The real story of musicals

My morning, like so many other’s today, began with flour, eggs, milk and a frying pan. My daughter awoke to great excitement at the arrival of this particular day and skipped happily into school with a bellyful of pancakes. Pancake Day is one that many children – and adults – look forward to, but while I was attempting (unsuccessfully) to flip a pancake this morning, I asked my daughter if she knew what it is really about? The day is more than just eating delicious fried batter mixtures after all. It may be more popularly known as ‘Pancake Day’, but today is really Shrove Tuesday, which marks the last day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent is the Christian practice of fasting for a period of forty days, to commemorate the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Pancake Day sprang from the tradition of using up the rich, fatty foods like eggs, milk and sugar on the day preceding this fasting period: Shrove Tuesday.

My daughter knew a little of this from her lessons at school, but as I said goodbye to her at the gates this morning, I thought of all the people who would be gobbling up pancakes today and wondered how many of them actually knew the reason why. Everything has some form of history behind it, and I’ve always been fascinated by where things come from and how they got to be here. The events of the past are what have shaped our world into the one we know today, but so many people unquestioningly accept the way things are without any interest in looking back.

If you’re reading this blog, it would be reasonable to assume you are a theatre enthusiast. There are thousands of like-minded theatre-goers in the city of London alone, all of whom find great joy in the experience of live performance of musical theatre. The West End is filled with an assortment of musicals to suit any audience, entertaining them on a nightly basis. They visit often to ‘take in a show’, they sit at home playing their cast recordings and they spend hours discussing their favourite productions, songs, performers and so forth. If this is you then yes, you are indeed a theatre enthusiast, but how much do you really know about this industry that you love? Musical theatre is a thriving industry and the West End draws in millions of people from all around the world each year, but I doubt many actually think about how it came to be so.

Musical theatre can actually be dated back to the times of Ancient Greece, when plays were performed with the addition of song and dance. Perhaps not quite the musical theatre we know and love today, but it is where its roots are firmly embedded. The Roman can also be accredited with contributing to the development of musical theatre, as it was their idea to attach metal chips called sabilla to footwear during performances to make the dance steps audible in their large, open-air arenas, thus giving birth to the popular modern dance form of tap. Musical theatre may not have existed in these past times in the same way as it does today, but there were travelling minstrels, court masques and religious plays set to church chants, to offer a few examples. There were a number of individuals throughout history whose work greatly influenced the development of the art form though, shaping the musical theatre world as it were.

Looking back at the history of musical theatre, John Gay cannot go without a mention. He popularised the ‘ballad opera’ with his 1728 musical show The Beggar’s Opera; the first to combine dialogue with songs.  He wrote original lyrics to fit the tunes of popular songs of the day and made his main characters ordinary people with which the audience could identify with, a highly successful format which set a record for the volume of shows performed in the season – 62.

Vaudeville, burlesque, revues and British music halls were all popular in the Victorian era, but it was comic opera and musical comedy which rose to become the form of musical entertainment. William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are names which every musical theatre fan should know, having produced some of the best known comic operas, such as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. They collaborated on 14 operas between 1871 and 1896 and redefined musical theatre, creating works in which the lyrics and music served to advance a clearly defined story. After commissioning them for several works, the London theatre manager Richard D’Oyly Carte even built a theatre specifically to house their highly popular operas, a theatre which still stands on The Strand today: the Savoy Theatre. Then of course, there was George Edwardes, the theatre manager who introduced musical comedy, from which the musicals we know today developed from. He presented new, structured stories which were accentuated with tuneful music and romantic lyrics and featured pretty dancing – shows which were light, enjoyable fun and had happy endings. They were so popular with the audiences of the day that other managements followed suit.

They influenced many composers and writers whose names are greatly revered by musical theatre fans today: Ira Gershwin, Ivor Novello, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II and Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name a few. In January 2012, BBC4 aired a three-part documentary titled The Story of Musicals which did look back at the development of the British musical, but only as far as the late 1970’s. It focused on the influence and success of composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Willy Russell and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, without looking at where their influences came from.

The musical theatre which exists on the West End stage today didn’t just spring up overnight, it was formed over many, many years and guided here by the feet of various individuals who paved the road it followed. History can explain so much about the world we know, so the next time you enjoy a pancake on ‘Pancake Day’, think about why you’re eating it, and the next time you find yourself in the audience of a West End musical, think about not only how you came to be there, but how it did too.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 12th February 2013