When one talks about the American musical, the conversation often turns to the traditional sources from which the musical has been influenced. These sources include European opera, religious hymns, minstrel shows, and ragtime music. But what about something that is not typically discussed as a source of the American musical?
One oft-forgotten component of the American musical is the influence of Native American music. Native American music incorporates a variety of musical instruments, rhythms, and singing styles that are unique to each tribe or region. This type of music is said to predate the American musical by centuries and has had a profound influence on the development of the genre. Themes of nature, ritual, and sacred ceremony are all explored in Native American music, which is why it is often cited as a primary source for the American musical.
Many American musicals tend to feature romanticized representations of Native American culture, with songs like “Follow The Rainbow” from the musical Oklahoma as one of the more well-known examples. Contemporary composers, such as Stephen Sondheim and Stephen Flaherty, are more likely to incorporate Native American music in their compositions, often utilizing traditional musical instruments, such as the flute, drum, and rattle. In contrast to the earlier romanticized representations of Native American culture in the American musical, modern musicals are more likely to explore themes related to identity, culture, and acceptance.
In conclusion, though there are many sources that have traditionally been cited as influential to the American musical, Native American music is often overlooked. With its unique instrumentation, rhythms, and themes, it has had a profound influence on the development of the American musical and should be acknowledged as an important source.