Musicals: Then and Now

When it comes to theater and the world of entertainment, musicals have been a genre staple for many decades. The landscape of musicals has changed significantly, evolving from early productions with modest sets to lavish extravaganzas with costume changes, grand musical numbers, and bold theatrics.

These days, musicals are still one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Patrons from around the world gather in metropolitan cities like New York, London, and Toronto to watch live performances — and Hollywood has continued to embrace the genre with movie adaptations.

This guide is your go-to resource for understanding the world of musicals. Take a look back at its history, trends, and what the future holds for the genre.

The Early Days

While the idea of plays and productions with music intertwined can be traced back to Greek and Roman times, the influence of musicals as we know them today actually has its roots in the French and Viennese Operettas of the 1800s. The productions from this era greatly influenced the musical side of the genre, while the comedic side is said to come from the American variety and minstrel shows from the mid-1800s and onward.

From this era and onwards, musicals began to evolve and gain worldwide recognition.

The Concept & the Mega-Musical

Legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is known for his significant influence on the musical genre and is often credited with re-focusing it to reflect a central idea rather than a plot, which was common in previous decades. This was considered a concept musical — productions like Company in 1970 and Follies in 1972 were widely successful. 

When this idea peaked in the mid-70s, a new trend emerged — the mega-musical. This type of musical involved grand theatrics, sets, costumes, and epic soundtracks. Some of the most notable examples were Miss Saigon and Cats.

These shows focused primarily on special effects and stage sets — but their popularity began to wane, and the genre quickly became a corporate-heavy endeavor, with companies like Disney funding musicals of their hit films, including The Lion King and Aladdin.

The Future of Musicals

The world of musicals has evolved so much in the past decades, but staples like New York’s Broadway have remained as popular as ever. Today, this genre spans from comedy to drama to adaptations of famous stories and fables into theatrical spectacles.

One of the primary trends in this genre is the development of live adaptations of new and classic musicals. Today, Hollywood is creating more film and television adaptations that take the stage to the big screen. Some of the most notable examples of popular TV and movie musicals are Into the Woods, West Side Story, Hairspray, and Moulin Rouge.

What the future may hold, it’s hard to say for certain — but if we look at the success of newer shows like Hamilton and classics like Wicked and Phantom of the Opera, it’s safe to say this genre isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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