The 1960s and 1970s in the United States were a time of social movements, expressions of love and sexuality, and great music. American musicals of the time were successful because they individually and collectively tapped into the pulse of what was occurring around the country. The decade saw rock music and counterculture represented in the hit musical Hair, saw themes of love represented in The Fantasticks, and heard great music from the unforgettable Stephen Sondheim. Just as the world outside of the theatre strived to push forward and challenge the ways of the past, American musical theatre worked to evolve the medium into an artfomr that had not yet been seen on stage. This paper will explore how American musical theatre changed in the 1960s and 1970s using examples of famous works. Further, this paper will describe why the mentioned works are so memorable and what they contribute to the legacy of American musical theatre. American musical theatre entered the 1960s with the emergence of one of the greatest and most popular shows of all-time, The Fantasticks. The Fantasticks, with lyrics written by Tom Jones and music composed by Harvey Schmidt, actually began as an Off-Broadway production, but ended up running for over four decades, leaving it as the longest –running musical in contemporary American history. Today, The Fantasticks is often observed at the regional level, being produced by local theatre troupes and companies intent on honoring the great works of the past. However, The Fantasticks was brought back to its Off-Broadway origins in the mid-2000s, running for another eleven years. The Fantasticks is a comedic and poetic story, sometimes regarded as a fable, surrounding the love of two neighbors, a boy and a girl, and their respective fathers whom try to thwart the romance. What is so memorable about The Fantasticks is that it is easily understood in every culture, as the timeless musical has run in numerous countries apart from America. Ultimately, The Fantasticks taps into various topics, especially those surrounding the theme of love, which are inherent to the human experience.
Musicals in the 1960s also drew upon the numerous social events of the decade, such as political protests and the civil rights movement, as art typically does. For example, in 1968, the American musical scene was introduced to Hair, a piece of theatre that drew heavily on the classic rock genre so popular at the time. In fact, the mere title of the play alludes to the culture of the 1960s, which was dominated by wild hairdos worn by classic rock-loving hippies and activists. Hair is arguably the most-definitive play of the 1960s because it highlights the hippie culture of the time, the sexual revolution that occurred throughout the United States at the time, and sought to challenge what was expected from American musical theatre. This mirrored what was actually happening in America at the time, when groups of activists fought the powers that be through the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and in the exploration of drug use. Ultimately, Hair, despite its aggressive entrance into the American musical theatre scene, was widely accepted and enjoyed a lengthy run on Broadway and then internationally. One of the most important side effects of this success is that the soundtrack of Hair, recording by the original cast, has sold millions of records, pushing the American musical past Broadway and into everyday American homes.
The 1960s and 1970s were also defined by the legendary Stephen Sondheim, an American composer who has won too many awards to mention in this paper. In 1962, Sondheim gave the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to the world. The musical is a comedic tale that satirizes ancient Rome in a way that is easily understood by the contemporary audience member. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is another play that enjoyed an extensive run in the theatre world, making nearly one thousand audiences laugh along the way. However, Sondheim was nowhere near a one-hit wonder. He created Follies (which premiered in 1971), A Little Night Music (1973), and Sweeney Todd (1979), among numerous other productions that appeared after the two decades in question. In many ways, especially for his lyricism and musical production, the work of Sondheim came to define the 1970s. Finally, it is important to note that Sondheim’s successes were built on his failures, such as Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz?. These failures were necessary for Sondheim’s successes, just as other musical failure in the 1960s and 1970s created the culture of risk that ultimately made the two decades great.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time when American musical theatre broke away from old and expected traditions of the craft and sought to break new ground on stage. Through musicals such as Hair, Cabaret, and The Fanstasticks, and through the extensive work of Stephen Sondheim, the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to numerous legendary staples of the musical genre. These works have endured the test of time, seeing runs that lasted for decades, in some cases. Further, the musicals of the 1960s and 1970s molded the craft into a new form that subsequently brought the beauty, depth, and joy of musicals to new generations. Elements of the 1960s and 1970s musicals have been seen in works such as The Producers, Hamilton, and many more. As it stands, the 1960s and 1970s is one of the most important time periods for American musical theatre.
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