The Music Man

Some time ago, Silas asked me where musicals come from. How did people start creating these kinds of plays? How old are they? Who invented them?

So I took to the Facebook, and posed this question:

Hey, beautiful nerds! Silas has been asking about the development of musical theater, and I’m trying to piece together a fun journey through time for us to explore together this summer. This is an area of theater history that I don’t know as thoroughly as, say, pre-1700,–so help me out with what shows we should be examining.

What are the milestone plays of the American musical theater that we should hit? I’m thinking particularly about the shows that really transformed what people thought musical theater was.

From all of the amazing responses, I generated this list:

  • 1880: Pirates of Penzance
  • 1927: Show Boat
  • 1943: Oklahoma
  • 1950: Guys and Dolls
  • 1957: West Side Story
  • 1964: Fiddler
  • 1975: A Chorus Line, Tommy
  • 1980: Les Mis
  • 1981: Cats
  • 1996: RENT
  • 2003: Ragtime
  • 2007: Hairspray
  • 2015: Hamilton

Petra isn’t particularly into listening to musicals, so we started listening to them on our way to a weekly appointment that I take Silas to without her. I’d try to summarize the plot for him, and talk him through it as we went. Some of the stories, I gave him only a cursory explanation, along with the disclaimer that I didn’t think he would be able to understand all of the details (Tommy!). I’d say the experiment was a resounding success.

Listening to Cats in Costa Rica

Ragtime and Hairspray were the only ones we manage to see a production of. I figured the Cats movie would traumatize us both, so we skipped that. I showed him a few clips of shows, particularly the ones that are known for their choreography.

He had some fascinating insights. When we listened to A Chorus Line and Tommy back-to-back, he said, “I think in the 1970s people were really concerned about their bodies. And also they didn’t think plots were important.” He asked me to play “Acid Queen” for Petra one day. She asked him what it was about, and he said, “Well, Tommy is deaf and blind and he can’t speak, so they get the queen to come pour acid on him to try to cure him. It does not work.” This was one of the shows for which I gave a minimal explanation…he filled in the gaps.

For Les Mis, I had to explain what prostitution is: “It’s when men pay women to have sex with them.” He said, “Do the women want to do that?” I told him not generally; in this story, it’s what they have to do to keep their children from starving. Silas said, bewildered, “Why would the men want to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with them?” That moment felt like a real feminist parenting win.

He’s using terms I’ve thrown into our conversation with precision and ease: overture, motif, reprise, counterpoint. He’s been able to follow the thread of development from light opera to rock operas. I love that we have this thing that both of us are passionate about.

He told me that his favorites were Pirates of Penzance, Les Mis, Cats, and Hamilton. No surprises there. From beyond this particular project, other favorites are Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Into the Woods, and Phantom. He likes big, bold music. Subdued is not his jam.

Listening to Hamilton with him at the end of this journey was incredible. He had heard the Mixtape, and a few of the songs, before, but he hadn’t gone through the whole thing in context. Everyone talks about how this musical is, in part, Lin Manuel Miranda’s love song to Broadway, but Silas was, unprompted, noticing the references. When George Washington said, “I am the very model of a modern major general,” Silas said, “Isn’t that from Pirates of Penzance?” He even detected some references I hadn’t spotted, like the echoes of theme and melody between “Raise a Glass” and “Drink with Me” (Les Mis). He still hasn’t seen Macbeth, but we’ve been talking about it a lot, and he recognized “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” He keeps listening to it, trying to spot more.

When I told him I’d reached the end of my list, he said, “Can we do another theater history musical project?”

So here’s the next phase. Quarantine is who knows how long. Thank goodness for Mr. Sondheim’s deep catalog:


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