Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
actors graphic
Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia



The American musical has evolved over the last two centuries into what today has become one of the most popular theatrical genres. The basic roots of the modern musical began with the introduction of the minstrel show in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Some form of music had often accompanied stage performances in the eighteenth century, but the incorporation of music as an integral part of a show began with the development of minstrelsy, which featured song and dance. Melodrama, burlesque, vaudeville, opera, operetta, opera bouffe, and musical revues and extravaganzas followed the minstrel show as popular forms of entertainment in the nineteenth century, spilling over into the early twentieth century as well. Its broad appeal helped to establish musical theatre as a mainstay in both professional and amateur venues.

With the advent of the Broadway musical in the twentieth century, music became the dominant vehicle to move the plot forward rather than merely serving as a supportive component in a show. In 1927, the musical Show Boat became a turning point in the development of American musical theatre. The collaborative team of Oscar Hammerstein II, writing the book and lyrics, and Jerome Kern, composing the score, created a musical comedy that fused music and action in a way previously unseen.

The next revolution in form came in 1943, when Richard Rodgers teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II in their first collaborative effort, creating the musical Oklahoma!, which ran for a record 2,212 performances at the St. James Theatre in New York. Their successful legacy and collaboration set the course for the Broadway musical to dominate the New York theatre scene and to appear on stages across the country, delighting scores of audiences.


The Black Crook

A precursor to the modern American musical, The Black Crook was a mid-nineteenth-century Faustian melodrama that was billed as a musical extravaganza. This play, with a production cost said to be $50,000, opened in New York’s Niblo’s Garden on September 12, 1866, and ran for 475 performances, becoming the first Broadway show to last for over a year. The extravaganza featured elaborate scenery, a large cast, and a dancing troupe of chorus girls who, clad in tights, created quite a sensation.


The Black Crook: A Most Wonderful History. Philadelphia: Barclay, 1866.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.



In 1874, J. Cheever Goodwin and Edward E. Rice created a successful musical comedy, or “opera bouffe,” loosely based on Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline.” The show incorporated spectacular sets, which, as noted in the program, were “to have been painted by Titian and Rembrandt. Unfortunately they died too soon. Rather than disappoint the public though, another artist was procured.” Characters ranged from Evangeline to a dancing heifer, and the action took place in such exotic places as the Sahara Desert and the American West. Originally produced in Boston, Evangeline became a popular show staged throughout the United States in the late nineteenth century.


The Romantic Operatic Extravaganza…”Evangeline; or, The Belle of Acadia.” In Three Acts with Original Music, by Mr. Edward E. Rice. Text by Mr. J. Cheever Goodwin. Playbill. Boston: Boston Museum, 1876.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Show Boat

This musical masterpiece, created by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern and based on the novel by Edna Ferber, irrevocably changed American musical theatre. Show Boat interlaced music and story to create a musical play. Its popularity with audiences endures seventy-five years after its premiere in December 1927. It has been revived countless times, translated into film, and given America songs such as “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”


Ferber, Edna. Show Boat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1926.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Of Thee I Sing

Produced in 1931, George Kaufman’s political comedy, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. Satirizing the American presidential campaign process, the Vice-Presidency, the Supreme Court, and Congress, Of Thee I Sing sought to lift the spirits of a country suffering through the Depression. Though now considered to be dated, Of Thee I Sing provides a nostalgic look at American political life in the early twentieth century.


Kaufman, George S, and Morrie Ryskind. Of Thee I Sing. Lyric by Ira Gershwin. New York: Knopf, 1932.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Lithograph, entitled “Pit Orchestra,” by Don Freeman. [New York, 1932].
Courtesy of the University of Virginia Art Museum.


Freeman drew this image from the orchestra pit looking up to a contented audience at a 1932 performance of Of Thee I Sing.


Anything Goes

From a book by Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse and with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, Anything Goes (1934) survives as one of the most outstanding musicals of the 1930s. Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, and Victor Moore composed the original cast for this lively musical, set on an ocean liner bound for Europe. Cole Porter’s score is considered to be rivaled only by his later Kiss Me, Kate (1948) and included such songs as “Anything Goes,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “You’re the Top.”


Pen-and-ink drawing of Ethel Merman, as Reno Sweeney, by Ellen Graham Anderson. No date.
From the Papers of Ellen Graham Anderson.


Pen-and-ink drawing of William Gaxton, as Billy Crocker, by Ellen Graham Anderson. No date.
From the Papers of Ellen Graham Anderson.


South Pacific

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II became the quintessential collaborative team behind America’s modern musicals. The success of their first two creative attempts, Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), left them unprepared for the commercial failure of their third collaboration, Allegro (1947). Eager to recapture their winning streak, the two decided to produce a show based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific. The final product, South Pacific, set on a Pacific island during World War II, dealt with the sensitive issues of racial injustice and interracial romance.

Opening on April 7, 1949, in the Majestic Theatre, the musical garnered nine Tony Awards, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize, only the second to be awarded to a musical. Coinciding with the popularity of the musical itself was the introduction of the cast recording that brought the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein into the homes of countless Americans, many of whom had never seen the show. This dynamic creative team went on to produce many other memorable musicals, including The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959).


Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2nd…Present… “ South Pacific.” Souvenir book. [New York]: Al Greenstone, [1952].
Gift of Margaret Hrabe.


Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2nd…Present… “South Pacific.” Playbill for the Majestic Theatre. [New York]: Playbill, [1952].
Gift of Margaret Hrabe.



In 1977, Harold Gray’s comic-strip character of Little Orphan Annie found her way onto the stage in an adaptation by Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Martin Charnin. The result was the Tony Award-winning musical Annie. Contributing songs such as “Tomorrow” and “Easy Street” to the American musical repertoire, the show opened on April 21, 1977, starring Andrea McArdle in the title role, and ran for 2,377 performances. The lively story of a poor orphan girl adopted by millionaire Daddy Warbucks touched the hearts of theatre-goers of all ages, speaking especially to children. Revived in 1997 for the twentieth anniversary of the original show, Annie has found a new generation of fans.


Tony Award for Best Musical of 1977 for Annie. Produced by Lewis Allen, Mike Nichols, Irwin Meyer, and Stephen R. Friedman.

Courtesy of Lewis Allen.


Mike Nichols Presents “Annie.” Playbill for the Shubert Theatre in Boston. [New York]: Playbill, [1978].
Courtesy of Lewis Allen.


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