In the United States the film musical, with its combination of song and dance numbers woven into a narrative context, evolved from the non-narrative entertainment forms of minstrelsy, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, British music hall, and musical theater. Many of the composers of musicals wrote popular tunes for sheet music published by the numerous music companies located on the block of 29th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue in New York City, commonly known as Tin Pan Alley. Minstrel shows, the most popular form of music and comedy in the nineteenth century, featured white actors performing in blackface. Minstrelsy, which lasted well into the twentieth century, was built on comic racial stereotypes, and its influence may be seen directly in early film musicals starring Al Jolson (1886–1950) and Eddie Cantor (1892–1964), both of whom performed in blackface on the stage and then carried their "burnt cork" personas into film. The last of three parts in any minstrel show was a short comedy sketch with music, often a parody of a contemporary hit, and it was also a clear predecessor of what would evolve into musical theater as epitomized by Broadway in New York City and then in Hollywood cinema. Minstrelsy's practice of racial segregation (there were both all-white and all-black minstrel shows) was mirrored by the practice of producing segregated film musicals featuring all-black casts, like Hallelujah (1929), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Carmen Jones (1954), and The Wiz (1978).
The film musical has always borrowed from musical theater. Many film adaptations drew on theatrical musicals, or contain songs borrowed from them, and many performers, choreographers, composers, lyricists, and directors moved from musical theater to film musicals. Jerome Kern (1885–1945) and Oscar Hammerstein II's (1895–1960) Show Boat was adapted for the screen no less than three times—in 1929, 1936, and 1951.
When synchronized sound was introduced in 1927, the musical immediately became one of the most popular film genres. Opening in October 1927, The Jazz Singer , often cited as the first feature-length sound film and the first film musical, was a sensational hit. The movie, which featured established Broadway star Al Jolson, was in fact mostly a silent film with seven musical sequences added, including such signature Jolson tunes as "Mammy" and "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee." The story of a young Jewish man who abandons his future as a cantor and, against his father's wishes, becomes a popular singer was the stuff of melodrama; it was the talking and singing that audiences remembered.
Jolson's famous ad-libbed line, "You ain't heard nothin' yet," seemed to announce not only The Jazz Singer , but the arrival of the musical genre itself. In the 1930s numerous Broadway composers, including Irving Berlin (1888–1989), Cole Porter (1891–1964), Richard Rodgers (1902–1979), Lorenz Hart (1895–1943), and George (1898–1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), happily came to work in Hollywood on the many musicals suddenly being churned out by the studios. Hollywood pundits observed that Greta Garbo and Rin Tin Tin were the only stars who were not taking singing lessons. The rush of the studios to convert to sound and to produce musicals to exploit the new technology is treated humorously in the plot of Singin' in the Rain : when the attempt to make a sound film with silent film star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) results in disaster because of her thick Brooklyn accent, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) save the film by changing the romantic adventure they were making, "The Dueling Cavalier," into a musical titled The Dancing Cavalier and dubbing Lamont's voice with that of Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Ironically, Reynolds's own voice was in actuality dubbed by another singer, Betty Royce.
As the industry quickly converted to sound, several distinct subgenres of the musical emerged. Revue musicals, containing a loosely joined series of acts with a minimal plot, carried over the variety format of vaudeville. The King of Jazz (1930), for example, is structured around a series of songs, dances, and comedy sketches by popular stars of the day introduced by bandleader Paul Whiteman; the various numbers and acts have no relationship or connection apart from Whiteman's claim that many of the disparate performances have combined in the great "melting pot of music" to create the new sound of jazz. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 featured almost every star in MGM's famed lineup (as well as the debut of Nacio Herb Brown's "Singin' in the Rain"), while Warner Bros. trotted out many of its stars for Show of Shows (1929) and Paramount did the same with Paramount on Parade (1930). Operettas also were popular, with Sigmund Romberg (1887–1951) and Oscar Hammerstein II's The Desert Song (1929), starring John Boles and Myrna Loy, the first to be filmed. By 1934, the operetta was already the target of parody in Babes in Toyland , with comic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Later came musical biographies such as MGM's lavish The Great Ziegfeld (1936), starring William Powell as legendary American impresario Florenz Ziegfield, Jr. (1867–1932); Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), with James Cagney cast against type as songwriter George M. Cohan (1878–1942); Night and Day (1946), with Cary Grant as composer Cole Porter; and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), starring Doris Day as singer Ruth Etting.
The first film director to distinguish himself in the musical genre was Ernest Lubitsch (1892–1947), a Jewish-German director who came to Hollywood in 1923. Lubitsch made a series of musicals and comedies that combined sophistication and sex. The Love Parade (1929), set in the imaginary European kingdom of Sylvania, paired French star Maurice Chevalier (1888–1972) and Jeanette MacDonald (1903–1965). In 1932, Lubitsch reunited Chevalier and MacDonald in One Hour with You (co-directed by George Cukor), a remake of his own earlier hit comedy, The Marriage Circle (1924). Another of Lubitsch's comedies, Ninotchka (1939), was remade as Silk Stockings (1957) by Rouben Mamoulian, who in the 1930s had followed Lubitsch's lead and paired Chevalier and MacDonald in Love Me Tonight (1932).
The backstage musical, in which the story is set in a theatrical context involving the mounting of a show, has proven the most durable type of film musical. The premise provides a convenient pretext for the inclusion of the production numbers that, after all, constitute the film musical's primary appeal. MGM's Broadway Melody (1929), the first genuine film musical, was a backstage musical about two sisters seeking fame in the theater. The film won the Academy Award ® for Best Picture in 1929 and established the formula for the many backstage musicals to follow, including such memorable Warner Bros. musicals as 42nd Street (1933), and Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). Although the backstage format declined with the rise of the "integrated musicals" in the 1950s, it continued through the war years and informed such later and otherwise different musicals as Baz Luhrmann's (b. 1962) Moulin Rouge (2001), starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, and 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2003), starring rap singer Eminem and Kim Basinger.