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Musical theatre

Cast recording | Dream ballet | Libretto

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Musical theatre (sometimes spelled theater) is a form of theatre combining music, songs, dance, and spoken dialogue. It is closely related to opera, frequently being distinguished by the use of popular music of various forms (and thus usually different instrumentation), the use of unaccompanied dialogue (though some musicals are entirely accompanied, such as Les Misérables, and some operas have spoken dialogue, such as Carmen), and the avoidance of many operatic conventions.

Contents

Introduction

There are three written components of a musical: the music, the lyrics, and the book. The book of a musical refers to the spoken (not sung) lines in the play; however, "book" can also refer to the overall dramatic arc of a show. The music and lyrics together form the score of the musical; the lyrics and book together are often printed as the libretto.

Many familiar musical theatre works have been the basis for successful musical films, or were adapted for television presentations. While some popular television programs have set one single episode in the style of a musical as a play on their usual format (examples include episodes of Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's episode Once More with Feeling, Oz's Variety, or Space Ghost Coast to Coast's O Coast to Coast!/Boatshow) -- or have suddenly begun singing and dancing in a musical-theatre style during an episode, such as in several episodes of The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy) -- the television series Cop Rock, which extensively used the musical format, was not a success.

While musical theatre works are performed around the world, they are most frequently produced on Broadway in New York and in the West End in London.

A musical can be anywhere from a few minutes to several hours long; however, most musicals range from two hours to two hours and forty-five minutes. Musicals today are typically presented with one intermission ten to fifteen minutes in length; the first act is almost always somewhat longer than the second act. A musical will usually have around twenty to thirty songs of varying lengths (including reprises and underscoring) interspersed with book (dialogue) scenes. Some musicals, however, are "sung-through" and do not have any spoken dialogue. This can blur the line between musical theatre and opera.

A musical's moments of greatest dramatic intensity are often performed in song. Proverbially, "when the emotion becomes too strong for speech, you sing; when it becomes too strong for song, you dance." A song must be crafted to suit the character (or characters) and their situation within the story. A show usually opens with a song that sets the tone of the musical, 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 an excellent way to express emotion. However, on average, 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 may have an hour and a half or more of music in it.

History

In the beginning

The first theater piece that conforms to the modern conception of a musical is generally considered to be The Black Crook - with a book by Charles M. Barras and musical adaptations by Giuseppe Operti - which premiered at Niblo's Gardens in New York on September 12, 1866. The production was a staggering five-and-a-half hours long, but despite its length kept theatergoers mesmerized enough to run for 474 performances. Hundreds of Musical Comedies were staged on Broadway in the 1890s and early 1900s comprising music written in New York's Tin Pan Alley involving composers such as Gus Edwards, John J McNally, John Walter Bratton

Operetta

Probably the best known composers of operetta were Johann Strauss II, Jacques Offenbach and Franz Lehár. In England, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan created the Savoy Operas, which include The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore and Iolanthe. They remain popular to this day, and were frequently revived by London's recently defunct (2003) D'Oyly Carte Opera Company which was dedicated to presenting their work at the Savoy Theatre. Much of their legacy served as an inspiration for the likes of Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland, 1903) and other popular pieces of musical theatre at the turn of the century.

The Roaring Twenties

The musical developed from opera and operetta, but early musicals in the Roaring Twenties ignored plot in favor of emphasizing star actors and actresses, big dance routines, and popular songs (throughout the first half of the twentieth century, popular music was dominated by theater writers). Many shows were revues with little plot. Typical of the times were lighthearted productions like Lady Be Good, Sunny, Tip Toes, No, No, Nanette, Oh, Kay, and Funny Face. Their books may have been forgettable, but they produced enduring standards from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, among others.

The first production to most resemble the musical as we know it today - a complete integration of book and score - was Show Boat, which premiered on December 27, 1927 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Up to this point, Florenz Ziegfeld had been known for his spectacular song-and-dance revues featuring extravagant sets and elaborate costumes, but there was no common theme tying the various numbers together. Show Boat, with a book and lyrics adapted from Edna Ferber's novel by Oscar Hammerstein II and P. G. Wodehouse and music by Jerome Kern, presented a new concept that was embraced by audiences immediately. Despite some of its startling themes - miscegenation among them - the original production ran a total of 572 performances.

The Thirties

Encouraged by the success of Show Boat, creative teams began following the "format" of that popular hit. Of Thee I Sing (1931), a political satire with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Morrie Ryskind, was the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The Band Wagon (1931), with a score by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, starred dancing partners Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. While it was primarily a revue, it served as the basis for two subsequent film versions that were "book" musicals in the truest sense. Porter's Anything Goes (1934) affirmed Ethel Merman's position as the First Lady of musical theatre - a title she maintained for many years. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) was closer to opera than it was to the typical musical, but in style and scope it foreshadowed such contemporary productions as Evita and Les Misérables. The Cradle Will Rock (1937), with a book and score by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles, was a highly political piece that, despite the controversy surrounding it, managed to run for 108 performances. Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday brought to the musical stage New York City's early history, using as its source writings by Washington Irving. Clearly, musical theatre was evolving into something beyond feathers and beads worn by statuesque showgirls.

The Golden Age (1940s/1950s/1960s)

The Golden Age of the Broadway musical is generally considered to have begun with Oklahoma! (1943) and to have ended with Hair (1968).

Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! had a cohesive (if somewhat slim) plot, songs that furthered the action of the story, and featured dream ballets which advanced the plot and developed the characters, rather than using dance as an excuse to parade scantily-clad women across the stage. It defied musical conventions by raising its first act curtain not on a bevy of chorus girls, but rather on a woman churning butter, with an off-stage voice singing the opening lines of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. It was the first "blockbuster" Broadway show, running a total of 2,212 performances, and remains one of the most frequently produced of the team's projects. The two created an extraordinary collection of some of musical theater's best loved and most enduring classics, including Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959).

Americana was the time during the "Golden Age" when the wartime cycle of shows were beginning to arrive. An example of this would be "On The Town" (1944), written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composed by Leonard Bernstein and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The musical is set during wartime, where a group of three sailors are on a 24 hour shore leave in New York. During their day, they each meet a wonderful woman. The women in this show have a specific power to them, as if to be saying, "Come here! I need a man!" The show also gives the impression of a country with an uncertain future, as the sailors also have with their women before leaving.

Oklahoma! inspired others to continue the trend. Irving Berlin used sharpshooter Annie Oakley's career as a basis for his Annie Get Your Gun (1946, 1,147 performances); Burton Lane, E. Y. Harburg, and Fred Saidy combined political satire with Irish whimsy for their fantasy Finian's Rainbow (1947, 725 performances); Cole Porter found inspiration in William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew for Kiss Me, Kate (1948, 1,077 performances); Damon Runyan's eclectic characters were at the core of Frank Loesser's and Abe Burrows' Guys and Dolls, (1950, 1,200 performances); and the Gold Rush was the setting for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Paint Your Wagon (1951).

My Fair Lady Playbill with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison My Fair Lady Playbill with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison

The fairly brief run - 289 performances - of that show didn't discourage them from collaborating again, this time on an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion - My Fair Lady (1956), with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, which at 2,717 performances held the long-run record for many years.

As in Oklahoma!, dance was an integral part of West Side Story (1957), which transported Romeo and Juliet to modern day New York City and converted the feuding Montague and Capulet families into warring gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. The book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by newcomer Stephen Sondheim. It was embraced by the critics but failed to be a popular choice for the "blue-haired matinee ladies," who preferred the small town River City, Iowa of Meredith Willson's The Music Man to the alleys of Manhattan's Upper West Side. Apparently Tony Award voters were of a similar mind, since they favored the latter over the former. West Side Story had a respectable run of 732 performances (1,040 in the West End), while The Music Man ran nearly twice as long, with 1,375.

Laurents and Sondheim teamed again for Gypsy (1959, 702 performances), with Jule Styne providing the music for a backstage story about the most driven stage mother of all-time, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's mother Rose. The original production ran for 702 performances, but proved to be a bigger hit in its three subsequent revivals, with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, and Bernadette Peters tackling the role made famous by Ethel Merman.

Stephen Sondheim would be one of the most important composer/lyricists from 1960 on. His first project for which he wrote both music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, 964 performances), with a book based on the works of Plautus by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and starring Zero Mostel. Sondheim was not one to concentrate on the romantic plots typical of productions of the time; his work tended to be darker, exploring the grittier sides of life both present and past. Some of his earlier works are Anyone Can Whistle (1964, which - at a mere nine performances, despite having star power in Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury - is a legendary flop), Company (1970), Follies (1971), and A Little Night Music (1973), which featured the only standard ever to emerge from the extensive Sondheim catalogue, Send in the Clowns. He has found inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources - the opening of Japan to Western trade for Pacific Overtures, a legendary murderous barber - Sweeney Todd - seeking revenge in the Industrial Age of London, the paintings of Georges Seurat for Sunday in the Park with George, and a collection of individuals intent on eliminating the American President in Assassins. His works are generally known for their lyrical sophistication and musical complexity, which many critics argue has led to his works receiving very little popularity among the general public.

Jerry Herman, too, has played a significant role in American musical theater, beginning with his first Broadway production, Milk and Honey (1961, 563 performances), about the founding of the state of Israel, and continuing with the smash hits Hello, Dolly! (1964, 2,844 performances), Mame (1966, 1,508 performances), and La Cage aux Folles (1983, 1,761 performances). Even his less successful shows like Dear World (1969) and Mack & Mabel (1974) have had memorable scores (Mack & Mabel was later reworked into a London hit). Writing both words and music, many of Herman's showtunes have become popular standards, including "Hello, Dolly!", "If He Walked Into My Life", "We Need a Little Christmas", "I Am What I Am", "Mame", "Shalom", "The Best of Times", "Before the Parade Passes By", "Put On Your Sunday Clothes", "It Only Takes a Moment", "It's Today!", "Open a New Window", "Bosom Buddies", "I Won't Send Roses", and "Time Heals Everything", recorded by such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Eydie Gorme, Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark and Bernadette Peters. Herman's songbook has been the subject of two popular musical revues, Jerry's Girls (Broadway, 1985), and Showtune (off-Broadway, 2003). Jerry Herman is to traditional musical comedy what Stephen Sondheim is to the avant-garde.

The musical started to diverge from the relatively narrow confines of the 1950s. Rock music would be used in several Broadway musicals, perhaps the most significant of which was Hair, which featured not only rock music but also nudity and controversial opinions about the Vietnam War. Other important rock musicals of the 1960s and 1970s included Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. The musical also went in other directions. Shows like Raisin, Dreamgirls, Purlie, and The Wiz brought a significant African-American influence to Broadway. More and more different musical genres were turned into musicals either on or off-Broadway. Automotive companies and other types of corporations hired Broadway talent to write corporate musicals, private shows which were only seen by their employees.

More recent eras

1976 brought one of the great contemporary musicals to the stage. A Chorus Line emerged from recorded group therapy-style sessions Michael Bennett conducted with gypsies - those who sing and dance in support of the leading players - from the Broadway community. From hundreds of hours of tapes, James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nick Dante fashioned a book about an audition for a musical, incorporating into it many of the real-life stories of those who had sat in on the sessions - and some of whom eventually played variations of themselves or each other in the show. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line first opened at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in lower Manhattan. Advance word-of-mouth - that something extraordinary was about to explode - boosted box office sales, and after critics ran out of superlatives to describe what they witnessed on opening night, what initially had been planned as a limited engagement eventually moved to the Shubert Theater uptown for a run that seemed to last forever. The show swept the Tony Awards and won the Pulitzer Prize, and its hit song, What I Did for Love, became an instant standard.

Clearly, Broadway audiences were eager to welcome musicals that strayed from the usual style and substance. John Kander and Fred Ebb explored pre-World War II Nazi Germany in Cabaret and Prohibition-era Chicago, which relied on old vaudeville techniques to tell its tale of murder and the media. Pippin, by Stephen Schwartz, was set in the days of Charlemagne. Federico Fellini's autobiographical film 8˝ became Maury Yeston's Nine. But old-fashioned values were embraced, as well, in such hits as Annie, 42nd Street, My One and Only, and popular revivals of No, No, Nanette and Irene.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the influence of European "mega-musicals" or "pop operas," which typically featured a pop-influenced score and had large casts and sets and were identified as much by their notable effects - a falling chandelier, a helicopter landing on stage - as they were by anything else in the production. Many were based on novels or other works of literature. The most important writers of mega-musicals include the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, responsible for Les Misérables and Miss Saigon (inspired by Madame Butterfly); and the British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Evita, based on the life of Argentina's Eva Perón, Cats, derived from the poems of T. S. Eliot, The Phantom of the Opera derived from the novel "Le Fantôme de l'Opéra" written by Gaston Leroux , and Sunset Boulevard (from the classic film of the same name). These decades also saw the influence of large corporations that produced musicals. The most important has been Disney, which adapted some of their animated movie musicals - such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (which is said to have been responsible for the revitalization of 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, previously a strip of tourist trap souvenir shops, arcades, peep shows, and porn theaters) for the stage - and also created original stage productions like Aida with music by Elton John.

Les Misérables: The logo seen around the world Les Misérables: The logo seen around the world

The growing scale (and cost) of musicals led to some concern that musicals were eschewing substance in favor of style. The 1990s and 2000s have seen many writers create smaller musicals (Falsettoland, Passion); the topics vary widely and the music ranges from Sondheimesque to pop, but they generally are produced off-Broadway and feature much smaller casts (and thus much lower costs).

There also had been the concern that the musical had lost touch with the tastes of the general public in America and that the musical was increasingly doomed to be something viewed by a smaller and smaller audience. One of the most important writers who attempted to increase the popularity of musicals among a younger audience was Jonathan Larson, whose musical Rent (based on the opera La Bohčme) featured a cast of twentysomethings and whose score was heavily rock-influenced. The musical has been a smash success, even with its composer dying of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop, before he could see it reach Broadway. Other writers who have attempted to bring a taste of modern rock music to the stage include Jason Robert Brown. Another trend has been to create a plot to fit a collection of songs that have already been hits - thus Mamma Mia! (featuring songs by ABBA), Movin' Out (based on the tunes of Billy Joel), Good Vibrations (the Beach Boys), and All Shook Up (Elvis Presley).

Familiarity may breed contempt - but it's also embraced by producers anxious to guarantee they recoup their very considerable investments, if not show a healthy profit. Some are willing to take chances on the new and unusual, such as Avenue Q (which utilizes puppets to tell its very adult-themed story) or Bombay Dreams (about the "Bollywood" musicals churned out by Indian cinema). But the majority prefer to hedge their bets by sticking with the familiar - revivals of family fare like Wonderful Town or Fiddler on the Roof or proven hits like La Cage aux Folles. Today's composers are finding their sources in already proven material - cult films like The Producers or Hairspray; classic literature such as Little Women and Dracula - hoping they'll have a built-in audience as a result.

At the present time (late 2004), the musical is being pulled in a number of different directions. Gone are the days when a sole producer - a David Merrick or a Cameron Mackintosh - backs a production. Corporate sponsors dominate Broadway, and often alliances are formed to stage musicals which require an investment of $10 million or more. In 2002, the credits for Thoroughly Modern Millie listed ten producers, and among those names were entities comprised of several individuals. Typically, off-Broadway and regional theaters tend to produce smaller and therefore less expensive musicals, and in recent times more and more development of new musicals has taken place outside of New York. Wicked, for example, first opened in San Francisco, and its creative team relied on the mostly mediocre reviews to assist them in retooling the show before it reached Broadway, where it ultimately became a healthy hit.

As we move on into the future of musicals, it would appear that the spectacle format is on the rise again, returning to the times when Romans would have mock sea battles on stage. This is most apparent in Toronto, Canada where David and Ed Mirvish are presenting the World Premier of "The Lord Of The Rings", billed as the biggest stage production in musical theatre history.

Famous choreographers

George Balanchine
Michael Bennett
Matthew Bourne
Gower Champion
Agnes de Mille
Ron Field
Bob Fosse
Peter Gennaro
Michael Kidd
Jerry Mitchell
Susan Stroman
Tommy Tune
Jerome Robbins
Onna White
Gillian Lynne

See also

References

Mordden, Ethan (1999). Beautiful Mornin'. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512851-6.

External links


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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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