what is america’s greatest contribution to theatre?

what is america's greatest contribution to theatre?

what is america’s greatest contribution to theatre?

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The History of American Musical Theater

From minstrel shows and Vaudeville to the modern stage, a look at the trends and ideas that shaped American Musical theater.

The early forms of theater in America which led to the birth of the musical incorporated popular songs that were easy to sing and that didn’t necessarily help tell the plot of the story. Later on, the music became more tied to the story until the song had a story and character of its own and then to the point that the music could be both light hearted and soulful. Can you describe the progression which led to this modern version of the musical in terms of the music that was used over the years?

what is america's greatest contribution to theatre?
what is america’s greatest contribution to theatre?

Think of the example that Heather Nathans gives about Showboat which she identified as a “hybrid” musical. What do you think inspired its creators at that particular moment in time to shift away from the old style of theater without making a complete break from the past?

Think about the evolution of the simplistic forms of theater when our country was young which pre-dated the musical up to the technologically advanced and sophisticated shows that are produced today as our democracy has matured some 240 years. Describe the parallels growth patterns that you see in musical theater, society, technology and the human sciences like medicine and psychology.

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19th Century American Theater

The latter half of the 19th century was a time of great change for the American theater. It was a time of tremendous growth in population in America, especially in cities on the East Coast. Americans had more leisure time and better standards of living, and they looked to the theater to provide entertainment — laughter, glitter, and sentimentality. The expanding transportation system in the United States allowed actors and actresses to tour the country, bringing professional theater to many towns and cities that had never before experienced it. As the population of the country grew rapidly, the number of theaters in large and mid-size cities grew as well. From the 1850s until the turn of the century, thousands of new theaters were built.

The 1828 election of Andrew Jackson as President of the United States fueled the spirit of nationalism that had been growing in the country. Hallmarks of the nationalistic movement were patriotism, optimism, and idealism, and these values were reflected in the American theater. Romanticism, the dominant aesthetic mode in writing and the arts in Europe, was embraced in America theater as well but was blended with nationalistic overtones, producing more democratic and populist themes.

Another aspect of the prosperity of this era was the growth of businesses serving the theater industry. Especially in New York City, there was tremendous growth of businesses such as dramatic agencies, costume shops, theater suppliers, photography studios, trade newspapers, boarding houses and hotels, and restaurants catering to the theater trade.

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what is america's greatest contribution to theatre?
what is america’s greatest contribution to theatre?

Theaters of the 19th Century

Theater design and technology changed as well around the mid-19th century. Candlelit stages were replaced with gaslight and limelight. Limelight consisted of a block of lime heated to incandescence by means of an oxyhydrogen flame torch. The light could then be focused with mirrors and produced a quite powerful light. Theater interiors began improving in the 1850s, with ornate decoration and stall seating replacing the pit. In 1869, Laura Keen opened the remodeled Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, and newspaper accounts describe the comfortable seats, convenient boxes, lovely decorations and hangings, excellent visibility, good ventilation, and baskets of flowers and hanging plants.

Theater crowds in the first half of the 19th century had gained a reputation as unruly, loud and uncouth. The improvements made to theaters in the last half of the 19th century encouraged middle- and upper class patrons to attend plays, and crowds became quieter, more genteel, and less prone to cause disruptions of the performance.


American Theater and the Civil War

The American theater was only moderately affected by the outbreak of the Civil War. Some theaters closed down in the first year of the war but then reopened, even in the South. However, touring was severely limited in the northern states and stopped all together in southern states. A few leading actors volunteered for service but the majority continued to pursue their profession. One of the biggest theatrical events during the Civil War was the popularity of the play UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. At one point, four shows were thriving in New York City at the same time. After the war, many southern theaters never regained their stature, even as the theater industry in the north and west grew rapidly.

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Vaudeville and Pre-World War II Theatre

By the 20th century, minstrel shows had mostly fallen to the wayside in favor of vaudeville. Vaudeville productions consisted of multiple unrelated acts grouped together on the same playbill, and began rising in popularity during the 1880s. By the 1900s, Vaudeville performances included anything from trained animals to one-act plays and magicians. Many celebrities of the era got their start on the Vaudeville stage, including comedians Abbot and Costello, singer Judy Garland, and novelty act Harry Houdini, amongst others.

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