What is the American musical? It is many things: a fusion of song, dance, spoken and sung dialogue, and visual elements; an essential form of entertainment in popular culture; a venue for expression of political and social themes that have shaped the American experience; a money-making enterprise, with big-budget productions requiring enormous outlay of funds from wealthy sponsors; and a genre that both shapes and has been shaped by American culture. For many, it is synonymous with Broadway, hence the moniker “the Broadway musical.” But the musical is not just on Broadway. It is everywhere, in every major city in America and many smaller ones. Musicals are performed by professional touring companies and amateur community theatre groups and by young people in secondary schools, and they represent an area of study at colleges and universities.
Musicals are increasingly available to larger audiences through films with performances by major stars: Johnny Depp, Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kevin Kline, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris, and many others. Marquee stars such as Harry Potter’s Daniel Radeliffe routinely perform in live award-winning Broadway musicals. Popular television shows even occasionally spoof or pay homage to the musical; memorable episodes of Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory’, and Flight of the Conchords have featured production numbers in which the lead characters sing and dance.
The musical is a living genre, one whose history is still developing. And as with any history that is still taking shape, scholars who study the musical disagree on important questions and issues, ones as basic as the following: What was the very first musical? What features define different genres? What factors were most significant in the musical’s development? Which works and which people were most influential? Which works are most representative of their time? And many others.