The Morning Forum of Los Altos featured playwright, composer and lyricist Sean Hartley spotlighting “Four Musicals That Changed Broadway” Dec. 7.

In a virtual presentation, Hartley, director of the musical theater division at the Kaufman Music Center in New York, explained that musical theater, as people know it today from such productions as “Les Miserables” and “Hamilton,” is a far cry from the musical productions of years ago. He described a “musical” as a play where equal weight is given to the drama and the songs. Musicals have been in existence for 100 years, and before that, there were operettas, oratorios and sacred music.

It all started with the piano, Hartley said. Before the 1850s, pianos were found only in homes of the wealthy. But when they became more reasonably priced, many middle-class homes had a piano – and everyone wanted to play the latest songs. The term “Tin Pan Alley” is derived from this time, he noted, which referred to the street that housed music publishers, who had pianos outside their doors. It was pretty noisy, with each music publisher having a player (a song plugger) pounding out the latest songs. People could buy song sheets for a nickel.

Vaudeville soon followed, according to Hartley. Performers had to travel from theater to theater, which was exhausting. To have a show stay in one theater would be preferable. The lavish Ziegfeld Follies (1907-1931) came next, with Florenz Ziegfield Jr. producing an elaborate theatrical review with many acts, ornate costumes and musical numbers.

Innovative theater

Next in the progression of entertainment was astoundingly different, Hartley said – a show that had a story with music. He highlighted the importance of “Showboat” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, which featured a serious story involving an interracial cast and problems including alcoholism and back-breaking work for little money. (Check out the lyrics to “Ol’ Man River.”) This, in 1927, was epic in American theater.

At the premiere, the audience left in stunned silence. The reviews the next day were excellent, Hartley shared, and the musical has been revived more than a half-dozen times over the years.

The next great musical was “Oklahoma.” When Rogers and Hammerstein proposed their ideas to producers, they were met with skepticism. Hartley reported that one said, “You can’t open a big Broadway show with a lady on stage churning butter and a fellow singing about a ‘beautiful morning.’ … You need dancing girls and a big number.” But Rogers and Hammerstein insisted that their show had a story, and from then on, the story became the impetus of all musicals.

Another innovation came about with the debut of “West Side Story.” Previously, dancers danced and singers sang. But choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to stage a fully integrated musical with his characters doing both. For his groundbreaking and fast-paced choreography, Robbins won both the Tony Award for the musical and the Academy Award for the subsequent film.

Hartley entertained the Morning Forum audience by singing and accompanying himself on a couple of Broadway songs. He urged attendees to support regional theaters.

During a question-and-answer period following his talk, he touched on Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Disney Studios making musicals based on films.

One attendee asked why musicals are so memorable. Hartley’s response: Lyrics speak to our brains, but with music it goes to another level, and it is heightened by the communal experience of being in a theater with others.

The Morning Forum of Los Altos lecture series is open to new subscribers. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.