Musical comedy

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A musical comedy ( English for musical comedy ) is a comedy-like theater piece with inserted songs and dance numbers. The term was mainly used as a subtitle for Broadway shows between around 1920 and 1970.


Until around 1900, musical comedy meant about the same as vaudeville in French: a somewhat lighter stage play compared to operetta and game opera , and also to be sung by actors.


The origin of the US-American musical comedy lies in the revues between 1900 and 1920, for example by George M. Cohan or Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. These revues were rather incoherent in terms of content and presented long rows of "chorus girls", as is common in Europe was. The composers Victor Herbert , Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern initially only contributed individual songs to Broadway productions in this early phase. The 1910s were marked by the Ziegfeld Follies , which were modeled on the Folies Bergère in Paris . In 1912, Kern set a whole piece to music for the first time ( The Red Petticoat ). Like the film, the musical comedy was not so much the work of authors as it was of producers who wanted to increase an invested capital.

Early musical comedies are still shaped by the revue tradition (e.g. Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929) or Anything Goes (1934) by Cole Porter ) or they are rascals in the European tradition with inserted music such as No, No, Nanette (1925 ) by Vincent Youmans or Oh, Kay! (1926) by George Gershwin . Due to the lack of a storyline or the lack of integration of the music into the plot, they are rarely performed today, although some music numbers have become jazz standards .

From the very beginning there was close cooperation between New York's Broadway and the London West End theaters: the same production was often played in London and in the USA during the tryouts and previews before the official premiere.

Continuous actions

The competition between silent films in the 1920s and sound films since the 1930s pushed theaters more and more to continuous acts with less random musical interludes. The “Book Musicals” were created, which were based on a book , i.e. a complete drama , and not only sprinkled the musical numbers as interludes, but also linked them closely to the plot. The strong influence of theater critics (especially Brooks Atkinson ) also led in this direction.

One of the first “Book Musicals” is the Political Satire Of Thee I Sing (1931) by Gershwin, which received the Pulitzer Prize . In the 1930s there was a colorful spectrum of independent musical comedies. Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart created parodies of antiquities such as The Boys from Syracuse (1938) or literary settings with sarcastic humor such as Pal Joey (1940).

The dance, too, was now integrated into the plot, but not necessarily subordinated to it. Groundbreaking in this regard was Rodgers' On Your Toes (1936), whose dance numbers were choreographed by George Balanchine .

Competition of musical play

The subtitle "A Musical Comedy" was now often used to distinguish oneself from the out-of-fashion operettas. The operetta composer Sigmund Romberg , for example, called his local history piece Up in Central Park (1945) a musical comedy and tried to be modern in it by avoiding the operetta-like 3/4 time.

In the 1930s, on the initiative of the author and impresario Oscar Hammerstein II, the more serious Musical Play emerged as an attempt at reforming musical comedy. After the war, until the 1950s, there were still many successful musical comedies. Pronounced comedic pieces from this period with historical and literary subjects such as Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (1948), Frederick Loewes My Fair Lady (1956) or Jule Stynes Gypsy (1959) have now become classics.


In the 1960s, the musical comedy genre appeared exhausted. Some recent successes like Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! (1964) followed suit. The great innovator Stephen Sondheim was still successful with the traditional parody of antiquities A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), but it was clear to him that musical Broadway theater had to break new ground. The spirit of optimism of the 1968 movement swept away musical comedy. Sondheim's pieces Company (1970) and A Little Night Music (1973) experimented with new possibilities and serious subjects, although they were still called musical comedy.

The tragicomic musical Cabaret (1966) was perceived on Broadway as a kind of turning point. More modern comedic musicals such as The Rocky Horror Show (1973) or Little Shop of Horrors (1982), even the satirical puppet theater Avenue Q (2003) no longer have the "clean", albeit subtle, lightheartedness of classic musical comedy. In terms of content and text, they are often more blatant and ironic, produced in a less elaborate manner, allude to familiar things from film and television, and instead of elegant jazz contain more pop and rock music elements. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express (1987) as a large-scale production approached the revue again .