Music Musical
Kent Conrad
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0092


The musical is a genre of musical theater that combines singing, spoken dialogue, and dance, with the three elements more or less equal. In the early half of the 20th century, the term could reference a number of genres, including operetta, light opera, musical revue, and musical comedy. Musical comedy is the term that is associated with the genre of stage entertainment that was stylistically derived from Tin Pan Alley song, burlesque, and vaudeville shows. Due to anti-German sentiment in America during World War I, as well as shifts in public taste, operetta declined as a form of musical entertainment and the original American musical comedy took its place. A collaborative process, the creation of a musical relies on a composer, lyricist, director, and choreographer. “Book musical” is the term used to describe the majority of musicals written between 1930 and the early 1960s. The “book” of a musical contains the structure and dialogue that serves to develop a dramatic narrative. Musical numbers (solo songs, duets, and ensembles) are inserted at various points in the narrative to explicate or heighten the narrative. The term “concept musical” is used currently to describe musicals created in the early 1960s that broke away from the “book musical” format and instead used a thematic idea or metaphor as a unifying device for the work. The Fantasticks (1960) is usually credited as the first example of a “concept musical.” Since the late 1960s various subgenres of musicals have arisen including “rock musicals” (e.g., Hair, 1967; Godspell, 1971), “technomusicals,” or “megamusicals” (e.g., Phantom of the Opera, 1986), and musical monologues (e.g., Whida Peru: Resurrection Tangle, 2010).

General Overviews

There are numerous works that exist as introductory guides to the history and traditions of musical theater. New works constantly update the ever growing and expanding repertoire of each new Broadway season. Everett and Laird 2008 provides an overview of not only stage musicals, but also film musicals and recordings, while Bloom 2006 and Kantor and Maslon 2004 are excellent introductions for the student. Stempel 2010 covers the history of the American musical in depth and places the genre in the context of social issues, while Vlastnik and Bloom 2010 offers detailed discussion of particular musicals. Morely 1987 serves as a companion overview, tracing the history of the British musical from the beginning of the 20th century. Block 2009 focuses on the history of fourteen musicals, from Showboat to works by Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, and Swain 2002 examines twenty musicals to demonstrate the relationship between music and plot development. Sternfeld 2006 is an excellent source for the megamusicals of the 1980s.

  • Block, Geoffrey. Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from “Show Boat” to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Provides a complete discography, plot synopses and scenic outlines for fourteen musicals. The focus of the book is on how the creative team of the librettist, lyricist, composer, and director create and shape the production. The current edition, updated from 2004, features an expanded chapter on Sondheim, a new chapter on Lloyd Webber, and chapters on film adaptations of musicals.

  • Bloom, Ken. The Routledge Guide to Broadway. London: Routledge, 2006.

    This introductory book covers the history of musical theater from the beginning of the 20th century. Chapters focus on key performers, composers, and directors, while incorporating accounts of the traditions and stories of Broadway productions.

  • Everett, William A., and Paul R. Laird, eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521862387

    Broadly divided in three parts, fourteen chapters by various writers cover the development of American musical theater before 1940, the golden era of musical theater, and the rise of British productions in the late 1970s, as well as the contributions of Sondheim and recent directions at the beginning of the 21st century. Revised and expanded from the 2002 edition.

  • Kantor, Michael, and Laurence Maslon. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Bulfinch, 2004.

    Written as a companion to the PBS series, this reference work provides a historical treatment of American musical theater, with detailed information on performers and significant shows.

  • Morley, Sheridan. Spread a Little Happiness: The First Hundred Years of the British Musical. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

    Traces the history of the British musical from its burlesque and musical hall origins in the early 20th century. Several chapters dwell on Britain’s fascination with American musical theater, beginning with the London production of Oklahoma in 1947. The concluding chapters focus on current British musicals that have successfully asserted an English identity.

  • Stempel, Larry. Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.

    Using primary resources and archival holdings, Stempel presents a history of musical theater, with an emphasis on the major themes as well as the social and stylistic influences. Several chapters focus on Off-Broadway, “concept” musicals, and anti-musicals.

  • Sternfeld, Jessica. The Megamusical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

    Focusing on the trend in the 1980s to produce musicals with lavish sets and often elaborate stage effects, Sternfeld highlights three “megamusicals” from this period: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, and Schoenberg and Boublil’s Les Misérables. In addition to covering the production history and analyzing the staging and musical scores, Sternfeld also explores the dichotomy between the commercial success of these musicals and the general negative response of critics.

  • Swain, Joseph P. The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.

    Analyzing twenty musicals, Swain highlights how musical drama achieves plot momentum, character development and conflict by the careful placement of the music. Swain incorporates research and commentary from contemporary critics. First edition of this book was published in 1990 (New York: Oxford University Press).

  • Vlastnik, Frank, and Ken Bloom. Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. Rev. ed. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 2010.

    Seminal musicals from the history of Broadway are discussed in detail, with numerous photos. Information is given on the creators and performers, plot synopses, song lists, and production details. First edition published in 2004.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.