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9.4: The Rise and Dominance of the Book Musical in the 1940s and 1950s

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  • The 1940s and 1950s were dominated by the book musical. Creators and audiences increasingly favored shows that were based on some sort of literary source (such a book, play, novel, or story), many of which were serious in tone and content. They typically featured down-to-earth, realistic characters with whom people could identify and had a recognizable story line. The songs in works during this period were part of the dramatic fabric and essential to the narrative, a result of the close collaboration between the members of the creative teams who conceived the works. In contrast to earlier shows, the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s combined lighthearted and comic elements with those of a greater depth and weight, with characters that are more complex as individuals and in relation to each other. A sense of unity pervades the shows of these decades, with an emphasis on a smooth integration of all the elements.

    The musicals of the two great teams of the 1940s and 1950s are the “meat and potatoes” of the genre, classics that are still popular today; many are given regular productions in community theatres around the country as well as revivals on Broadway. The formula they created was expanded upon by their successors, and elements of it are evident in shows throughout the remaining decades of the twentieth century. Shows from this era are sometimes called “symphonic musicals” because they are symphonic in conception and execution, calling for the resources of a full classical orchestra. The composers of these partnerships carefully utilized particular instrumental colors in composing their musical scores, and professional orchestral musicians played in pit orchestras on Broadway.

    Richard Rodgers (composer) and Osear Hammerstein II (lyricist) began to collaborate after Rodgers’s partnership with Lorenz Hart came to an end. Oklahoma! (1943), based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, was their first collaboration. It was immensely popular, one of most successful musicals ever on Broadway. It broke the record for the show with the longest run, with more than two thousand performances (a record it would hold for fifteen years), and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its choreographer was Agnes de Mille, whose balletic style transformed theatrical dance and who originated the dream ballet (an extended sequence in which a character’s dream is acted out by dancers). The original east recording helped make the show famous nationally. Carousel (4945) dealt with the somber theme of spousal abuse and featured an onstage death. Again, Agnes de Milles choreography was, like the songs, an essential component of the storytelling. One of the songs, “What’s the Use ofWond’rin?” is an example of Rodgers and Ham- merstein’s expansion of the classic song form, in which a reprise (a vocal coda, which repeats some of the music from earlier ) enlarges the scope of the song and broadens it to include participation by the chorus. South Pacific (1949) and The King and I (1951) share some common features. Both are based on novels, are set in exotic locales, and deal with issues of racism and ethnic prejudice —how it is both created and overcome. South Pacific’s “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” addressed this issue explicitly. Both shows also centered on unusual love interests represented by lead characters from different cultural traditions and have many memorable songs that became associated with the music of the era (“Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific; “Shall We Dance?” and “Getting to Know You” from The King and I). The Sound of Music (1959) is perhaps their most famous show, known to family audiences through the well-loved film version from 1965 starring Julie Andrews.

    Frederick Loewe (composer) and Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist) built successfully on the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. Lerner, unlike most lyricists, had musical training. The two began collaborating in the early 1940s. Their Brigadoon (1947), set in a mystical land in the highlands of Scotland, appealed to audiences for its elements of fantasy and exoticism. Their greatest hit, My Fair Lady (4956), was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Against a backdrop of class conflict in nineteenth-century Britain, it introduced lively and lovable characters and situations. Camelot (1960) recreated the medieval world of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, retelling the story of their love triangle. The film versions of these shows brought them to a broad audience. These were often heavily revised versions of the originals, with nonsinging film actors whose voices were dubbed (Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady is a classic example). These musicals thus developed a national following that shows from the early years of the century never had. The existence of these shows as films contributed greatly to their status as classics that they enjoy today.

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