Musical Theatre

Musical Theatre

Musical theatre is a form of theatre combining music, songs, spoken dialogue and dance. The emotional content of the piece – humor, pathos, love, anger – as well as the story itself, is communicated through the words, music, movement and technical aspects of the entertainment as an integrated whole. Since the early 20th century, musical theatre stage works have generally been called simply, “musicals”.

Musicals are performed all around the world. They may be presented in large venues, such as big budget West End andBroadway theatre productions in London and New York City, or in smaller fringe theatre, Off-Broadway or regional productions, on tour, or by amateur groups in schools, theatres and other performance spaces. In addition to Britain and North America, there are vibrant musical theatre scenes in many countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

Some famous musicals include Show Boat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, The Fantasticks, Hair, A Chorus Line, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, The Producers and Wicked.

The three main components of a musical are the music, the lyrics, and the book. The book of a musical refers to the story – in effect, its spoken (not sung) lines; however, “book” can also refer to the dialogue and lyrics together, which are sometimes referred to (as in opera) as the libretto (Italian for “little book”). The music and lyrics together form the score of the musical. The interpretation of the musical by the creative team heavily influences the way that the musical is presented. The creative team includes a director, a musical director and usually achoreographer. A musical’s production is also creatively characterized by technical aspects, such as set, costumes, stage properties, lighting, etc. that generally change from production to production (although some famous production aspects tend to be retained from the original production, for example, Bob Fosse‘s choreography in Chicago). The 20th century “book musical” has been defined as a musical play where the songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story, with serious dramatic goals, that is able to evoke genuine emotions other than laughter.[2]

There is no fixed length for a musical. It can range from a short one-act entertainment to several acts and several hours in length (or even a multi-evening presentation); however, most musicals range from one and a half hours to three hours. Musicals today are typically presented in two acts, with one intermission ten to twenty minutes in length. The first act is almost always somewhat longer than the second act, and generally introduces most of the music. A musical may be built around four to six main theme tunes that are reprised throughout the show, or consist of a series of songs not directly musically related. Spoken dialogue is generally interspersed between musical numbers, although the use of “sung dialogue” or recitative is not unknown, especially in so-called “sung-through” musicals such as Les Misérables and Evita.

A Gaiety Girl (1893) was one of the first hit musicals.

Musical theatre is closely related to another theatrical performance art, opera. These forms are usually distinguished by weighing a number of factors. Musicals generally have a greater focus on spoken dialogue (though some musicals are entirely accompanied and sung through, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Misérables; and on the other hand, some operas, such as Die Zauberflöte, and most operettas, have some unaccompanied dialogue); on dancing (particularly by the principal performers as well as the chorus); on the use of various genres of popular music (or at least popular singing styles); and on the avoidance of certain operatic conventions. In particular, a musical is almost never performed in any but the language of its audience. Musicals produced in London or New York, for instance, are invariably sung in English, even if they were originally written in another language (again, Les Misérables, originally written in French, is a good example). While an opera singer is primarily a singer and only secondarily an actor (and rarely needs to dance), a musical theatre performer is usually an actor first and then a singer and dancer. Someone who is equally accomplished at all three is referred to as a “triple threat“. Composers of music for musicals often consider the vocal demands of roles with musical theatre performers in mind. Today, theatres staging musicals generally use amplification of the actors’ singing voices in a way that would normally be disapproved of in an operatic context.

Some works (e.g. by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) have received both “musical theatre” and “operatic” productions.[3][4] Similarly, some older operettas or light operas (such as The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan) have had modern productions or adaptations that treat them as musicals. For some works, production styles are almost as important as actual musical or dramatic content in defining into which art form the piece falls.[5] Sondheim said: “I really think that when something plays Broadway it’s a musical, and when it plays in an opera house it’s opera. That’s it. It’s the terrain, the countryside, the expectations of the audience that make it one thing or another.”[6] This article primarily concerns musical theatre works that are “non-operatic”, but overlap remains between lighter operatic forms and the more musically complex or ambitious musicals. In practice, it is often difficult to distinguish among the various kinds of musical theatre, including “musical play”, “musical comedy”, “operetta” and “light opera”.

A “book” musical’s moments of greatest dramatic intensity are often performed in song. Proverbially, “when the emotion becomes too strong for speech (or recitative) you sing; when it becomes too strong for song, you dance.” A song is ideally crafted to suit the character (or characters) and their situation within the story; although there have been times in the history of the musical (e.g. the 1890s and 1920s) when this integration between music and story has been tenuous. As New York Times critic Ben Brantley described the ideal of song in theatre in reviewing the 2008 revival of Gypsy, “There is no separation at all between song and character, which is what happens in those uncommon moments when musicals reach upward to achieve their ideal reasons to be.”[7]

A musical often opens with a song that sets the tone of the show, introduces some or all of the major characters, and shows the setting of the play. Within the compressed nature of the musical, the writers must develop the characters and the plot. Music provides a means to express emotion. However, typically, many fewer words are sung in a five-minute song than are spoken in a five-minute block of dialogue. Therefore there is less time to develop drama than in a straight play of equivalent length, since a musical usually devotes more time to music than to dialogue.

The material for musicals is often original, but many musicals are adapted from novels (Wicked and Man of La Mancha), plays (Hello, Dolly!), classic legends (Camelot), historical events (Evita) or films (The Producers and Hairspray). On the other hand, many successful musical theatre works have been adapted for musical films, such as The Sound of Music, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and Chicago.

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