Musical theater

Musical theater (or theatre) 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.

The musical components of a musical are generally referred to as the score, with sung lines considered the lyrics and the spoken lines the book, or occasionally the libretto (a term also frequently applied to text of an opera, it incorporates the words of both dialogue and lyric).

Many familiar musical theater 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", or Oz's "Variety"), or have suddenly begun singing and dancing in a musical-like style during an episode (several episodes of The Simpsons), the television series Cop Rock, which extensively used the musical format, was not a success.

While musical theater works are performed around the world, they are perhaps 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; however, most musicals are two hours to two hours and forty-five minutes; musicals today are typically presented with one intermission ten to fifteen minutes in length. 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.


Musical collaboration

Musical theater/theatre is a collaborative craft with a long history of traditional forms and structures, although new writing in musicals is constantly stretching and testing the enormous flexibility of the artform, taking it to previously unexplored places. Musicals are most commonly recognised to be a combination of sung lyric and spoken dialogue.

The authors

There are usually several authors of a musical. Very few musicals are written entirely by one person. A collaborative partnership of composer (music), lyricist (lyrics) and bookwriter (script) are generally involved, although one person may serve as composer/lyricist, lyricist/bookwriter (also called librettist) or bookwriter/composer. There can be multiple bookwriters, lyricists and/or composers on any one musical.

There is no easy answer to the most frequently-asked question about musical theatre: "Which comes first, the music or the lyric?" Each collaboration works in a different way, and tends to be unique to the specific collaborators involved. Sometimes a melody inspires a lyric. Sometimes a lyric inspires a melody. However, the strongest inspiration for all the authors is the driving theme of the main story of the show.

The initial idea for a new musical can come from the authors themselves, or they might be commissioned by a producer to write a musical on a specific subject. Musical theatre has a long tradition of adapting plays, books and other source material into this new genre.

Getting a musical produced

Authors can spend years developing a single musical, and then attempting to get their work produced. During the development of a new musical, readings or workshops may be used for revision of the work. A new musical will usually undergo several extensive rewrites before it is deemed ready for production, both by the authors and any potential producers.

Large-scale musicals today are typically backed by a number of producers; in the past musicals were usually controlled by a sole producer but with costs ballooning to more than $10 million for many new Broadway musicals, several individuals or corporations may contribute money to a single project.

The production process

After the authors have found producers for their musical, the producer will typically hire a director; the director, producers, and authors will then hire the rest of the creative team, a group consisting of choreographer, music director/conductor, set designer, lighting designer, costume designer, and sound designer.

Once the main creative team has been assembled, the show will typically hold auditions for actors. In some cases a show may start with a few stars planned for certain roles. In the USA and Britain, rules between the group of producers and the actors' union, Actors' Equity Association in the USA, Equity in Britain, require that there be open calls for every show. This means that non-union performers can also audition. The producers must also hire crew members and orchestra members for the show.

Once the cast has been assembled, rehearsals start, and in many cases a show will open in an out-of-town tryout. This gives producers and writers a chance to get the show in front of an audience and make changes, while keeping it away from the prying eyes of the press. In recent years, however, it has become more common for a show to forego the out-of-town tryout and replace it with a month or more of previews in a major city. If the show does open out-of-town, there will typically be a period of time, sometimes only a few months or as much as a year, before the show goes to a major city. If a show does poorly in its tryout, plans for a major city run may be scrapped. If a show goes to a major city, it may play previews for up to a month. During previews, the press is rarely allowed to review the show; they must wait until the official opening night. In some cases, previews may have discounted ticket prices. During previews, the final changes are made to the show.

When a show opens, reviews by the critics are very important. If a show gets positive reviews, it might become popular; however, a show that receives negative reviews may be hurt. When a show gets negative reviews, producers may have to work to minimize the damage, using advertising or relying on good word of mouth from audiences. Advertising and word of mouth have sometimes been able to overcome mixed or negative reviews.

A successful show can run for years, sometimes more than a decade. The longest running show in Broadway history is Cats, which ran for almost 18 years, totalling 7,485 performances. A successful show will probably spawn national tours and productions in other major cities around the world. When a musical runs for a lengthy time, the amount of money it can gross can be astronomical. The Phantom of the Opera, for example, has grossed more than $500 million dollars from its Broadway run alone and more than US$3.2 billion worldwide.

An unsuccessful show may close within months, weeks, or even days of opening. Producers and investors (also known as 'angels' within the business) risk losing millions on a flop.


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 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.


Probably the best-known composers of operetta were W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, whose prolific output - including The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, and Princess Ida - remains popular to this day, and is often revived by London's D'Oyly Carte company, which is 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), Franz Lehár (The Merry Widow, 1907), and Oskar Straus (The Chocolate Soldier, 1910). To this day, there are many theatre companies that specalise exclusively in Gilbert and Sullivan.

Musical Comedy

On the London stage musical comedies developed out of operetta from the 1890s onward. Edward German, Leslie Stewart and Lionel Monckton were among the principal composers.

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. Sigmund Romberg wrote extremely popular shows, The Student Prince and The Desert Song.

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 theater - 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.

In the United Kingdom Ivor Novello and Noel Coward, produced popular musical plays that stuck closer to the tradition of operetta, although Noel Coward also wrote racier review shows. Noel Gay was responsible for shows based on the popular music of the day, such as Me and My Girl.

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 theater 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).

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).

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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 most 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 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 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 Schoenberg 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, 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.

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Les Misérables: The logo seen 'round 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 bohème) featured a cast of twentysomethings and whose score was heavily rock-influenced. The musical would be a smash success, but its composer died of an aortic aneurysm before he could ever 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.

Famous choreographers

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

See also

de:Musical fi:Musikaali fr:Comédie musicale he:מחזמר nl:Musical ja:ミュージカル pl:Musical sv:Musikal


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