The Evolution of Musical Theatre: Then and Now

by Elyse Simich


The 1940s-60s were considered the ‘Golden Age’ of musical theatre, with productions such as Oklahoma! (1943), Guys and Dolls (1950) and Cabaret (1966) taking to the stage for the first time.

In fact, Roger and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is considered the instigator of the Golden era. It was one of the first musicals to use songs and dance numbers to advance the plot and characters. Previously, they had been used purely as entertainment, and often at the expense of the plot.


Musicals used to be light-hearted, borrowing heavily from Vaudeville. Anything Goes (1934) was produced during the Great Depression, but instead of exploring the abundant dark themes, it acted more as a distraction. This escapism proved popular, as the comedic love story ran for 420 shows.

During the ‘Golden Age,’ though, plot was the most important element. Shows often explored serious subjects – our all time favourite, The Sound of Music (1961), dealt with World War Two.

Anything Goes Stephen Sondheim Theatre (formerly Henry Miller's Theatre) Cast List: Sutton Foster Joel Grey Colin Donnell Jessica Walter Adam Godley Laura Osnes John McMartin Walter Charles Jessica Stone Robert Creighton Andrew Cao Raymond J. Lee  Clyde Alves Ward Billeisen Joyce Chittick Nikki Renée Daniels Margot De La Barre Kimberly Fauré Josh Franklin Justin Greer Daniel J. Edwards Tari Kelly Shina Ann Morris Linda Mugleston Kevin Munhall Adam Perry William Ryall Jennifer Savelli Anthony Wayne Kristen Beth Williams Production Credits: Kathleen Marshall (Direction and Choreography) Derek McLane (Set Design) Martin Pakledinaz (Costume Design) Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design) Rob Fisher (Music Direction) David Chase (Dance Arrangements) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Cole Porter Music by: Cole Porter Book by: Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and Guy Bolton and P.G.Wodehouse

And musical theatre keeps on evolving. The 1970’s saw the birth of rock musicals like The Rocky Horror Show (1973) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1971). Often these shows featured only rock music and some pretty emotional themes, making them our own modern opera.

In the 1980’s, mega-musicals soared into popularity and everything became bigger. Big special effects, big sets and big casts (and big budgets!). These productions, like Cats (1981), featured emotional sentiments and favoured spectacle over substance.

With sets, lighting, sound and special effects being better than ever, new technology is the gateway to making theatre magical. The huge production costs that accompany these productions mean corporate sponsorship is incredibly important. That’s why so many Disney productions have been produced in the last two decades!


Turning popular films into musicals is another turn-of-the-21st-Century trend. For example, Footloose (1998) is based on the 1989 film of the same name.

Similarly, Legally Blonde the Musical (2007) is based on the 2001 film, and Ghost the Musical (2011) is based on the 1990 film.

These trends mean contemporary musicals are more light-hearted than those produced during the ‘Golden Age’ of musical theatre, but these musicals are still performed. Guys and Dolls is playing on the West End until the end of August and Fiddler on the Roof (1964) is currently on Broadway.


Rock operas and mega-musicals are also still popular, with Godspell (1971) having been performed in Sydney earlier this year and Phantom of the Opera (1986) currently being performed on Broadway.

The changing style of musical theatre over the last six decades means the musical landscape is broader than ever. Popular shows from decades past are still being played, and new ones are being created with more and more variety. With musicals featuring satire, rock, pop or the traditional show tunes constantly touring around the world, there really is something for everyone.


Photo credits: roundabouttheatre.org, huffingtonpost.co.uk, newyork.com, tbo.com, atgtickets.com

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