The form utilizes stock township characters and situations and melodramatic and moralizing plots in which good, sympathetic characters suffer as a result of the pressures of urban life and the machinations of evil urban characters, but ultimately triumph.
Devoted to entertainment and - at most - social satire, rather than to any overt political agenda or content. Formally the plays are interspersed with jazz music, songs and dance routines (often with on-stage musicians). Gibson Kente and Sam Mhangwane are generally considered the true originators and certainly commercially the most successful exponents of the township musical in its original form, but of course its roots lie much further back in the early part of the twentieth century.
Strongly influenced by the African variety tradition of Motsiela, Todd Matshikiza and others, and particularly the post WW2 success of musical extravaganzas such as King Kong and Meropa, it arose from experiments by Gibson Kente and other young performer-writers who had begun to adapt the form of the jazz-musical to smaller-scale, domestic plays for township audiences in township performance spaces.
While the form was long ignored by the media despite its commercial viability, and actively despised by the more politicised and intellectual of the the movements of the 70’s and 80’s, such as the Black Consciousness Movement and Mihloti, it became seminal to the Workers Theatre movement (see Astrid von Kotze) and even a number of the more serious political writers and companies took up the form – utilizing adapting and even exploiting it. These include Mzwandile Maqina, Matsemela Manaka, Maishe Maponya, Mbongeni Ngema, Junction Avenue Theatre Company, Zakes Mda, while even Barney Simon, David Kramer and Taliep Petersen in some ways slotted into the concept of the radical or political musical.
By the late 1990’s it had become a central feature of what may be termed the South African style of theatre. From an academic point of view the form gained prominence largely to the efforts of Robert Kavanagh, who – although he certainly disapproved of it intellectually – recognized the importance of Kente and the township musical, and wrote about it in the journal S'ketsh and in his seminal work Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa. Other writers such as Keyan Tomaselli, David Coplan, Peter Larlham, Ian Steadman and Loren Kruger picked up on this influence and explored it further.