In general, the first period of American Musical Theatre is marked by operettas, for which the librettos lacked any sense of depth, color, characterization or dramatic reality. For example, with regard to Victor Herbert’s first major score, The Fortune Teller (1898.60), Edward Waters describes the plot of the libretto (written by Harry B. Smith) as “inane” and states that the book “caused confusion and discontent.” Waters further comments that: “The severest criticism appeared in the Tribune whose caustic reporter said of the great applause that one-tenth was for the persons on the stage, and nine-tenths for the music.”
With regard to Babes in Toyland (1903.31), Waters stated: “Glen MacDonough wrote the libretto, which was largely meaningless.” In the review by the Dramatic Mirror, it noted that the book was “the one weakness, charitably saying that the spoken dialogue was rather tiresome.”
The second period of American Musical Theatre is marked by change-agent liberettists, such as George M. Cohan and Guy Bolton. Following the pattern of realistic plots involving everyday people started by Ned Harrigan, Cohan raised the level of conflict from comedy to melodrama. Bolton mixed some serious moments into a comedic situation. Both writers started a trend: the plot and music followed everyday people as they worked out the problems of their lives in a somewhat circuitous but ultimately logical manner.
The third period of American Musical Theatre included playwrights who moonlighted as librettists in the creation of musicals. In general, these people had better writing skills, created more distinguishable characters and balanced serious issues against a pleasant evening’s entertainment, never intruding too deeply into the dismal side of life. (For clarification, a playwright is an author who writes non-musical plays, whereas a librettist writes the script for a musical.)
The fourth period of American Musical Theatre centered around certain key librettists who were not in their prime years in musical theatre but who were pointing us to the future. They included Oscar Hammerstein II around the time he co-wrote Rose-Marie (1924), Dubose Heyward in his one show, Porgy and Bess (1935), John O’Hara in his one show, Pal Joey (1940), Maxwell Anderson, Moss Hart, Josh Logan, Samuel and Bella Spewack.
The fourth period is the last period we will be covering in this website; yet, we do want to emphasize how this period prepares the ground for the fifth period of American Musical Theatre and the people who created the “musical play” or book musical. The fifth period includes many writers we have discussed but who were now in the prime of their careers.