed from several earlier forms. The term musical theatre refers to a type of dramatic performance that tells a story through dialogue, with singing and dancing added to support and move the plot along. This differs from opera, which is presented purely through song, without any spoken word.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-26 at 3.41.29 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): West Side Story by Fred Fedi. Source: Wikimedia

    One precursor to modern musical theatre is the minstrel show. The first distinctly American form of theatre, minstrelsy was developed in the nineteenth century and featured white performers in blackface performing in a variety show of sorts. These three-act shows featured stock characters singing songs, performing in skits, and telling jokes. They often depicted black characters as happy participants in romanticized versions of the

    American slave south. One of the most well-known songwriters of minstrel music was Stephen Foster. Listen to his song Camptown Races, which depicts a group of men in a “camp town” (a community of transients) who bet on horses to try to make money.

    Stephen Foster – “Camptown races” (Sung by Al Jolson)

    Foster was one of the first Americans to make a living as a professional song- writer, a feat which would become common in the twentieth century. Minstrelsy continued into the twentieth century and eventually evolved into other forms such as vaudeville, which featured variety shows with music, comedy, and talent acts. Although minstrelsy is now regarded by many as a remnant of the racism of the past, it was responsible for many songs that are still part of our repertory.

    Early Broadway: Operettas

    Operetta evolved in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century and grew out of the French opéra comique tradition. An operetta can be characterized as “light opera” in which the focus is the music, but with less complex music than opera. Although not as technically demanding as opera, operettas typically required the use of classically trained singers. The operetta was popularized in America most famously by Victor Herbert, who wrote works at the beginning of the twentieth century. Operetta is important as a direct precursor to modern musical theatre. Listen to Victor Herbert’s “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” from Naughty Marietta.

    Victor Herbert – “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” from Naughty Marietta.

    Broadway Musical

    During the twentieth century, the operetta slowly gave way to a more cut-and- dry, vernacular American musical theatre style, which continues today. Modern musical theatre (also known as the Broadway musical) integrated a cohesive plot with songs and dances that advanced that plot. This more direct musical style reflected the American audiences of the twentieth century, who were less interested in the formal, Victorian style of the operetta.

    Musicals are stage shows with music, acting, costumes, sets, and dance. They are closely related to opera and are an American art form, though they are also popular in parts of Europe. Some successful musicals were later turned into movies. Musicals usually use a full Romantic orchestra and often add synthesizer sounds as well. Listen to and watch the following segment from one of the most successful musical productions in Broadway history.

    Phantom of the Opera - “All I Ask of You”

    The first half of the twentieth century marked the heyday of the Broadway musical, with shows like Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music among many others. Broadway refers to the main thoroughfare in midtown Manhattan that serves as the theater district for New York City. To this day, it is considered the highest level of musical theatre in the United States and is home to the most popular shows in the country. Composers such as Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, and Irving Berlin composed hundreds of tunes for Broadway shows that are now considered American classics. Listen to the examples below from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! from 1943.

    Rogers and Hammerstein – Oklahoma!

    Listen to the example below of West Side Story from 1957, written by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein, who was conductor of the New York Philharmonic, com- posed West Side Story as a depiction of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. The musical dramatized the tensions between white and Puerto Rican street gangs, and updated the famous Shakespeare story for twentieth-century audiences. The music was also groundbreaking for its sophistication, use of modern harmonies, and incorporation of Latin music and jazz.

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Leonard Bernstein
    Composition: America from West Side Story
    Date: 1957
    Genre: Broadway Musical
    Form: Verse-chorus
    Nature of Text: The Puerto-Rican characters lament on the dream of living as an immigrant in America versus the reality.
    Performing Forces: Orchestra with solo vocals and chorus

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • The piece is written in mixed meter, alternating between 6/8 time and 3/4 time
    • It features Latin American rhythms and percussion
    Timing Performing Forces Text and Form


    Percussion enters behind dialogue

    Puerto Rico
    My heart’s devotion
    Let it sink back in the ocean Always the hurricanes blowing Always the population growing And the money owing
    And the sunlight streaming And the natives steaming
    I like the island Manhattan Smoke on your pipe
    And put that in



    Chorus: I like to be in America
    Okay by me in America
    Everything free in America Bernardo: For a small fee in America


    Chorus and Bernardo

    Anita: Buying on credit is so nice
    Bernardo: One look at us and they charge twice

    Rosalia: I’ll have my own washing machine

    Indio: What will you have though to keep clean?


    Exchange of lines between various characters

    Anita: Skyscrapers bloom in America

    Rosalia: Cadillacs zoom in America

    Teresita: Industry boom in America

    Boys: Twelve in a room in America


    Exchange of lines between various characters

    Anita: Lots of new housing with more space

    Bernardo: Lots of doors slamming in our face

    Anita: I’ll get a terrace apartment
    Bernardo: Better get rid of your accent


    Exchange of lines between various characters

    Anita: Life can be bright in America
    Boys: If you can fight in America
    Girls: Life is all right in America
    Boys: If you’re all white in America
    Girls: Here you are free and you have pride

    Boys: Long as you stay on your own side

    Girls: Free to be anything you choose Boys: Free to wait tables and shine shoes


    Exchange of lines between choruses of boys and girls

    Dance Break
    Boys: La, la, la, la, la, America America
    La, la, la, la, la, America America



    Girls: Here you are free and you have pride

    Boys: Long as you stay on your own side

    Girls: Free to be anything you choose

    Boys: Free to wait tables and shine shoes


    Exchange of lines between choruses of boys and girls



    Bernardo and Anita

    Bernardo: Everywhere grime in America Organized crime in America
    Terrible time in America
    Anita: You forget I’m in America

    5:16 Orchestra Dance Break

    Dance break



    Bernardo and Anita

    Bernardo: I think I’ll go back to San Juan

    Anita: I know what boat you can get on Bernardo: Everyone there will give big cheers Anita: Everyone there will have moved here

    American Opera

    Although not a true opera in the strict sense, George Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bess is considered one of the great American operatic works of the century. The story is set in a tenement in Charleston, South Carolina. Based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy, the opera incorporated classically trained black singers to depict the tragic love story between the two main title characters. Gershwin based the music for the opera on elements of folk music, drawing on southern black musical style such as the blues and spirituals. Drawing on the nineteenth century opera tradition, Gershwin made use of leitmotifs to represent people or places. Near the beginning of the opera, we hear the famous aria “Summertime,” which depicts the hot, hazy atmosphere in which the story is set.

    George Gershwin – “Summertime”

    This page titled 8.6: Music for the Stage is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.