20 Plays, 20 Years
Professor Melinda Lopez
The Relevancy of Musical Theater
In an age when we are defined by the number of tweets we receive in a day or the number of friends who have ‘faced us’, it has become inherently important to find moments that we have interpersonal contact. Though we may find entertainment value while attending the movies or a sports event, theater offers us the opportunity to gather holding a collective spirit. It is a vehicle to explore community values and issues of humanity while congregating in a space together. Within such an environment, exploration of the human condition is possible with a hopeful result that personal and societal change may occur.
Classical theater continues to carry a tremendous value; especially by influencing the creation of modern theater. It can be molded to incorporate today’s modern technologies and re-staged with updated characters and costuming. However, it is still often difficult to apply its relevancy to present day society. Contemporary theater offers stories that are current, that provoke deep thought and consideration for the world both immediately around us, and afar. We are able to examine these stories while breathing the emotion of the actor, absorbing the physical presence of our fellow audience members, and hearing our own reactions to the exploration of our senses. One genre of modern day theater that I feel is underestimated and underutilized is musical theater. With the addition of music and movement, a more thorough means of discovery can be offered. Unfortunately, though it has persisted through the ages, musical theater has often not succeeded due to questions of relevant content and economic viability. In examining the history of this style, can a mode be discovered that will allow for contemporary problem solving within this artistic means? Are we doomed to find relevancy only when confronted with a “skippy” tune or can we address important social issues through dialogue, dance and song? And finally, is it necessary to challenge the criteria musical theater offers as an art form? Music has been a part of theater from the earliest Ancient Greek productions. Normally, it would take the form of an interlude or closing of each act.
At the turn of the 17th century, opera began in Italy. Considered to be the foundation for musicals as we know them today, there was no spoken dialogue; arias carried the dramatics of the plot. In the Victorian era, English operettas were produced offering much lighter styles and themes than its Italian roots, often including some articulated conversation. Gilbert and Sullivan had a strong influence in both Europe and America with comedic operettas such as The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore. Their legacy became the great influence they had on later composers at the beginning of the 20th century and beyond. Gershwin, Coward, Rogers and Sondheim all credit their work to this duo. Broadway style musicals are considered to have started in 1866, with the production of The Black Crook. Due to an unfortunate fire that ruined a ballet company’s venue, the musical production joined forces with the dance troupe and created a triple threat extravaganza. Between 1878 and 1884, Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart created the first musical comedies that began to examine life on the streets of New York and the lower class existence of the people. These pieces were often portrayed as musical comedies with the premise of downplaying the severity of daily life for the poor to the upper-class patronage enjoying the theater. Musicals of the same type of content were also being written “across the pond”. In London, themes often included the poor little street girl who falls in love with an aristocrat and marries him in the end; inferring that the circle of poverty as a perpetual existence could be broken with hard work and perseverance. The Roaring Twenties brought a new style of musical