When Musicals Reference Musicals

Jennifer Ashley Tepper Is answering your questions with Broadway Deep Dive!

By: May. 07, 2023
When Musicals Reference Musicals

Do you have a burning Broadway question? Dying to know more about an obscure Broadway fact? Broadway historian and self-proclaimed theatre nerd Jennifer Ashley Tepper is here to help with her new series, Broadway Deep Dive. Every month, BroadwayWorld will be accepting questions from theatre fans like you. If you're lucky, your question might be selected as the topic of her next column!

Submit your Broadway question in the comments here!

This month, the reader question was: I've heard Shucked parodies a lot of musical tropes w/ references to Oklahoma!, The Music Man, etc... We've seen that a lot on Broadway lately - Something Rotten, Mean Girls, Bad Cinderella, Be More Chill, etc... It seems to be becoming more and more popular - when did it start, why do audiences love it?

Broadway audiences have always loved watching a show with references to other shows!

This trend dates back to the earliest theatre and vaudeville in New York City. As soon as there was a collective memory of live performance, there was also a tendency to spoof, pay tribute to, or otherwise reference well-known shows in other productions.

In the 1910s and 1920s, as revues proliferated on Broadway, many regularly included sketches and songs that boasted clever nods to other shows. Hit revue series like The Ziegfeld Follies, George White's Scandals, Earl Carroll's Vanities, The Grand Street Follies and The Greenwich Village Follies regularly referenced current events and pop culture in their lineups, and this included nods to the shows of the current and recent Broadway seasons.

The writing team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were first put on the map with a hit show in 1925, when they created the first edition of The Garrick Gaieties for The Theatre Guild. A scrappier version of the hit revues of the era, The Garrick Gaieties thrilled audiences with Rodgers' melodies and Hart's wit. The show included several sketches and songs with references to current Broadway shows. Among the many works the revue referenced were They Knew What They Wanted, The Guardsman, and Rain, three hit plays of the time. The show also parodied well-known producers and theatre owners The Shuberts, David Belasco, and Florenz Ziegfeld. There was even an entire number poking fun at independent theatre companies soliciting subscriptions from audience members!

While much changed on Broadway in between Rodgers' first hit with Hart in 1925 and his 1953 underappreciated Hammerstein collaboration Me and Juliet (not to be confused with this season's & Juliet!), 28 years later, Rodgers was still cleverly poking fun at other Broadway shows with his collaborator. The music and lyrics for Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Intermission Talk" in this musical about show business featured audience members at the show-within-the-show gabbing during their 15 minute break. Among other topics, they chat about shows currently on the boards that they enjoyed, starring the likes of Yul Brunner and Bea Lillie, before chorusing ironically "The theater is dying/ The theater is dying/ The theater is practically dead!"

As large scale revue series like The Ziegfeld Follies gave way to stand-alone revues in the mid-20th century, the tradition of poking fun at the current theatre season continued. The 1950 Broadway revue Tickets, Please! opened with a sketch about how the show had unfortunately had to change its name because its original title was South Pacific. (It was retitled after what the show hoped folks would say at its box office.) This kind of humor was typical in the topical revues still popping up on Broadway.

As revues gave way to musical comedies in the 20th century, Broadway saw book shows continuing the tradition of referencing other musicals. Off-Broadway carried on the torch of direct parody with shows like Forbidden Broadway. For awhile, comedic references to musicals on Broadway were largely only found in musicals about show business, like Applause (1970), which boasts some terrific examples in its title song. But in the early 2000s, The Producers and Urinetown ushered in a new era of specific musical theatre references within plotted shows-show business related or not-and Broadway began to see more instances of this type of humor.

In the last 25 years, new musical comedies like Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone, and The Book of Mormon have cleverly referenced other musicals, eliciting laughter from knowing audience members who are part of a long continuum of New York audiences in the know. In 2015, Something Rotten! included a show-stopper called "A Musical" which made rapid-fire reference to over a dozen musicals, from Chicago to Seussical, as a soothsayer character explained the art form, backed up by an ensemble helping demonstrate a variety of musical styles.

The perceived increase in musicals that reference other musicals on Broadway is real; it has coincided with the number of musical comedies employing topical humor in general. In the last three decades of the 20th century, a large number of Broadway's most significant musicals were musical dramas (Sweeney Todd, Les Miserables) or period pieces written in a tone that would not sustain musical parody (Annie, Titanic). In the 21st century, the post-Producers musical comedy genre has comprised an increasing number of shows like Shucked that include Broadway spoofing in their vernacular.


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From This Author - Jennifer Ashley Tepper

Jennifer Ashley Tepper is producer of the musicals Be More Chill, Broadway Bounty Hunter, and Love In Hate Nation. She is also the Creative and Programming Director at Feinstein's/54 Below, and th... Jennifer Ashley Tepper">(read more about this author)



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