Fifty Key Stage Musicals

PDF Fifty Key Stage Musicals Copyright Year 2022

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  1. Robert W. Schneider
  2. Shannon Agnew
Fifty Key Stage Musicals

This volume in the Routledge Key Guides series provides a round-up of the fifty musicals whose creations were seminal in altering the landscape of musical theater discourse in the English-speaking world.

Each entry summarises a show, including a full synopsis, discussion of the creators' process, show's critical reception, and its impact on the landscape of musical theater.

This is the ideal primer for students of musical theater – its performance, history, and place in the modern theatrical world – as well as fans and lovers of musicals.

Robert W. Schneider is an associate professor of musical theatre, literature, and criticism as well as serving on the faculty of Pennsylvania State University’s Musical Theatre department.

Shannon Agnew is a freelance director working with industry professionals and students to create creatively affirming, socially responsible, and innovative theatrical experiences. As a writer, she creates theatre for young audiences and docu-drama shows to raise awareness of LGBTQ+, feminist, and social justice issues.



Musical theatre has been one of the most celebrated art forms to emerge in the past two hundred years. It has provided comfort in times of trouble and ever-lasting memories of melody that unite our discourses, transcending generations, and ethnographic locales. Despite these incredible contributions it has only recently entered academia as a valid field of study. Therefore, in the grand scheme of scholarship, it is still in its embryonic stages.

There are many books out there that celebrate the “greatest” musicals and the “best” musicals, each subjected to the personal tastes of the individual author. What this book hopes to do is to examine the fifty musicals that were key to the development of the genre and those that moved the needle of the industry. Some of the “great,” “best,” and “iconic” musicals are not on this list. We are sure that this list will make some people jump for joy that a title is validated, and some might throw the book across the room in frustration that a musical has been discounted. We are fine with this but if you have an e-reader, please reconsider your expression of anger.

One of the most challenging aspects of putting together this book, and one that will invariably ignite passionate discussion among scholars and fans is how to anoint fifty shows from the great pantheon of musical theatre and deem them as “key” to the understanding of development.

For the purposes of this book, we are defining a “key musical” as a musical whose existence had a major impact on the landscape and creation of musical theatre. Our formula throughout the choosing of this list was simple: If it had not been for Show A then we wouldn’t have had Shows B, C, etc.

It is a natural reaction to look at this list of fifty and see major musicals that are missing. Audience favorites such as The Music Man and The Book of Mormon are absent as we could not find a large enough impact of their works on the creation of other works no matter how much joy they gave audiences throughout their runs or how much they brought musicals into the popular discourse.

We did not include movie musicals (Singing in the Rain) nor television shows with a musical bent (Glee). That wealth of information is so magnificent it warrants its own book.

In this field some musicals are given a cult status because of their subject matter (Bare), the cataclysmic production that eventually stunned Broadway audiences (Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark), or its ardent championing by musical theatre enthusiasts (The Last Five Years). While they are delightful to discuss and exciting to see, their overall product did not constitute a major shift in the landscape, or at least one we could see as of this writing.

One of the greatest struggles in putting together this book has been the long-neglected need for diversity in the musical theatre. As history shows, musical theatre was dominated by White males and the stories were told through their lenses. We cannot alter history’s past by denying this fact, no matter how much we would love to do so. If we attempted to create an alternative narrative that dissipates the current struggle for inclusion. While we observe the repetitive imagery of these shows’ creators, we eagerly await a second edition when many new voices will have created stories that celebrate the rich diversity musical theatre so desperately needs. We are overjoyed that Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, an off-Broadway musical about the Black experience, has recently become only the tenth musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The stories of how these musicals were created, and their impact on society, are so voluminous that one book cannot contain all their lore. In tandem with this book, we have created Fifty Key Stage Musicals: The Podcast where each show will be analyzed in-depth by various authors, writers, and artists. We encourage you to utilize the podcast as a resource for your research and entertainment.

Music had always been a staple of storytelling. Whether it was Yoruba theatre or Melodrama, music had been asked to provide divertissement, enlightenment, and reinforcement to the story it inhabited. What music did not do, nor would it do until the late nineteenth century, was to move the story forward or reveal elements of a character’s motivations or emotions.

In the 1500s, came a group known as the Florentine Camerata, a group of Italian humanists whose explorations of utilizing only music in storytelling led to the development of Opera, an art form that uses no spoken dialog, to communicate its intentions.

Ballet, the genre of telling a story through dance and banishing sung music and dialog, had its origins in Italian Renaissance, but took on its popularity as French Concert dance in the 1700s.

During the Elizabethan Era, William Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy, where an audience goes into the mind of its protagonist as they speak their inner thoughts aloud, became quite popular and added another element that musical theatre would eventually cobble into an art form in 1866.

The nineteenth century was one of great change across the world. Science, transportation, and technology all made massive leaps forward and the arts industry would be no different. At the beginning of the century, ballad opera was a popular form of entertainment. In these pieces, an original story was crafted using popular music of the day, albeit with new, satirical lyrics as seen in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728).

In the newly formed United States, where the state of New York served as the major gateway for European immigrants, theatre was mostly imported. The idea of European music halls, with its various acts of comedians, singers, dancers, was adapted in the United States and the Americanization of the genre became known as Variety Shows.

In the early 1800s, the Minstrel Show began to emerge as America’s first indigenous art form. This deplorable genre of entertainment utilized White actors donning blackface and mocking the Black community. The high energy and fast paced jokes from the Minstrel Show became the energy of the soon-to-emerge genre of musical comedy.

Vaudeville, which was a family friendly entertainment that had dominated the United States, featured countless singers, comedians, reciters, jugglers, magicians in an evening filled with various acts. Those who were the biggest players in vaudeville, like George M. Cohan and Fanny Brice, would soon have major careers in both musicals and film.

The spoofing of sex, social mores, and immigrants was the backbone of the adult-oriented Burlesque theatre, which was the seedier side of vaudeville. The stock characters created in Burlesque would be the first place many nascent musical theatre writers came for inspiration.

Over in Europe, the operetta, a mostly song piece of storytelling with few spoken passages, dominated the theatre scene with Gilbert and Sullivan’s incredibly clever works being heralded as a global phenomenon.
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