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A musical theater is a light theatrical work that combines songs, dances, and spoken dialogue. The musical theater, or musical comedy, developed in the United States and has become one of the most popular forms of stage and screen entertainment. Among its prime elements is the musical score, consisting largely of separate numbers composed in a tuneful style. The book, or libretto, usually includes a sentimental love story as well as comic episodes. These are blended with dances or other production numbers and are enhanced with colorful settings and costumes. The dialogue and lyrics are generally informal in tone and topical.
A good musical comedy is the product of a variety of talents and skills. Often the harmonious collaboration of a composer and a lyricist has been largely responsible for a musical's success. Some of the finest musicals have been created by such outstanding composer- lyricist teams as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner. Among the other fine composers who have contributed their talents to the American musical theater have been Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein. The list of distinguished lyricists includes Otto Harbach, Lorenz Hart, and Ira Gershwin.
Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Frank Loesser have written both music and lyrics. In addition, choreographers, such as George Balanchine, Agnes De Mille, and Jerome Robbins, have helped give the American musical its unique quality.
Characteristics of the Musical
The songs, dances, and dramatic elements of a musical comedy have traditionally followed a set pattern. The performance usually begins with an orchestral overture, consisting of a medley of the most important numbers in the musical score. After the overture the curtain rises and the chorus sings a rousing opening number. Then the principal characters are introduced. They often include a hero and heroine whose romantic difficulties provide the sentimental moments in the drama, and a secondary pair of lovers whose romance is treated humorously.
A spectacular dance or other production number generally ends the first act. For the musical's finale, at the end of the second act, the entire cast is assembled on stage to sing a reprise of one of the show's chief songs. Although not all musicals observe this pattern, most of them contain a number of these elements.
In its combination of song, dance, and spoken dialogue and in its popular appeal, the American musical comedy resembles the English comic opera, the Viennese operetta, and the French opera bouffe. However, it differs from them in its more casual tone and faster pace, as well as in its subjects and music. Musical comedies have varied greatly in their themes, subjects, and styles. One of the oldest forms of musical comedy is the revue, a type of variety show in which songs, dances, and humorous sketches are alternated without being unified into a dramatic whole.
Examples include the lavish Ziegfeld Follies that were produced annually by Florenz Ziegfeld in the early decades of the 20th century.
Other types of musicals have ranged from lighthearted fantasies, such as Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland (1903), to musical plays that deal with real social problems, including Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (1949). There are also some works, notably George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) and Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars (1949), that are usually classified as operas, although they grew out of the musical-comedy stage.