Musical Theatre: A Mirror of History

Isabelle Molinari traces the pattern of Broadway musicals offering timely social commentary, and what makes them so influential

Image(s): playbill.com


Most of the time, performing arts is referred to as ‘an escape’. People go to the theatre to be transported, whether it be to the Merry Old Land of Oz or Imperial Russia. The goal is to be sent somewhere that isn’t right here, right now. If this is true, it would seem odd that some incredibly well-known shows would be reflections of their eras. Shows like Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and Rent were not only popular in their first run, but have seen many revivals, film versions, and even high school variations for amateur performers. So what is it about these shows that made them popular, even when they shined a light on things that weren’t so pretty?


One that sticks out, in particular, is the incredibly successful Guys and Dolls. This 1950’s hit opened on Broadway on November 24, 1950, and in 1951 it received 5 Tony awards, including one for Best Musical. The show remained open for another 3 years, closing on November 28, 1953, after 1200 performances (Playbill.com). While longer runs were more common in that age, Guys and Dolls is still an incredibly popular musical that has been revived on Broadway and the West End at least five times since. This beloved musical was not so much an escape for Broadway-goers as it was a reality check. Adapted from Damon Runyon’s short stories from the 1930s, the musical showcases the high-roller lifestyle common in that time, but also the struggles of your average showgirl and frustrated fiancé. These themes were not something foreign to those who lived in the 1950’s New York City. Prohibition had been repealed, but the games and competitions that had been central to drinking together were still illegal. With Nevada as a haven for larger, legal gambling, those who weren’t ready to move their lives had to move their games underground. It also reflected some of that 1920’s spirit of the ‘free’ woman that people were missing since the Great Depression and WWII. Despite this show’s relevancy at the time, it manages to remain extremely popular today. There is not only the lure of organized crime, which made popular movies like The Godfather, but also some familiar characters, like Lt. Brannigan and Sky Masterson, and some relatable ones like Adelaide. Anyone who has waited for their significant other to make a move can laugh at ‘Adelaide’s Lamet’ where she comments ‘Just from waiting around for that little band of gold a person can develop a cold’. This show was not only a reflection of its own time, but today provides familiarity alongside comedy.


Another musical from the same era takes a completely different, but still reflective look at New York City. West Side Story was on Broadway for 732 performances from September 26, 1957, until Jun 27, 1959. This classic also won 5 Tonys, one of which was Best Musical, and had 4 more Broadway revivals, including one which opened in February 2020 (Playbill.com). While the timelessness of this production is partly owed to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there are other reasons this production hit its 1950’s audience differently. The musical perfectly reflected the simmering tensions on the streets between gangs. This tension was real for so many as there truly were incidents of residents clashing with new immigrants. However, this show too has elements of timelessness. Arthur Laurents admitted that he used some language of his own in order to extend the relevance of the show since he knew that ‘street slang’ changed rapidly (Google Arts and Culture). Today, the show is both a window to another world and a comment on the present world. There is both the fantasy of a time many of us don’t remember and the reality of violence and anger against people who are new or different.


Jonathan Larson’s Rent does the same thing as West Side Story and Guys and Dolls, but he took on the most taboo topic yet. Rent opened on Broadway on April 29, 1996, and closed on September 7th, 2008 (Playbill.com). During this period, the musical was performed 5,123 times in the Nederlander Theatre, making it the 11th longest-running musical on Broadway after classics like Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast (Todaytix.com). The Tony Award for Best Musical, alongside 3 others, make it evident that critics loved this production just as much as the audience did. This show was both shocking and relatable. It was a retelling of La Bohѐme, which was not universally loved in its time, but what made Rent even more groundbreaking was its harsh look at reality. It spoke to those who were tragically affected by the AIDS crisis and put at the centre of the story those who were not centre stage in life: members of the LGBTQ+ community, the poor, the artists. While some parts of this show play on stereotypes, there is also much more exploration and space for characters that often get written as a stereotype and nothing more. This show remains extremely popular, not in the sense that it has timeless language or experiences, but because it speaks to pure human emotions such as fear, loss, and hope.


It is possible that these shows are attractive not because they are relevant in their time, but because the things they deal with are timeless. Whether more light-hearted things like ignorant spouses-to-be or more heavy themes like that of Rent, these shows remain popular today because they are something familiar. They might have been reflective of their time, but they also serve to reflect emotions and experiences that are common between everyone. Everyone knows what it is like to be annoyed with the behaviour of someone they love, to be ostracized for being different, and to feel hopeless and like the light at the end of the tunnel has gone out. So if shows are a mirror for history, but also a mirror for common emotions, could that mean that these things haven’t changed as much as we think? Perhaps the emotions and experiences at the core of the human experience are the same at a 1950’s racetrack as they are at a university in 2020.