Musical theatre is in an odd position within the theatre world. Musicals grace Broadway stages and car stereos across the nation. They become pop culture icons and films.
They also get a bad rap.
Musicals are often accused of not being a serious form of performance compared to straight plays. They are seen as fun, entertaining, frivolous and mindless entertainment. Mindless entertainment only staged in order to make money as more people are willing to pay for the feel-good show rather than the true, gritty, emotional art that makes up the rest of the theatre’s season.
These statements are very far from the truth.
In reality, musicals have a great deal to teach us. Musicals can inspire, critique society and be dark, themselves. Anyone who has seen Cabaret, Spring Awakening or other musicals that touch on heavy subjects knows that not all musicals are fun and dancing and fluff.
Musicals are known for the showtunes and for the dance numbers – after all, Something Rotten! created a whole routine to celebrate these elements of musicals. These elements do not cheapen musicals or their effect on people. They allow a story to be told through a different genre and in a different manner, and perhaps the stories and themes can come across more easily to people due to the music and dancing. Music sets atmosphere, mood and tone and helps create the world along with the words and work of the actors and designers.
Even musicals that are considered less serious, generic gateway musicals have lessons to teach and stories to tell. Wicked, for example, touches on what prejudice can do to individuals and a society, and at what point a person must begin to take control of their own life and destiny. Neither of those topics are light or fluffy, and are commentary on society and topics to inspire people to take action. Just because they are presented through iconic songs, it doesn’t mean that the message is lost or unimportant.
The overall tone of the musical may be more lighthearted – musicals based on Disney films come to mind. They may feel like musicals that are just there to make people feel good and to get patrons in seats and money into the box office. Even these musicals have things to say, they are just said more subliminally. Even media that is created for children has topics that go over the heads of children, but are quickly noticed by adults. Even the most subliminal of messages are powerful and important.
Musicals may be more popular among audiences, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t a serious art form with messages to share.
Photo: Matt Crockett