|Hedwig Illustration by Alex Kittle|
"It is nonsense to say what a musical should or should not be. It should be anything it wants to be, and if you don't like it you don't have to go to it. There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be – it has to be good."
- Oscar Hammerstein II*
Musicals are based on this simple idea: telling a story on stage with dialogue, action and song. The problem is that in the very short history of the American "book musical" (which started with Showboat in 1927) the public understanding of the musical has been largely confined by a more rigid set of parameters. This article outlines a few distinctions that will hopefully reframe the musical for a more flexible contemporary conversation and seek to provide ideas about how to revive what is a truly fascinating, vibrant, and uniquely American form. If you are a musical theater skeptic I hope I can convince you to take a second look at the form, and if you are an artist I hope I can convince you to consider the musical as an interesting place to work. I am a composer who, not so many years ago, claimed to hate musicals, and now they are at the center of my artistic life.
1. The Musical is a FORM not a GENRE.
This distinction is at the heart of the popular misunderstanding of the musical. To illustrate this idea I'll use an analogy. To say, "I don't like mystery novels" is a completely different statement than to say, "I don't like novels." Mystery is a genre and the novel is a form. I hear people all the time say "I hate musicals." This statement is based typically on a few bad experiences and a small misunderstanding. A musical could contain any kind of music and be about anything. The conceit of hating musicals is usually based on the fact that many overplayed "classic" musicals all share a type of music (show tunes), a specific type of singing, sentimentality, and/or campiness. It is very possible to dislike those qualities but they definitely do not encompass all of musical theater.
Many people that claim to dislike musicals loved the movies Annie, Labyrinth, Aladdin, or Dancer in the Dark. They often don't consider that these films are full-fledged musicals. The fact that they didn't like their high school production of Guys and Dolls, or they saw Les Miserables on Broadway and thought it was cheesy, shouldn't mean that all musicals are bad. This would be similar to watching an episode of "Leave it to Beaver" and then declaring, "I don't like sitcoms."
It is of course possible to dislike the form of the musical, however most people misunderstand that the type of music (orchestrally scored show tunes) and the type of singing (semi-operatic with heavy vibrato) that they associate with the form is not actually a requirement. Unfortunately there are not a lot of famous musicals that truly disobey these norms. Even many "rock" musicals pepper electric guitars and drum set into what is essentially a conventional musical. Powerful examples of a musicals which present an authentic rock n' roll approach are Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Rocky Horror Show. On film I'd say 8 Mile and Dancer in the Dark are great examples of movie musicals which use the form but in a total departure from a "Musical Theater" stereotype. There is nothing wrong with any of the above stated norms of musical theater, however it is important to state that they are not a prerequisite for something to be a musical.
2. Is it cheesy?
What most detractors claim to dislike about musical theater is the moment when characters "burst into song." There is a rupture in the narrative flow whenever a someone stops talking and starts singing. This moment is intrinsic to the form but not always as cringe-inducing as people think it has to be. I think Glee has done a really interesting job around this question. Because the show is about singers the songs almost always are cleverly diegetic (or emerging directly from the action). The use of diegetic music is just one way around the awkwardness of song interrupting dialogue. Musical theater writers have been creatively dealing with these moments for almost 100 years. And the truth is that musicals require an acceptance of stylization. To quote Scott Miller, "Musical theatre is at its purest and most honest when it admits its obvious artifice." In a way, the artifice of musicals is something that is easily gotten used to, sort of like quick edits in music videos. At first it seems jarring but eventually you don't even notice.
3. The Production Value Problem
One of the most damaging trends to the musical theater world has been the skyrocketing ticket and production prices on Broadway. This phenomenon in addition to the advent of the "Spectacle" musical in the 80s has made Broadway mostly a destination for tourists and large corporations rather than a vibrant center of cultural experimentation and discourse. My suggestion is that composers and librettists stop aiming for Broadway, just as musicians have stopped aiming for major record labels. If you look at a major label roster and imitate what those artists are doing in order to achieve musical success you are headed down a very treacherous and unhappy path. Imagine where we'd be if major labels alone were curating the music that gets widely distributed. We'd be back in the 50's. As composers and theater makers we need to re-imagine how we can make musicals, how much it will cost and who will come. This isn't to say that there is anything wrong with having a show on Broadway. By all means that is an opportunity of a lifetime. But let's let Broadway come to us.
Musicals are also hurt by their long gestation period. Most musicals will easily take 5-7 years from first reading to commercial production. With a DIY mentality you can put your musical in front of an audience quicker, develop it quicker, and in the long run get more shows off the ground.
4. What is the point?
The musical is one of the few examples of an artistic form that was originated in the United States. The value of the musical is that it is a form of expression which tells the diverse and multi-faceted story of american culture especially well. The form itself was born out of a collaboration (though often fraught) between immigrant songwriters and producers, and black, white, Asian and Latino entertainers.
The fact of group singing, the doubling of characters through song and dialogue, harmony, counterpoint, the use of visuals, choreography, and the emotional intensity of music allow the musical to tell certain kinds of stories exceptionally well. Here are some examples of themes and musicals that address them.
Community (In The Heights, Chorus Line, Oklahoma!)
Societal Upheaval (Hair!)
Insanity/Revenge (Sweeney Todd)
Comedy (Avenue Q)
Tragedy (West Side Story)
Injustice/Oppression (Scottsboro Boys)
Loss of Tradition (Fiddler on the Roof)
5. How do we change the conversation?
I have a few ideas.
I'd like to propose that January become National Musical Writing Month. (NaMuWriMo)
All kinds of musicians and writers should experiment with the form of Musical Theater. The more people that write musicals the more lively the form will become. Perhaps more people will start going to see experimental and oddball musicals. Perhaps larger non-profit theaters will be more willing to produce musicals that might not have a commercial future. Perhaps the "indie musical" scene will take off in the way that the "indie film" and "indie music" scenes have. Perhaps Broadway producers would take notice and start reaching beyond spectacle shows, star-fueled film adaptations and revivals. Perhaps in the coming month a few people can commit to writing a musical in January. If you'd like to commit please email me (cesar at cesaralvarez dot net) and we can start setting up a network of support. I will put up another post in a few days with some basic guidelines. And if you need a librettist or composer maybe we can match people up.
People should start self-producing musicals. Gather musicians and performers and book a night at a venue, a bar, or a gallery. Put on your musical. It doesn't cost much, and you might be shocked at the reception. When my band first self-produced our musical at the Zipper Factory in New York in 2009, almost 500 people came to our 2 shows. Which was more people than had ever come to any one show in our previous 4 years as a band! There is a hunger in the world for stories that are being told through music. The musical is a powerful cultural tool that should not be neglected or pigeonholed. And you might be surprised at who might show up for a musical.
Talk about it online. The critical discussion about Musical Theater online is tiny compared to comparable fields. Here's a hashtag that you can use when discussing musicals, song on stage, the musical as drama, the musical theater industry, contemporary, new, experimental, or oddball musicals: #newmusical (some people have already been using it). In addition here's a hashtag for National Musical Writing Month #NaMuWriMo Tweet me here @musicisfreenow
Read up. The Musical as Drama by Scott McMillin and Strike Up the Band! by Scott Miller are two very insightful books which deal with the critical theory (former) and cultural impact/value (latter) of the musical. These books both completely transformed my understanding of what is possible in a musical and the extent to which the musical theater has participated in and contributed to the cultural output of our society. Scott Miller's blog also has some fiery analysis of contemporary musical theater.
From working in musical theater for only the last few years I've started to notice that many (maybe most) Americans actually have a hidden affinity for at least one or two musicals. In many cases it is secret, denied or misunderstood. I'm interested in creating a conversation that can de-stigmatize and uproot those affections in order to reclaim a powerful and exciting art form. Folks, musicals aren't lame. They rock.
Long live the musical!
Thanks for reading.
* as quoted by Stanley Green in The World of Musical Comedy (New York: Ziff Davis Publishing, 1960), p. 7. via John Kenrick