Monday, January 26, 2009

Dance in Musicals: Part 1—The First Musical

In elementary school, I developed the habit of routinely flipping to old movie channels in hopes of catching a glimpse of a musical with legends such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland. After a day at school I would watch one of the classics, such as "Singing in the Rain" or "An American in Paris," enjoying the care-free characters and energetic dance numbers. Then I branched into the lesser known musicals like "Summer Stock" and "Follow the Fleet." Today, I would rather watch any of these classic films than most of the movies found in theaters. 

So, I thought I'd take a look at the evolution of dance in musicals on broadway and  film in a series of blog posts. Today, I start with dance in the 1940s and the beginnings of "the musical."  (A list of references is at the bottom of the post.) 

(And on a side note, check out Entertainment Weekly for information about Michael Jackson's new endeavor, "Thriller" the musical.) 

Part 1: The First Musical

Entertainment that provided an escape from reality was what performers sought for their audiences in the 1940s. America was still suffering from the aftermath of the Great Depression and the world was at war. This atmosphere created an ideal place for experimentation. The acceptance of innovation in theater was balanced with a greater appreciation for American life and history (Everett 139). The 1940s, with fantasy and drama, was acclaimed as the golden golden age for musicals.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II met at Columbia University and agreed on the importance of writing the lyrics of a musical first so the integration of the songs and book would be easier. In this way, Hammerstein, the lyrics writer, did not have to follow the structure of music already composed (Lewis 35). They began working on a love story called Green Grow the Lilacs (based off the play by Lynn Riggs), which was set in the Okalahoma Territory during the early 1900s. After collaborating through character analysis, song placement, style, lighting, casting and staging, the two parted. Rodgers headed to his farm in upstate New York, while Hammerstein sought his farm in Pennsylvania. Hammerstein labored over the lyrics for weeks and then wired the results to Rodgers who could create melodies within minutes. Because the Theatre Guild was bankrupt, Rodgers and Hammerstein had complete creative control over the project. They took risks, such as writing lyrics in conversational style, starting the performance with a duet, instead of a large ensemble number and casting lesser-known actors as leads. Because it could not be classified as a musical comedy or operetta, the duo had created something new: a musical play with every element dedicated to moving the plot forward.

To deal with the emotions of the story, which might sound awkward if verbalized, the team decided to integrate dance as a key story-telling device. The choreographer would help move the story along. Choreographer Agnes DeMille, who choreographed the ballet Rodeo (1942), insisted on casting trained modern dancers in the chorus, therefore enriching the ensemble. She bridged the gap between choreography for ballet and Broadway, combining steps from square dancing, tap and ballet. She was also known for creating “dream ballets,” such as in Brigadoon (1947), which brought the audience into the thoughts of key characters.

Under the title Away We Go, the musical opened in March 1943, but Variety gave it a poor review: “No gags, no girls, no chance,” (qtd. in Everett 139). Worried investors sold shares in the show after that first performance. However, while the show played in Boston, Rodgers and Hammerstein made extensive revisions, including staging the chorus piece called “Oklahoma,” for which the show was now titled. Oklahoma opened at New York’s St. James Theatre on March 31, 1943 to roaring reviews and excited audiences, who enjoyed the all-American show during wartime. It became the first Broadway musical to record every major number on a full-cast and orchestra soundtrack. Running for more than six years, the show made millions of dollars and backers saw a 2,500 percent return on their investments (Kenrick, “History of Stage Musicals”).

Works Cited

Everett, Williams A., and Paul R. Laird, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

 Laufe, Abe. Broadway’s Greatest Musicals. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1973.

Lewis, David H. Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.

“” 2006. Ed. Kenrick, John. 17 Feb. 2006.                                                                

“News Reviews.” 2006. Movin’ Out Tour. 8 April 2006.

“The Phantom of the Opera.” 2006. Wikepedia. 17 April 2006.        


  1. I'm looking forward to more posts in this series! I love "classic" musicals and movies and I think it is great that you are bringing their history to the attention of your readers.

    In fact, I wanted to let you know that I truly appreciate your mission statement. Access to quality information online is so important for those whose interest in dance has been piqued. The internet is the first place that so many people look. Thanks for doing what you do!


  2. Nichelle,

    Thank you for those kind words. Your blog is one of those I go to every day and truly enjoy reading. You keep up the good work too!