This paper examines certain conditions that led to the establishment of that uniquely American theatrical form —the musical— by placing its development within the dynamics of the emergence of a cultural hierarchy at the turn of the century.
Theatrical forms with music had long been at the centre of popular culture, widely enjoyed by all classes. This situation changed in the latter half of 19th century, when distinctions between high/low culture, and the American/the non-American were forged. By propagating high culture to the lower classes, the elite intended to redefine American-ness and restore order in a changing society. The birth of the musical is one aspect of such a movement. While opera became high art, all theatrical forms in English with music and based on ordinary stories were disvalued because of their familiarity. Yet, it was this familiarity as part of popular culture that made the lower classes go to theatres and gain a sense of American identity by watching performances with patriotic themes. In addition, only the musical achieved a complete integration of music and story. These elements seem crucial in order to decide when and how the musical first emerged in America.