Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Idioms.


earlier known as musical comedies, plays that incorporate music, song, and dance. These elements move with the plot, heightening and commenting on the action.

Mixing the sprightly songs and sketchy plots of operettaoperetta
, type of light opera with a frivolous, sentimental story, often employing parody and satire and containing both spoken dialogue and much light, pleasant music.
..... Click the link for more information.
 with the topical numbers of the revuerevue,
a stage presentation that originated in the early 19th cent. as a light, satirical commentary on current events. It was rapidly developed, particularly in England and the United States, into an amorphous musical entertainment, retaining a small amount of satire and
..... Click the link for more information.
, musical comedy began in England at the end of the 19th cent. In the United States during World War I the colorful extravaganzas of George M. CohanCohan, George Michael
, 1878–1942, American showman, b. Providence, R.I. As a child he appeared in vaudeville as one of "The Four Cohans" with his father, mother, and sister, Josephine. He eventually wrote the act and was the business manager.
..... Click the link for more information.
 ushered in an era of patriotic and spectacular productions. Thereafter musical comedy flourished primarily in the United States. A few mid 20th-century works, such as Porgy and Bess (1935) and Carousel (1945), are essentially American operas. But much more often the musical comedy songs were light and popular, with emphasis placed on chorus dancing rather than on singing. Such stars as Lillian RussellRussell, Lillian,
1861–1922, American singer and actress, b. Clinton, Iowa. Her original name was Helen Louise Leonard. She first appeared in light opera in 1879. In the early 1880s her introduction by Tony Pastor at his casino in New York City launched her career as "The
..... Click the link for more information.
 and DeWolf HopperHopper, Edward,
1882–1967, American painter and engraver, b. Nyack, N.Y., studied in New York City with Robert Henri and other Ashcan School painters. Hopper lived in France for a year but was little influenced by the artistic currents there.
..... Click the link for more information.
 were followed by Anna HeldHeld, Anna,
1873?–1918, American musical comedy actress, b. Paris. She is remembered for her beauty and charm and for her tempestuous off-stage life. After she had small singing and dancing parts in Paris, success came to her when Florenz Ziegfeld (whom she subsequently
..... Click the link for more information.
, Marilyn Miller, Jack Donahue, Ray Bolger, Fred and Adele AstaireAstaire, Fred
, 1899–1987, American dancer, actor, and singer, b. Omaha, Nebr., as Frederick Austerlitz. After 1911 he and his sister Adele (1896–1981), b. Adele Marie Austerlitz, formed a successful Broadway vaudeville team.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Gertrude LawrenceLawrence, Gertrude,
1902?–1952, English actress and singer. Her original name was Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Lawrence-Klasen. Performing on the musical stage from childhood, Lawrence made her New York debut (1924) in Charlot's Revue, together with Beatrice Lillie.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Ethel MermanMerman, Ethel,
1908–84, American musical comedy star, b. Astoria, N.Y., originally named Ethel Zimmerman. Merman's theater debut was in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy (1930).
..... Click the link for more information.
, Mary MartinMartin, Mary,
1913–90, American musical comedy star, b. Weatherford, Tex. From Martin's first stage appearance in Leave It to Me (1938), she starred in several enormously successful musicals, including One Touch of Venus (1943), South Pacific
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Alfred DrakeDrake, Alfred,
1914–92, American singer, actor, and director, b. New York City, originally named Alfred Capurro. Drake first appeared on stage in 1935 in The Mikado.
..... Click the link for more information.
. Many of these musical stars appeared in the works of Irving BerlinBerlin, Irving
, 1888–1989, American songwriter, b. Russia as Israel Baline; his Jewish family fled a pogrom in 1893 and settled in New York's Lower East Side. Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911) was his first outstanding hit.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Jerome KernKern, Jerome
, 1885–1945, American composer of musicals, b. New York City. After studying in New Jersey and New York he studied composition in Germany and England. His first success was the operetta The Red Petticoat (1912).
..... Click the link for more information.
, Cole PorterPorter, Cole,
1891–1964, American composer and lyricist, b. Peru, Ind., grad. Yale, 1913. Porter's witty, sophisticated lyrics and his affecting melodies place him high in the ranks of American composers of popular music.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Noel CowardCoward, Noël
(Sir Noël Pierce Coward) , 1899–1973, English playwright, actor, composer, and director, b. Teddington, England. Coward first gained wide prominence in 1924 acting in his The Vortex.
..... Click the link for more information.
, George GershwinGershwin, George
, 1898–1937, American composer, b. Brooklyn, N.Y., as Jacob Gershwin. Gershwin wrote some of the most original and popular musical works produced in the United States.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Richard RodgersRodgers, Richard Charles,
1902–79, American composer, b. New York City. Rodgers studied at Columbia and the Institute of Musical Art, New York City. He met both of his future collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein 2d, while at Columbia.
..... Click the link for more information.
 and Lorenz HartHart, Lorenz Milton,
1895–1943, American lyricist, b. New York City, studied at Columbia. Hart began collaborating with Richard Rodgers in 1919; their initial success was The Garrick Gaieties (1925).
..... Click the link for more information.

With the 1943 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, the form was transformed. Instead of stringing songs together along a flimsy plot line, the play organically integrated music, song, and dance with a detailed and complex plot, a synthesis that greatly influenced subsequent musical comedy. The later introduction of social problems and plots based on established literary works, as in West Side Story (1957) by Leonard BernsteinBernstein, Leonard
, 1918–90, American composer, conductor, and pianist, b. Lawrence, Mass., grad. Harvard, 1939, and Curtis Institute of Music, 1941. A highly versatile musician, he was the composer of symphonic works (the Jeremiah Symphony, 1944;
..... Click the link for more information.
 (based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) and My Fair Lady (1956) by Alan Jay LernerLerner, Alan Jay,
1918–86, American lyricist and librettist, b. New York City. After two years as a radio scriptwriter, Lerner began an association with the composer Frederick Loewe that resulted in several popular musicals, including Brigadoon (1947, film 1954),
..... Click the link for more information.
 and Frederick Loewe (based on G. B. Shaw's Pygmalion), caused such productions to be termed simply musicals. In the late 1960s the "rock musical" came into prominence with the production of Hair (1967); variations of this style included the religious Jesus Christ, Superstar (1971) and a version of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971). The popularity of musicals created a new form of summer stock theater, the "music tent."

The musical film has enjoyed popularity since the release of Al JolsonJolson, Al
, 1888–1950, American entertainer, whose original name was Asa Yoelson, b. Russia. He emigrated to the United States c.1895. The son of a rabbi, Jolson first planned to become a cantor but soon turned to the stage.
..... Click the link for more information.
's The Jazz Singer in 1927. The form developed from the Busby BerkeleyBerkeley, Busby
, 1895–1975, American film director and choreographer, b. Los Angeles as William Berkeley Enos. Self-taught, he choreographed several Broadway revues before moving (1930) to Hollywood, where he achieved his greatest successes at Warner Bros. (1933–39).
..... Click the link for more information.
 spectacles of the 1930s to the scintillating gaiety and virtuosity of the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers comedies, the operetta films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and filmed biographies of musical celebrities and film figures. Noted singers and dancers who appeared in film musicals include Judy GarlandGarland, Judy,
1922–69, American singer and film actress, b. Grand Rapids, Minn., originally named Frances Gumm. She sang in her father's theater from the age of four as one of The Gumm Sisters; she later toured in vaudeville.
..... Click the link for more information.
, Frank SinatraSinatra, Frank
(Francis Albert Sinatra), 1915–98, American singer and actor, b. Hoboken, N.J. During the late 1930s and early 40s he sang with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands, causing teenage girls to shriek and swoon over his romantic, seemingly casual renditions
..... Click the link for more information.
, Gene KellyKelly, Gene,
1912–96, American dancer, choreographer, movie actor, and director, b. Pittsburgh as Eugene Curran Kelly. Kelly started dancing on Broadway in 1938 and first gained fame in the title role of the Broadway musical Pal Joey (1940).
..... Click the link for more information.
, Mario Lanza, Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Shirley Jones, Julie Andrews, and Barbra StreisandStreisand, Barbra,
1942–, American singer and actress, b. New York City. Streisand first gained a relatively small but select audience singing in New York City cabarets, and she received her first wide critical and public acclaim for her supporting role in the Broadway
..... Click the link for more information.
. In the 1940s numerous romantic and patriotic musicals were produced. By the next decade musicals had come to depend heavily upon Broadway hits and previous film successes for subject matter. Outstanding among original motion-picture musicals are Top Hat (1935), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

In the second half of the 20th cent. many stage musicals, on and off Broadway, became more complicated and sometimes more spectacular. They often featured diverse and controversial themes or flashy and technically complex productions. Notable among these musicals are Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban's A Chorus Line (1975); Stephen SondheimSondheim, Stephen Joshua
, 1930–, American composer and lyricist, b. New York City. As a young man, he studied lyric writing with Oscar Hammerstein 2d, and early in his career he wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story
..... Click the link for more information.
's Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), and Passion (1994); and Andrew Lloyd WebberLloyd Webber, Andrew,
1948–, British theatrical composer. A member of a successful musical family, he began composing musicals as a teenager; Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968) was an early work done in collaboration with the lyricist Tim Rice.
..... Click the link for more information.
's Evita (1978), Cats (1981), The Phantom of the Opera (1986), and Sunset Boulevard (1993).


See studies by L. Engel (1967), D. Ewen (rev. ed. 1970), A. Wilder (1972), and S. Green (1971, repr. 1982); E. Mordden, The Hollywood Musical (1981) and his many volumes on the Broadway musical; M. Gottfried, Broadway Musicals (1979); B. Rosenberg and E. Harburg, The Broadway Musical (1992); R. Barrios, A Song in the Dark (1995); M. Steyn, Broadway Babies Say Goodnight (1999); L. Stempel, Showtime (2010); J. Viertel, The Secret Life of the American Musical (2016); W. A. Everett and P. R. Laird, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical (2002).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
There was, as it were, a continual beginning, a preparation of the musical expression of some feeling, but it fell to pieces again directly, breaking into new musical motives, or simply nothing but the whims of the composer, exceedingly complex but disconnected sounds.
Besides the sticks and the drums, there are no other musical instruments among the Typees, except one which might appropriately be denominated a nasal flute.
He was so deeply impressed by the progress made by these pupils, and by the pathos of their dumbness, that when he arrived in Canada he was in doubt as to which of these two tasks was the more important--the teaching of deaf-mutes or the invention of a musical telegraph.
my very laugh is musical, I know," interrupted Maria; "but then it is often shockingly out of time."
On the second morning, about eleven o'clock, the king himself in person, attended by his nobility, courtiers, and officers, having prepared all their musical instruments, played on them for three hours without intermission, so that I was quite stunned with the noise; neither could I possibly guess the meaning, till my tutor informed me.
'Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha,' another special poem on music, is unparalleled for ingenuity of technical interpretation: 'A Toccata of Galuppi's' is as rare a rendering as can anywhere be found of the impressions and sensations caused by a musical piece; but 'Abt Vogler' is a very glimpse into the heaven where music is born."
And have to practice every day; But I've been musical always, since first my life began.
And, had we no other reason to treasure it, we would still for its simple musical language look upon it as one of the fine things in our literature.
I am excessively fond of music, but without the smallest skill or right of judging of any body's performance.I have been used to hear her's admired; and I remember one proof of her being thought to play well:a man, a very musical man, and in love with another womanengaged to heron the point of marriage would yet never ask that other woman to sit down to the instrument, if the lady in question could sit down insteadnever seemed to like to hear one if he could hear the other.
Dashwood's sisters, she immediately concluded them to be staying in Harley Street; and this misconstruction produced within a day or two afterwards, cards of invitation for them as well as for their brother and sister, to a small musical party at her house.
The Bellman perceived that their spirits were low, And repeated in musical tone Some jokes he had kept for a season of woe-- But the crew would do nothing but groan.
First, it is well known that the prologue serves the critic for an opportunity to try his faculty of hissing, and to tune his cat-call to the best advantage; by which means, I have known those musical instruments so well prepared, that they have been able to play in full concert at the first rising of the curtain.