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The Development of Music and Dance as Storytelling Devices in American Musical Theatre

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The Development Of Music and Dance as Storytelling Devices in American Musical Theatre Before Oklahoma hit the Broadway stage, "musical comedies" as they were then known consisted of songs written mostly to become hits or to sell tickets, as shown by the universal appeal of many showstoppers by Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter, for example. After Oklahoma, the composers and lyricists suddenly became dramatists as well as songwriters, and everything that was included and incorporated into the musical had to serve a purpose in relation to the story. Therefore, not only did the shows need big hits to become big successes, but their hits needed to have an actual purpose and function to tell the story of the musical. In Oklahoma's case, this was the story of "Green Grow The Lilacs", a play written by Lynn Riggs. The influence of Oklahoma on the development of music in American musical theatre is far-reaching in its importance and impact. It was a landmark for its time, shown immediately from having its opening curtain rise not to a flock of chorus girls, but to a woman churning butter and the simple, unaccompanied opening lines of "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'" sung offstage (figure 1). ...read more.


Oklahoma ran for 2,212 performances; all musicals before then had only ran for a maximum of 500. The use of dance to push the story onwards was also pioneered in Oklahoma by American ballet choreographer Agnes DeMille. DeMille choreographed and created dances that utilised the plot and characters, and fused together the songs and the libretto of the musical to use dance as a storytelling tool, rather than a distraction from the actual story. Quentin Crisp, a social commentator at the London premiere of Oklahoma, wrote "when I was young, a musical had a love-misunderstanding-reunion storyline enacted by a pretty boy and girl while behind them a line of chorus boys and girls did nothing more than link arms and kick their height. When Oklahoma! arrived, the theatre - nay, the whole city - shook." (- Quentin Crisp, as quoted by Max Wilk in OK: The Story of Oklahoma (New York: Grove Press, 1993), p. 245.) This is representative of the impact that DeMille's choreography had on audiences around the world. Michael Kidd, another Broadway choreographer, said that "The dream ballet, Laurey's dream, had never been seen on a Broadway stage, because the dancing became storytelling." ...read more.


This is probably due to his blend of classical, jazz and popular music styles which so appealed to its citizens. Songs like "Maria" (figure 4) and "Somewhere" were sweeping and almost operatic in style, to compliment and emphasise the emotional importance of the lyrics according to the plot and characters. "America" (figure 5) and "Dance at the Gym" (figure 3) both showed off Bernstein's Latin and jazz influences respectively. With Jerome Robbins as director and choreographer, "something as prosaic as a gang walking down a street became an excuse for dance that strengthened the plot and developed individual characters." (- John Kenrick, www.musicals 101.com, 1997) Figure 3 - "Dance At The Gym - 4c. Cha-Cha" Figure 4 - "Maria" Figure 5 - "America" These multiple variations from the Broadway mould which appealed to audiences even whilst entering new territory dramatically and musically meant that "West Side Story" became one of the most successful and frequently produced musicals of all time. Dance and music as storytelling devices grew most prominently with Oklahoma! and West Side Story. For the first time, dance was being used to portray feelings, emotions and ideas, and music was chosen and written purely to tell the story, not to sell tickets. ...read more.

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