Thesis Title

Influences of Forms of Theatre on Development of American Musical Theatre


Shani Bufford

Date of Graduation

Spring 2007


Master of Arts in Theatre


Theatre and Dance

Committee Chair

Christopher Herr


musical, theatre, minstrelsy, vaudeville, opera

Subject Categories

Theatre and Performance Studies


Musical theatre has come into its own in America; so much so that it has its own distinct identity. The point where American musical theatre came into its own is widely agreed to be in 1927 with the debut of the Kerns/Hammerstein musical Showboat. This musical was a first in several ways, primarily in the tight cohesive way music and dialogue combined to further the story, a rather new innovation for the period. Even with this austere reputation of being innovative, Showboat was not wholly original. This musical, as well as American musical theatre on the whole, was a product of the mingling of styles, a result of influences. Opera, minstrelsy, and vaudeville have collectively left a mark on American musical theatre, making it possible to trace its origins back to their respective histories. Using Showboat as an example of the culmination of the effects of these three on musical theatre in America, it will be shown how each one contributed to its growth. The effect of opera on the overall composition of what would become musical theatre as well as simply introducing the art form to America was significant as a starting point. Minstrelsy would contribute even more to format of theatre, as well as the mix of drama and acting with music as a primary part of the action. Vaudeville made similar contributions, even more clearly refining the ways music could be integral to the movement of a story and actually be a primary component in the staging of a tale. These influences are clearly seen in showboat and provided this revolutionary piece with a groundwork, a foundation to rise from. Showboat, although not directly derivative of opera, minstrelsy, and vaudeville, made use of various devices and formats left to it by its three predecessors to move musical theatre into a new era. All three contributors to American musical theatre, however, have one major point in common. Each introduced the concept of reflecting the issues of American society and history from the stage into what musical theatre would become. Opera, minstrelsy, and vaudeville all made use of preconceptions, misconceptions, and social commentary in America to present their stories. This use of stage to reflect and influence society is one of the strongest links between these three art forms and what became known as American musical theatre.


© Shani Bufford