Musical Theater

Although musical theater has existed in America since colonial days, uniquely American forms of theatrical entertainment did not emerge until the nineteenth century. The first truly American form to appear was the minstrel show. Minstrelsy, which gained popularity in the 1830s, incorporated colloquial music and a direct performer-to-audience relationship--two defining characteristics of modern musical theater.

Other forms contributed to America's musical stage as well--notably English and Viennese operetta, French vaudeville, and urban ethnic humor. Inspired by these, American musical theater developed along three major avenues in the twentieth century: musical comedy, with its everyday characters and simple, appealing tunes; the revue, which combined a variety format with spectacular stage scenery; and operetta, which featured romantic stories and a mature musical style.

Lillian Russell (1861-1922)

Adolph (Adolpho) Müller-Ury (1862-1947)
Pastel on ecru board, not dated, NPG.70.53
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Lillian Russell was one of the brightest stars of late nineteenth-century musical theater. Born Helen Louise Leonard in Clinton, Iowa, Russell initially studied voice in Chicago and New York with the goal of becoming an opera singer. Ultimately, however, she settled on a career on the popular musical stage, and in 1879 she made her New York stage debut in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. About a year later, she came to the attention of theater owner Tony Pastor, who gave her a featured spot in one of his musical variety shows, billing her as an "English ballad singer." By the late 1880s, her statuesque figure, radiance, and clear lyric soprano voice had won her legions of admirers, and over the next decade or so, she reigned supreme as America's favorite star of light opera and musical revues. Describing Russell's impact on her audience, fellow actress Marie Dressler observed, "I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof."

Tales of Russell's conspicuous indulgence in luxury, her multiple marriages, and tempestuous dealings with theater managers contributed as much to her celebrity as her stage talents. Another ingredient was her sense of style, and for many years her gowns and jewels set the standard for elegance in women's fashion.

Throughout much of her career, Russell specialized in operetta, but in 1899, just as her popularity was beginning to wane, she found a new outlet for her talent when she became a featured performer in the variety shows of Joe Weber and Lew Fields. "Come Down, Ma Evenin' Star," from Weber and Fields's 1902 production Twirly-Whirly, became the signature song of Russell's later years and is the only one that she is known to have recorded.

Richard Rodgers (1902-1979)

William Franklin Draper (born 1912)
Oil on canvas, 1970, NPG.70.72
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Rodgers

During a songwriting career that spanned more than fifty years, Richard Rodgers established himself as one of the most memorable composers of the American theater. Rodgers began writing songs in high school and continued as a student at Columbia University. In 1918, while working on a production there, he met fellow Columbia student and lyricist Lorenz Hart. The two began a fruitful collaborative relationship that lasted almost twenty-five years. Their first song, "Any Old Place with You," was published in 1919, but their big break came in 1925, when they wrote the music for the revue The Garrick Gaieties. Other hits followed, notably On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), and Pal Joey (1940). Rodgers and Hart's shows were noted for the quality of their songs, the innovative use of incidental music and ballet sequences, the variety of subject matter, and the increasing integration of music and plot.

The trend toward the "musical play" advanced one step further when Rodgers began to work with Oscar Hammerstein II in 1942, the year before Hart's death. Their first show, Oklahoma! (1943), merged plot, music, and dance as never before, in a style that was unmistakably and uniquely American. Rodgers's technique continued to mature and diversify as he strove to match his music to the demands of story, setting, and character. The result was landmark shows such as Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). These works enjoyed a level of artistic, critical, and financial success rarely matched before or since on the American stage.

Ethel Merman (1909-1984)

Rosemarie Sloat (born 1929)
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 1971, NPG.71.50
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Gift of Ethel Merman

Show business has always revolved around personalities, and few performers had more personality than Ethel Merman. Part of her attraction was the fairy-tale quality of her early career. Merman never had formal voice lessons, but she possessed a singular native talent for projection and enunciation. Her method, as she liked to say, was to "just stand up and holler and hope my voice holds out." And that it invariably did. As songwriter Irving Berlin once put it, "You'd better write her a good lyric," because "the guy in the last row of the second balcony is going to hear every syllable."

While working as a secretary in New York and moonlighting as a nightclub singer, Merman was discovered by Broadway producer Vincent Freedley in 1930. He immediately offered her a role in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy, where she stole the show night after night with her boisterous rendition of "I Got Rhythm." Merman solidified her reputation in Cole Porter's Anything Goes in 1934, but perhaps the most famous role of her long career was that of "Little Sureshot" Annie Oakley in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1946). Her last show, and many agree her best, was Gypsy in 1959, by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. Her autobiography is titled Who Could Ask for Anything More (1955).

During the course of her career, Merman transformed the stock musical-comedy heroine from a coy and girlish innocent to a tough, brash, and worldly dame with a New York accent. She was well known for her endurance, professionalism, nerves of steel, and quick wit. One scene from Annie Get Your Gun required Merman to fire a rifle, at which point a stuffed bird would drop from the rafters. One evening the gun failed to fire, but the bird dropped right on cue. "What do you know," Merman quipped as she picked up the bird. "Apoplexy."


Musicals Net
Theatricopia: Musical theatre information
The Internet Broadway Database
Broadway World
Playbill On-Line
Musical cast album database


Lillian Russell
Lillian Russell (1940), the film
HMS Pinafore web page, Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Richard Rodgers
Gilbert and Sullivan Archives

Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman’s biography page from PBS