The History of Musical Theatre


I find that there is certain joys that I only experience when I listen to stories that are told through songs. I don’t know specifically where this comes from, maybe from my own enjoyment of musical expression in all forms, or maybe from growing up with someone who loves them too. Either way, musical theatre has become part of the list of things that bring me great joy. I could sit for hours, laugh, cry, think and so much more, with all of my mind swirling in song along with the plot. For me, I like to know where the things that I love come from. So, I decided to look into the origins of musicals.

When looking at the origins of musical theatre, we can look to trace it back to the ancient Greeks, where, during the 5th century BC, they included dance and music into their plays, whether that be their comedies or their tragedies. Though this could not have had much influence on modern because the music has been lost, it is still likely where the idea was first recorded to have occurred. In the 12th and 13th, there were roaming theatres on wheels known as pageant wagons wherein they spread religious messages through the use of poetry, songs and chants, with different parts of the stories being told. Usually these religious messages were those of Christianity.

This then evolved into two different branches later on down the line during the renaissance. One such branch was an Italian comedy called Commedia dell’arte, or ‘comedy of the profession’, which was popular from the 16th to 18th centuries in Italy. Characters would have scripts but would also be encouraged to improvised. Each of the characters would be based around a stock character of the genre or a stereotype. A common part of these ‘comedy of the profession’ is Arlecchino, who is often the one within these shows to use the art of pantomime. He is the trickster and actors playing an Arlecchino character will likely have an improvisation repertoire.

In the 18th century in Britain, the most popular form of musical theatre was ballad operas, where lyrics were written over popular songs and later after that, the pantomime developed, from the Commedia dell’arte, with these beign comic operas with mostly romantic plot lines. The first recorded long-running play was one known as the Beggar’s Opera which played for sixty-two successive performances in the eighteenth century. While it took a while to reach one-hundred successive performances, by the eighteen-twenties, the record for successive performances had reached one-hundred and fifty.

And so as time goes by, we see that what was lost to time has brought us something that is truly wonderful. With the number of people enjoying this experience rising every single year, it makes me wonder what it was like when these stories had just begun, on the Greek stages with those actors thousands of years ago. It is interesting to think about the way that things, much like people, change and adapt with time.


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