Presentation Given On Musical Theatre Essay, Research Paper
The eminence of the musical has been the most significant theatre phenomenon in the world over the last twenty years. It has not only given British theatres a greatly needed financial boost but has changed ‘popular’ theatre indefinitely. Before this, they never throbbed with subtlety because someone was always bursting into song about how every thing ‘was looking just swell’. The musical not only wanted to sing away your troubles, but your thoughts as well. The ‘old style’ musical theatre had no social conscience. Always presented in the traditional proscenium arch, the musical isolated the audience from new ideas and innovations. Due to television broadcasting daily updates on world affairs it is now impossible to believe in the benevolence of the Universe that the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote about. Today’s audiences can almost find it abhorrent, being socially aware and informed of current affairs.
I would like to take you on a short journey charting the development of the musical. Kirsty, Rick & I will demonstrate thru songs the changes that have taken place.
The play first opens in 1890’s New York City with Dolly Gallagher Levi, a well-known widowed matchmaker. The song you are about to hear is sung by a crew of elated waiters who escort Dolly into the restaurant ecstatic that their favourite patron has returned for the first time since her husband’s death. The story is very dated, but a charming one! Dolly is determined to find herself a new husband after she has been widowed. The story revolves around her pursuits in catching her man! The song Kirsty is about to perform does not advance or enhance the story at all. Although it is a catchy tune it halts the progression.
Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof stands as one of the strongest, most emotional musicals in history and the film version is a wonderful document of the work.
The story takes place just after the turn of the 20th Century in Anatevka, a small village in Czarist Russia which is populated by both Jews and Christians. Tevye, a religious Jew has personal conversations with God and lives by his traditions. He is repeatedly asked to bend tradition to permit his daughters to marry the men they love. .
Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best musicals ever written. It has a compelling story line, beautiful music, wonderful cinematography, and stunning choreography. This movie includes classic songs such as “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “To Life,” “Miracle of Miracles” “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I were a Rich Man.”
There are many stereotypes of Jewish characters but they are all lovingly portrayed.
? Many Jews lived in poor farming villages in European Russia in the late 1800’s and at the turn of the Century. They were subject to periodic government sponsored pogroms and dispossessions. Millions emigrated to the United States in the period 1890 – 1920.
? At the end of the 19th century and in the first two decades of the 20th century, Russia was alive with revolutionary resistance to the Czarist government. There were many revolutionary groups both communist and capitalist, authoritarian and democratic. The character Perchik was a member of one of these groups.
? In Russia, as punishment, criminals, including revolutionaries, were sent to Siberia, a wild frozen land with little civilization. Most never returned.
This story begins to tackle issues such as religion and racism, never before seen musical. Yet it still embodies the ‘niceties’ of theatrical escapism. The stars sang their showstoppers and the audience went to escape from real life, not to witness it.
With the premiere of musicals such as West Side Story & Cabaret came an emergence of a new phase in musicals.
Actors no longer had chunks of dialogue interspersed with musical interludes. The musical became seamless, with characters singing when their emotions became too overbearing for speech. The songs encouraged the musical to move forward and not stand still whilst the ‘star’ sang their showstopper! Stephen Sondheim advocated the “conceptual musical”. He subordinated every aspect of the work to his personal vision. As a result increasing intellectualised musicals confronted audiences that had frequented the theatre as a means of escape. The audience was no longer told
‘…The best things in life are free, that everything is coming up roses, and that if you don’t have a dream how you gonna have a dream come true?’
Set in the Kit Kat club where the cabaret encourages you to leave your troubles behind and believe that life is beautiful. Cabaret confronts the era of Nazism in Germany, even including a Nazi song, ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’. In 1966, the premiere date, the Holocaust was still very fresh in everyone’s mind. The story follows the life of Sally Bowles, an English girl, working in the Kit Kat club. The emergence of the Nazi party’s power is charted alongside the story of Sally. The musical was no longer singing about how wonderful life is but actually challenging a complex, poignant political era. It was an ‘intelligent’ musical that was not solely about entertaining but also about thinking. By setting it in such a provocative era a huge step towards political musicals was being taken. Never before had Broadway tackled such a sensitive subject.
Cabaret also used the theatrical form of ‘a show within a show’. While we are watching actors on the stage, we are also watching them act on a primary stage. This theatrical device can almost be seen as a form of alienation. We realise we are not the audience being entertained, they are on the stage, we are the privileged audience that sees the ‘real life’ story. We are thus encouraged to absorb the meaning of the story and the subtext. Sally sings the song Cabaret to her audience in the club after deciding not to leave Berlin even under the threat of the Nazis. The song embodies her. She uses the Cabaret, and being a persona (not a person) on stage to escape the horror of real Berlin life.
Little Shop of Horrors
The plot of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS concerns a florist named Seymour Krelborn whose skid row existence takes a turn for the better when he discovers a strange and unusual plant, right after a total eclipse of the sun. Seymour names the plant after Audrey a girl in the flower shop whom he secretly loves. Placing the strange looking Audrey II in the flower shop window attracts the attention of the people on the street, which stirs up the floral business to the delight of Seymour’s dour boss Mr. Mushnik However, not everything is coming up roses for Seymour. It seems that Audrey II has a strange dietary need that involves human blood, plus Seymour’s sudden horticultural success hasn’t gotten him any closer to Audrey, due to the fact that she is dating a masochistic dentist. However, things begin to spin out of control when Audrey II begins talking. The plant makes Seymour a deal that will solve both of his problems. Sure, the story line of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS sound utterly ridiculous, but the musical is warm, winning and totally entertaining.
Skid Row is a beautifully realized number that economically accomplishes several tasks.
First, we get to see the magical qualities of a Greek chorus. They comment on the story and force the progression. And, each characters appearance is in rhythm and conjunction with the vocals .
Second, the song immerses us into the decaying urban atmosphere of Skid Row —its sights, sounds, and its inhabitants. Even though you know that every person you see has an intriguing story, this musical will focus Audrey and Seymour.
Finally, we learn that Audrey and Seymour—like other Ashman/ Menken characters (Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) – both realize that there is more to life and yearn to be free of their respective prisons “where depression is just status-quo.” This song served to ‘set the scene’ and introduce us to the characters lives. It is a prime example of the constant, collaborative musical.
Les Miserables is laden with irony and arduous subject matter. The audience leaves the theatre with a heightened sense of view. Everything around them seems more exciting. This is the effect of highly charged emotional musicals. It could be called an ‘emotional roller coaster’. The beautiful music and lyrics of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is a typical example of the disheartening part of the story.
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on
Empty Chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone
Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.
Les Mis?rables has touched the heart of its international audience as few shows in history have done.
This power derives from the timeless reality of the titanic novel upon which the show is based, Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Mis?rables. More than 130 years later, wars and revolutions still litter the world, and Hugo’s words still describe the undying message of his novel. The musical is telling us the story which happened over a hundred years ago yet the audience can still relate with the plight of the characters.
Les Mis?rables reminds us that we are each part of the same human family, and that whatever our outward differences may be, our longings for individual liberty and peace are the same.
Says Caird, “We saw it from the start as a very big project, and we knew that the only way we could work on it was to go back to Victor Hugo’s book and start again … We decided to specify and dramatize the wretchedness of the times in order to give some focus to Hugo’s anger…”
“I approach the material as if doing a play by Chekhov or Shakespeare,” says Nunn, “Nothing is allowed through as a simple matter.”
Of the writing process, Boublil says, “It was a real, total collaboration. Not only on the writing but also on the casting process. We really made a new team of writers, and we made a new show.”
This is reminiscent of West Side Story, the first collaborative show. Each successful musical since then has been a collaborative effort and has grown in success each time. Musicals are now more eager to tackle subjects that were formerly only touched by straight plays, off-Broadway, and fringe productions. The mass audience is ready to be entertained and intellectually challenged in conjunction. Commercial musicals are encouraging the majority of ‘non-theatre goers’, the children of computer games, the internet and television, to experience a once bourgeois form of entertainment. Nothing can replace the immediacy of the theatre and the sense of occasion at every performance. The musical is a most powerful conveyer of emotion. Les Miserables being such a conveyer.
The Rocky Horror Show
The Rocky Horror Show was created to take the Mickey out of Horror movies, American high school movies, musicals and the weird and wonderful.
Some people forget (or just don’t know) that The Rocky Horror Picture Show started off as a small-scale stage production in London. Within the space of 18 months, Rocky time-warped its way to motion picture land and international fame. Now, 25 years later (minus the word “picture” from the film title) is on Broadway at Circle in the Square and the West End.
There is now a cult following for the stage musical. Costumes are worn by the audience and their participation is highly encouraged. They have lines to shout and dances to do. Audience participation can even extend to bringing
special ‘props’ to a show. Rubber Gloves, to be snapped in time with Frank ‘N’ Furter during the creation scene. A Torch, used during the song ‘There’s A Light’.
Lighters and other naked flames are usually banned as a fire risk.
Talk back adds a different twist to each performance. The cast are allowed to answer the audience, usually this is highly amusing. Two of the most popular talk backs are:.
Brad is referred to as an ‘Arsehole’, whenever his name is mentioned this is the correct response.
Janet on the other hand is referred to as a ‘Slut’.
There are hundreds of talk-back lines that have been used over the years, and more are being created by the audience at every show.
The purpose of this show is to enjoy yourself. Everyone is regarded as the same, theatre staff, audience, cast and security. It is a unifying experience and the culmination of the audacity of modern musicals.
Acting out America
Lahr J. (1972) Penguin Books
American Musical Comedy – A Chronicle
Bordman G. (1978) Oxford University Press
Eyre R. & Wright N (2000) Bloomsbury
Ganzl’s book of the Musical Theatre
Ganzl K. (1988) The Bodely Head
Oh, What a Circus
Rice T. (1999) Coronet
The Hollywood Musical
Feuer J.(1982) The Macmillan Press
The making of West Side Story
Garebian K. (1995) ECW Press
The Twentieth Century Performance Reader
ed. Huxley M. & Witts N. (1996) Routledge