Classical theatre, whether a musical or straight play, comedy or drama, is one of the most vital parts to today’s more contemporary theatre. Right now, many people gravitate more towards new things that are playing on and off Broadway because it’s new and exciting and something people probably haven’t seen yet, and I think that’s great. In fact, I think many of the productions on Broadway right now are completely brilliant and fun. Personally, I even have a list of the ones I want to see. I think it’s important to appreciate newer theatre and try to find something you can relate to within it because this is the direction theatre is now going in and there is nothing wrong with it.
However, it’s important not to let the new stuff overpower everything that came before it because without it, we wouldn’t have what we have now.
If you were to take a history of theatre course, or any dramaturgy course in college, you’d probably have to do some reading that dates all the way back to philosophers like Aristotle and Plato right through the period of Shakespeare up until some of the more newer works of the 20th century. This timeline covers Greek plays, American classics, comedies, dramas etc. In these texts, you learn about plot structure, tragedy, comedy and writing in its earliest forms. These writings served as a basis for the writing that was to come later and offers a thorough analysis of a writer's thought process. In these texts, you’ll find some of the most genius and interesting thoughts on writing and drama that can change the way you look at newer forms of theatre and even film and television. It changes the way you might look at the format of a plot with it’s beginning, climax and resolution or the dynamics between two characters or even the development of a character. These texts digged deep into different forms and styles of writing and the emotions evoked through writing like magnitude, recognition or astonishment. I think any theatre lover, whether you prefer classical theatre arts or not, should delve into these writings because it’s really where it all began. You may recognize some of the approaches in newer theatre as well.
Going beyond some of those really early forms of drama is a whole other period of theatre that is still considered classic, at least in my mind, and some of these show titles are very well known. These kinds of shows are a particular favorite of mine and cover the period of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, right up until the late 1980s. Basically, most of the 20th century. This period is wide ranged from my perspective, but it basically covers most theatre before 1990. Some of these classic and timeless shows (and personal favorites of mine) include, Babes in Arms, Brigadoon, Carousel, The King and I, Kiss Me, Kate, Jekyll and Hyde, and Guys and Dolls, and those are just musicals. Some plays include A Streetcar Named Desire, The Odd Couple, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. I think these are all must sees or you should at least read them. You don’t have to like them, but they’re worth exploring.
These kinds of shows offer a certain style and sense of nostalgia that if done right, will always brings you right back to that time period. Not everyone can appreciate nostalgia, but I certainly do, and would definitely choose a show like Pippin over Beauty and the Beast (I do like Disney. It’s just not my first choice). I do think Disney productions offer a certain kind of spectacle and whimsicality that can’t be seen in the more classic kind of shows, and that is something I do appreciate and it’s an area of theatre I believe is worth exploring. With that said, I think all forms of theatre have their positives and strong suits, so why not try out those strong suits in some classical theatre. If it’s not the characters that are strong in a classical piece then it’s probably the music that’s great, or if the music isn’t great then maybe it’s the humor. I think there’s something for everyone. It’s in these early shows that you find interesting and appealing concepts that you can use in the more newer shows.
What is it that’s so appealing to these older works besides their style? I think it’s the music in a lot of cases for the musical end of early theatre. There’s just some music in these musicals that is so fun and dynamic and timeless. Some songs have become so well known and used later on in movies, TV shows and commercials. It’s in these musicals that they got their start. For plays, I think it’s more about the subject matters and issues that are addressed. I think in early theatre you only see certain kinds of tragedy and love stories and it’s extra appealing.
If you’re in theatre, study these kinds of plays and musicals. You will learn a lot and be happy that you studied them. I believe a true theatre lover should completely cover their bases in all forms and time periods of theatre. Be thorough about it, or else you’ll limit yourself, and when you limit yourself, you almost always hit a wall.