Musical Theatre Time Periods – A Full Breakdown

Whether you’re auditioning for musicals, setting up your rep book, or simply learning more about musical theatre, it’s good to get familiar with the basic musical theatre time periods of our past and present. And that’s why we’ve put together this list for you! All of the musical time periods are included below, along with what types of musical trends were popular in each era.

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Prior to the boom of traditional musical theatre in the 1920s, musical productions were generally operatic in nature. Known by some as the “golden age of opera”, this is where the popularity of opera and operettas was at its peak. However, at the very beginning of the 20th century, a few musicals started to pop up here and there.

Popular Trends: 

• Opera/Operettas
• Vaudeville

The Jazz Age (1920-1939)

By the early 1920s, musical theatre started to become more mainstream. Operettas continued to be popular, but there also started to be a heavy influence of jazz in many of the productions.

This was also the age of glamorous showgirls, light-hearted shows, musical revues, and larger-than-life dance numbers. And it was during this time that book musicals and movie musicals started to emerge.

Popular Trends: 

• Jazz
• Musical Revues
• Operettas
• Ragtime
• Comedies

> List of Musicals of the 1920s

> List of Musicals of the 1930s

The Golden Age (1940-1959)

Considered by many to be the peak of musical theatre popularity (for both stage and screen), the golden age was a beautiful time where showtunes played on the radio and Broadway began to flourish. Musicals were heavy in dance numbers and embraced the development of plot.

Popular Trends: 

• Book Musicals
• Dance Numbers
• Feel-Good Shows
• Love Stories

> List of Golden Age Musicals (1940 – 1959)

Post-Golden Age (1960-1969)

The 1960s are sometimes lumped into the general period of Golden Age musicals, but there was actually a major shift of style in this decade. During the 60s, there was a lot more experimenting, with rock musicals like Hair and more culturally diverse musicals like Fiddler on the Roof. There was also a slight shift towards musicals with deeper and more thought-provoking plots.

Popular Trends: 

• Slightly Experimental Styles
• Growing Variety in Music Genres

> List of Post-Golden Age Musicals (1960 – 1969)

Pre-Contemporary (1970-1999)

During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, we began to see an even larger range of music genres and plots. This is also when big emotions started pouring out into epic/mega musicals like Miss Saigon and Les Misérables. Revue musicals seemed to make a comeback during these years as well. Between the creative plots, big budgets, and the emerging cultural diversity, this was a fun grab-bag period of one surprise musical after another.

Popular Trends:

• Rock Operas
• Epic/Mega Musicals
• Revue Musicals
• Sung-Through Musicals
• Disney Musicals

> List of 1970s Musicals

> List of 1980s Musicals

> List of 1990s Musicals

Contemporary (2000-2019)

Between 2000-2019, there was also a large range of show styles. But this is also when we began to see more musicals based on other pieces of work, especially movies and musical albums (jukebox musicals). There was also a big influence of pop/rock music in these two decades (think Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress). In addition, comedy was another popular trend, with shows like Avenue Q and Book of Mormon turning into mega hits.

Popular Trends:

• Song Cycles
• Jukebox Musicals
• Satirical Shows & Comedy
• Pop/Rock Musicals

> List of Musicals of the 2000s

> List of Musicals of the 2010s

Current (2020-Present/Currently Running Shows)

And here we are – at the beginning of a brand-new era. The upcoming trends are all to be determined by this current generation of makers! Personally? I hope we starting moving away from jukebox/movie musicals and more into highly original work. What are you hoping for?

> List of Musicals of the 2020s

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Which trends or musical theatre time periods do you love?

Do you ever wish you could go back in time and experience a certain era of musical theatre? Feel free to share in the comments below!

Stacy Karyn, author of Musical Theatre Time Periods.
Author: Stacy Karyn

Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She has a TESOL drama certificate, a BA in theatre, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.


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