Musical Theater Influences from the 50s & 60s

The postwar wave of creation with avant-garde and political propaganda changed the game of influence for modern times to come. Audiences postwar did not want to see or hear the dread of what had happened. This being the start of the baby boom, people living in the moment. People wanted to focus on the peace and calm of everyday life, on the other hand, there was theater.  With the focus of musical theater influence to current times from the 1950s and 1960s. Popular musicals in these times focused on romance and/or happy endings. Emphasizing on love and happiness, no traces of the past but only happiness of the new. From Singing in the Rain (1952) to Jailhouse Rock (1957) and their different renditions to come, with the 60s holding more commonly known classics of My Fair Lady (1964) to The Sound of Music (1965) to Mary Poppins (1964) to West Side Story (1961) and more. 

As Musicals tend to focus on many different topics while following the storyline, this is where the influence into modern ideas starts to form. Musicals, and even play and other forms of art, start bringing to life the humanity of people to bring out the empathy of the audience. That is where the influence begins. West Side Story is a good example of such. The influx of Puercans moving onto the mainland from the 40s to the 60s could be where the idea of changing up Romeo and Juliet came from with over 900,000 Puercans migrating, 85% of which moved to New York City, where the capital of musical theater is. 

With the Jets and the Sharks battling out their problems, comes an interracial romance that would cause controversy at the time. This musical added on to the stereotype/feeling that Puercans are thugs, they added them into theater which started the wave of having BIPOC in musicals. During this time and earlier, doing blackface was more welcomed than having a BIPOC on stage. Furthermore, the large wave of people coming to New York, this influenced how Puercans was seen, whether people knew it or not. This musical was able to succeed through people being able to relate to it through one factor or multiple. This twist on a classic tale focusing on love and youth was just the thing people wanted to watch postwar as the world was getting more diverse.

With the influence of the 50s and 60s, theater started to become more diverse in modern times. The modern day musical In The Heights by Lin Manuel Miranda was named to be the predcesncer of West Side Story but with a non-white cast. Showing that West Side Story, while it was created in the 50s and released in the 60s set precedence in what musical theater is to become. Changing the way people question, what is musical theater?

What is Musical Theater 

Many may not know but there are many parts to the aspect of theater and one of these very sections includes that of musical theater what many may not know is the concept and the definition of musical theater. Musical theater is the aspect of theater that embraces and constantly uses the beauty of what comes with song, dance, and that of talking also known as dialogue amongst one another to show a story in a more exciting way for many to enjoy. This very genre of Theatre can go back centuries and plays an important role in theater till this very century but also uses the components of physical images as well as motionless scenes.

Frank Loesser

In the start of musical theater specifically in the 1950s Loessers created one of the most renowned plays on Broadway which allowed him to have his second-best hit known as “Guys and Dolls” not only that but the music within the plays were a crowd favorite that includes “Luck, be a Lady”.

How Did Musical Theater Come to be in the 1950s 

After the 1940s era, the 1950s were full of excitement as it was known as the decade Post-World War II which meant many babies were being born during this time after much time of sadness and uncertainty. Known as the Golden Age the United States began to show great improvement such as that of the military and economy which was shown through the beginning of cars, goods, and houses which was difficult for families to afford previously. Due to this era and the booming of it, this allowed Broadway to rise up and succeed due to the fact that now people had the money and willpower to see film productions and plays and even enter studios. This was all lead but MGM studios at the time as individuals known as Technicolor would announce to the general public the starting and beginning of a show that was played across screens across the nation. Broadway was known to be at its best during this very decade as they came out with productions that included that of “West Side Story” and “Peter Pan”.

 1960s and Musical Theatre 

What many have not realized is that sometimes musical productions relate to what is happening around them in society and are influenced by it in which they create play productions to reflect that every time. During this decade is what the musical world called the Sunset of the Golden Ages as this decade changed history past present and future for years to come within the United States as it was not only the time of the Assaantitation of the former President John F. Kennedy as he brought hope and happiness to many but when his murder occurred everything became a 360 spiral as the nation became something they wished never would’ve happened which was the that of racism and segregation. Thus began the civil rights movement as many know the leader being Dr. Martin Luther King Junior there were victories as well as downfalls that occurred such as that of the Civil rights and war began across the world and America was a part of it during this period many wanted either justice and reform and with that many began to be protesters and activist and with that now we know that Americans did not know how to feel at the time and were divided and that is when theatre comes into play as it was a way for many to perform what was happening and bring reform and light to what tragedies are occurred within our nation.

Hair The Musical That Changed it All!

The first Hair Musical first appeared in Theatres in 1960 September 27 to be exact as this very musical showed what was happening around our nation at the time and people were quite shocked at what they saw which included that of nudity, anti-war protesting, and fighting for what is right as they went against societal norms at the times. It represented aspects of life such as international relationships, brought up the aspect of monogamy and being against it. At first many were against such a play because it went against what many beloved in as the very start of the play the actress was nude behind a sheet and was talking to others at the time people didn’t believe in such things and walked out of the Shaftesbury theatre at the time. Within time and understanding, the audience understood the concept and embraced it as they fought against what had seemed as the norm and had to be back then but stood up for what was right and fought for what they truly loved and believed in.

The Rising and Downfalls of the 1950s and 1960s in Society and Theatre!

As we have seen throughout the aspect of not only society but theatre our society is connected in many ways as we see that musical productions are influenced by what is happening around us and is a way to speak up and bring awareness to actions and events that are happening to a certain race, religion, and even gender. Theater is a way to speak your truths to the general public because there is no other way to do it, especially during these decades. Life is always full of downfalls and happiness which is reflected in many lives and history but we must learn from past experiences and even plays to never make these mistakes again as it comes with consequences that may affect many. This was just the start of musical theatre and its impact within society as a whole.

Written by Mirna Tadros and Thalia Lopez

Work Cited

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Adlington, R. (2005). Music theatre since the 1960s. In M. Cooke (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera (pp. 225-243). (Cambridge Companions to Music). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521780094.015

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Wells, Elizabeth A. West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2011. 

Mondello, Bob. “’Hair’ at 50: Going Gray, but Its Youthful Optimism Remains Bouncy And Full-Bodied.” NPR, NPR, 1 May 2018, www.npr.org/2018/05/01/607339204/hair-at-50-going-gray-but-its-youthful-optimism-remains-bouncy-and-full-bodied.

“A Great American Songbook Foundation.” The Center For The Performing Arts, thesongbook.org/change-is-gonna-come. 

Sutori, www.sutori.com/en/story/a-history-of-american-musical-theatre–aUH6hqrWo1S2eYXx3vseptrk. 

Lee, Sarah. “Hair: The Musical That ‘Changed Theatre for Ever’.” BBC News, BBC, 27 Sept. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-45625785. 

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