Musical Theatre: A success story

By Rinjisha Roy

Every year IU Theatre stages musicals as part of its regular season and summer theatre repertoires. Chronologically, this season we had Jesus Christ Superstar and The Drowsy Chaperone at the Ruth N. Halls Theatre, and we can’t wait to present Dames at Sea in the Wells-Metz as the first production of IU Summer Theatre 2017!

As someone who has grown up watching musicals back in my hometown, I was curious to know more about the origins of this art form and how it achieved eminence. Through a quick research, I found that Broadway’s first long-running musical was The Elves, staged in 1857. Gradually, the first Broadway theatres consolidated in New York in the 1920s, a period associated with rise of live theatre when people needed escapist entertainment to survive World War 1 and its aftermath.

Michael Wilkerson, Director of Arts Administration Programs, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Although live theatre grew popular around this time, it was challenged by a newly emerging art form- the motion picture. Professor Michael Wilkerson, Director of the Arts Administration program at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), talks in-depth about the circumstances that happened during this time. “Live theatre in its various incarnations has always changed depending on various changes in culture. In the middle ages, the theme was religion, and after the decline of religion as a centre of culture, you had a more secular approach to drama. Music became an adornment and theatre more lively and fun.”

Musical theatre, he says, was a way to make the entire art form cohere; however, ‘talkie’ films, as they were called, killed Vaudeville by the early 1930s. “Movie companies in Hollywood reached out to local theatres and said that if theatres chose to show movies that everyone was talking about, they would have to show them six nights every week. From the theatres’ standpoint, renting a film from Hollywood and staging it was vastly cheaper than hiring local artists to perform each night. And so began the decline of musicals. Almost immediately, with the exception of a handful, all regional theatres converted to full-time movie theatres. Due to an absence of government policy, there was no one to champion for the rights of local artists consequently laid out of work,” observes Wilkerson.

It was only with government intervention through the New Deal programs in the early 1930s that the live arts regained their lost importance. “When Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, he realized that unlike the strategy used by his predecessors, massive intervention on part of the government was now needed to curb the rising economic crisis.” Under Roosevelt’s initiative, the Works Progress Administration was the most influential New Deal agency that employed millions of people to perform public service projects, including about 6000 artists hired by the year 1936. Wilkerson feels that there were two reasons for inclusion of the arts into this project. “First, before the stock market crashed in 1929, Vaudeville had collapsed and there was a known crisis that local artists who were out of work needed support. Secondly, Roosevelt’s right-hand man, Harry Hopkins, championed for the arts.” Under the influence of Hopkins and Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor, the Federal Project Number One was created to extend New Deal relief to artists, a project that was beneficial for the arts for quite a few years.

At this time, musical theatre also became prominent. It came about as a response to usurpation by the movies, feels Wilkerson. “Artists collaborated to create a parallel to stories shown in movies, coupled with music set in a coherent plot but in a live setting. The only trouble was that there were not many theatres available then to showcase such art, which is part of why musical theatre is so New York centred even today,” he adds.

As the economy rebounded, the period between 1940s and 1960s saw a number of successes in musical theatre including ones like Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. The flourish can be largely attributed to the content of these shows that was largely detached from politics. “Earlier there was controversy surrounding the Federal Theatre Project, especially after a show called The Cradle Will Rock that was about labour unions and strikes. As the WPA got closed down, artists sensed that since it was expensive to create and stage musical theatre, it was wiser to show things that do not offend anyone,” explains Wilkerson. Hence the idea of lively and escapist entertainment took better shape in the form of musicals. In the 21st century, musicals have grown to be sophisticated, imaginative, and subtle, while at the same time retaining earlier traits of escapism and vibrant entertainment that still draw significant crowds.

And now, if you would like to escape this summer, A Year With Frog and Toad is in it’s final week at Cardinal Stage, followed by Cardinal’s final show, West Side Story, both featuring IU Musical Theatre BFA’s! And of course, don’t forget to check out IU Summer Theatre’s production of Dames At Sea, opening June 2nd in the Wells-Metz Theatre. Hope to see you all there!

We’d like to thank SPEA Arts Administration graduate student Rinjisha Roy for her numerous contributions to the 7th & Jordan blog and behind the scenes at IU Theatre this semester! She will be doing an internship with the IU Archives this summer.

Rinjisha  is from Calcutta, India and was a literature major as an undergraduate at St. Xaviers College in Calcutta. Her interests include writing, poetry, Shakespearean theatre and classical music.

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About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peak behind the curtain at the Indiana University Theatre Department productions and student work.
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