Musicals in the 50s and 60s

 The 1950’s marked a period defined by domestication and family values, quite often referred to as the “boom”. The economy was booming, the suburbs were booming, and famously babies were also booming. This era also is highlighted by the start of The Civil Rights movement and the Cold War.

After the Great Depression and World War II, civilization put an emphasis on settling down and starting a family. The image of the ideal family included a stay at home wife, a working father, and several children. After women proved themselves of being capable of handling any man’s job after taking them over during the war, they were expected to return to a domestic lifestyle once the men had returned. The narrative of women being the caretakers and only purpose was for a man, was heavily being popularized throughout media in the 50’s which ingrained itself within musical theatre.

     Some of the popular musicals of the century included Pajama Game (1954), My Fair Lady (1956), West Side Story (1957), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Sound of Music (1959), Once Upon a Mattress (1959), The Music Man (1957), Gypsy (1959), and many more. Most of these musicals share one common element centered around the women’s plot in the story being involved with or around a man. For instance, My Fair Lady plot centers around a woman changing herself to a man’s image of a respectable woman. In West Side Story, although it represents the division of race in America, Maria’s story line is falling in love with a man. In The Sound of Music, Baronin Maria Von Trapp works caring for a man’s children and then falling in love with that man. Although these musicals are classics with astounding music and storylines, the plot of the female roles remained only limited to the counterpart of a man.

It reflected what was societally being pushed on the idea of a women’s purpose at that time. Despite the narrow perspective and not at all complex roles that were created for women of the decade, the 1950s were also known as the “Golden Age” of musical theatre. Most of the musicals of this time used what is known as the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s formula. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein were an iconic American musical theatre duo who created Broadway classics such as Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Their formula consisted of predictable plots and the character casting of a baritone lead, light soprano lead, supporting lead tenor, and supporting alto lead. Although predictable, their formula could always create a hit.

It seems in a world of unpredictability, it is comforting to go and be entertained by something that is predictable. After the Great Depression and a second World War, to then be dealing with the threat of the Cold War, reality can be a frightful place. In the 50s, what the world needed most was a form of escapism that gives the audience an outcome that was foreseen, and musicals of that caliber provided exactly that. 

         Although as the 60s approached, musicals started to delve into more complex and racier narratives than ever before. As the world became less conservative and started to progressively begin to be more open minded, it made its way into the world of musical theatre.

The 1960s was an era defined by revolution, often referred to as the “Civil Rights era”.
This tumultuous decade is marked by many social and political changes, such as the civil rights
movement, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war and anti-war movements, cults, presidential
assassination, rising tensions caused by drug culture in America, and an emergence of a
“generational gap”. Younger generations were finally opening their eyes to the decades of
discrimination and violence that preceded them and began to rebel against the
sexism, racism, and classism that has been so deeply ingrained in their society. During
this era the term “Hippie” was coined to describe the youth who took on a grungy
aesthetic and lead the anti-war movement, creating a movement revolved around
peace, love, liberation, and equality.

During such a hectic era with many emerging movements, theater played a pivotal role to allow an outlet for artists to reflect and comment on the quick transition of cultural values. Currently, musical theater was able to raise awareness for important social issues while offering entertainment and even escapism for audiences. However, musical theater was also experiencing its own radical shift as well; Shifting toward plays based on revolutions, important figures and war. John Bush Jones’ book “Our Musicals, Ourselves”, cites the 60s as the emergence of “Issue Driven Musicals”, in which the musical centers around a socio-political agenda that is the main focus of the story and in which the music and dance aids in emphasizing the musicals main message on the topic. Many musicals from the 50’s made their way into film adaptations as well such as My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and West Side Story (1961). There was also various emerging new musicals both on and off broadway including Cabaret (1966), Oliver (1963), and the Fantastiks (1960).

1960s is well-known for its eclectic style and easily recognizable aesthetics. While it was
easily reflected in fashion, theater also took on the popular styles of the 60s and often
incorporated it into shows, most notably Hair! A rock musical which premiered on Broadway April 29th, 1968. Directed by Tim O’ Horgan with choreography by Julie Arenal and music by Galt McDermont, Hair! encapsulated the anger the young generation of the 60s had with the ongoing violence in Vietnam, while incorporating the psychedelic rock music that had blossomed due to bands such as The Beatles, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, and of course, the legendary festival at Woodstock.

Hair! placed 1960s counterculture front and center, featuring a group of college kids
who are struggling to find identity, both personally and in search for their broader place in the
world. Protesting the Vietnam war and coming to terms with the generational gap between
themselves and their parents, while exploring the emerging psychedelic drug scene and playing a large role in the sexual revolution. This play touches on all the main struggles 60s-era youth faced in front of war and uncertainty. It thrust interracial relationships, bisexuality, and
questioned monogamous relationships into audiences faces and was controversial for its loose
sexual boundaries, vocality against the Vietnam war, and its portrayal of drug use. Hair! is the
defining musical for the rock-musical genre, paving the way for plays such as Little Shop of
Horrors, Jesus Christ Superstar as well as paved the way for film musicals such as Rocky Horror
Picture Show (1975).

Hair!’s soundtrack heavily reflects the psychedelic rock movement in the 60s, while also
incorporating powerful messages on race, sexuality, and the generational gap. The song below
is a great example of the music commenting on societal shift:

“I Got Life” Hair! (Original Broadway Cast):

With the shifting style and themes of musical theater in the 60s, so came a shift in how
theater was received and viewed. During the 60s, as many controversial themes became
broadcasted on the mainstages of Broadway, many audiences and critics caught eye of the new
themes and either vehemently advocated them or abhorred them. Ticket prices on Broadway
also began to surge, which caused many audience members to shift toward off-Broadway and
off-off Broadway. The off-Broadway movement rebelled against commercial theater and the
high prices with low employment rates that Broadway offers. Many of the prominent 60s
musicals were created and performed in theaters that then moved to Broadway later on.

Overall, the 60s were a hectic, crazed, and groovy time where culture was beginning to
change rapidly, becoming a forefront in civil rights, feminism, drugs, and sexuality, all things
that were questioned and explored on and off- Broadway stages. The narrow confines of the
1950s were broken and expanded, paving the way for controversial theater pieces to come.

Work Cited

“1960s.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 21 Aug. 2018, www.history.com/topics/1960s.
Asimenou, Gabriella. The Evolution of American Musical Theatre: A Sociological Perspective.
Edited by Edel Sandars, Faculty of Education Music Department Charles University, July
Bottoms, Stephen J. Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway
Movement. University of Michigan Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.22965.

FilmSnobReviews, director. Top 5: Musicals of the 1960s. Youtube, 27 Nov. 2017,
Otis, Mary. “Off-Broadway, 1960.” Dissent Magazine, 9 Aug. 2018,
Staff, Playbill. “Look Back at the Original Broadway Production of Hair.” Playbill, PLAYBILL INC., 29

Apr. 2020, www.playbill.com/article/look-back-at-the-original-broadway-production-of-

Administrator. Mark Adamczyk – Major Broadway Musicals of the 1950s, www.adamczyk.com/musicals-by-decade/41-major-broadway-musicals-of-the-1950s. 

History.com Editors. “The 1950s.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 17 June 2010, www.history.com/topics/cold-war/1950s. 

Robin. “Music: Rodgers and Hammerstein.” Great American Things, 26 Dec. 2011, www.greatamericanthings.net/music/no-92-rodgers-and-hammerstein/. 

“Rodgers and Hammerstein.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Aug. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodgers_and_Hammerstein. Stage 1950s I: When Broadway Ruled, www.musicals101.com/1950bway.htm.

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