We forget how young the American musical really is. In his 2013 book Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre, Ethan Mordden organizes that history into four ages. The first finds the musical’s roots in 19-century minstrel shows, burlesque, and the 1866 stage phenomenon The Black Crook. The second age, in the early 20th century, sees forms “consolidating and evolving.” The third, a “Golden Age,” commences in the 1920s, when the musical as we know it took wing. The fourth, which is where we are now, is an age of revivals and “revisals.”
Much of the Golden Age is still within the theater-going experience of many people. For us boomers, the genre-stretching, boundary-breaking musicals of the midcentury were backdrop. My sisters and I may not have been to Broadway, but we had the cast albums. Every night, as we fell asleep, a turntable stacked with LPs would play one side each of Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story. The whir and drop of the needle in the groove, the seconds of static like an existential entr’acte, then songs circling into the subconscious.