For a time, musicals were all the rage.
Done up with lavish sets and showcasing artists’ precisely executed dance steps and powerful vocals, people couldn’t wait until the next big hit… from Singin’ in the Rain to Saturday Night Fever, these shows (and later, films) played to packed houses around the world.
In fact, musicals continue to be a big box office draw whether they play out in London’s West End or on Broadway in New York City.
But is every musical the same?
To some extent, yes: most involve singing and they all require staging and acting. Some incorporate choreography while others rely strictly on narrative flow. Some are funny and others, like Billy Elliot, are uplifting.
Tragedies and romance; drama and satire: is that all there is to musicals?
Your Superprof now puts this beloved genre onstage.
To the uninitiated, a book musical must be a theatre musical that is based on a book. In a sense, they are not far from the truth; some musicals’ genesis is indeed a book.
The Broadway musical Hamilton is an example of such; according to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s writer/composer, he read a biography of that American president while on holiday and designed an entire show around it.
The definition of a book musical is a stage show whose production is guided by a script (the book), and accompanying music and lyrics.
Theatre trivia: a show’s script is often called a libretto, Italian for ‘small book’
This type of musical has several defining characteristics, one of them being that they make the audience feel something other than glee – that is the purpose of the comedy musical.
A second important characteristic is that, generally, such a musical will contain only a few songs, usually all performed during the first act and reprised in the second act, sometimes with different phrasing and sometimes only in part.
Think about The Sound of Music: do you remember the group of nuns singing about Maria in the first act? Later, during the second act, they reprised their song, albeit with less gusto and at a slower tempo.
In fact, that musical is the quintessential book musical; to discover more such works, please refer to our companion article.
Musical theatre trivia: this type of musical was called ‘review’ until it made its way to the US, where such performances were given the French word equivalent, ostensibly to lend them more class.
Indeed, in the early days of revue musicals, they were bawdy, borderline-burlesque affairs that incorporated talent acts such as juggling, visual gags such as slapstick or mutual interference, a skit and singing.
You may liken these early revue musicals to variety shows.
In their heyday, their so-called Golden Age – the period between the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, these revues were not unlike operettas: comedic, satirical and amusing.
Sadly, they faded from prominence… right when the nation needed a laugh, you might say, but they returned in the early days of television.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the revue had turned into something different: a showcase of a single composer or songwriting team’ work. There is generally no storyline and no acting involved; these shows often have a narrator to give each song or song set an introduction.
Production company InSeries recently staged a Gershwin Revue, consisting of brothers George and Ira’s best compositions from the stage and screen. But that’s across the pond.
The UK, the place renown for its satirical humour, has retained the essence of the revue musical. Every year, there are competitions to determine the best shows; prizes are awarded and winning troupes go on to perform at Fringe festivals around the country.
Performers for these competitions come from the most unlikely of sources… now, you’ll surely want to read our in-depth report on revue musicals!
Were it not for a craving for music, this genre might never have come to be.
In the early days of recorded music, before radio became the go-to for musical entertainment, there existed a device that, with the drop of a coin followed by the push of a button – actually, three of them, the desired tune could be heard.
Jukeboxes, primarily an American phenomenon, contained records by the most popular artists; sometimes two or three of their songs at the same time. Teenagers, idling in soda shops after school, could listen to a plaintive ballad or the latest rock’n’roll hit.
It was only logical that, out of such random compilations of music, an entire genre of stage musical would follow.
Early jukebox musicals revolved around single artists and their body of work. Others spanned an entire musical era, say the music of the 50s or the Motown Sound.
Perhaps the most renowned jukebox musical is Mamma Mia! - an entire story crafted around the music of Swedish supergroup ABBA.
To an extent, ABBA owned the disco era; indeed, they remain one of the most commercially successful quartets of all time.
In spite of the varying themes of their music – from young and carefree to more introspective, or maybe because of it, playwright Catherine Johnson crafted an engaging narrative around ABBA’s music. Choreographed by Anthony van Laast, Mamma Mia became THE hit musical of the 1990s.
It also opened up the floodgates for more such musicals.
Starting in the new millennium, shows featuring music from big names in popular music started playing on Broadway stages and in London’s West End.
We Will Rock You, a show featuring the music of Queen, was choreographed by Arlene Phillips with Christopher Renshaw as artistic director.
Picture a time in the distant future. Everyone dresses the same, acts the same, thinks the same. Music is expressly forbidden: no guitars, no drums and no brass instruments. Rock music is unheard (of).
Enter a band of Bohemians who endeavour to restore free thought and freedom of expression…
WWRY, as it is known, is the 15th longest-running show in London’s West End theatre district, playing for a whopping 12 years. It has swept awards ceremonies in the UK and abroad.
Like Mamma Mia, the musical that started it all, WWRY has been playing around the globe. On any given day, you can buy tickets for either of these most popular slices of musical theater.
Footnote: some people in theatre circles consider the term ‘jukebox musical’ to be derogatory - incapable of being a true musical because the music is pre-existing, not written expressly for the show.
When contemplating this genre of musical, you should distinguish between the long list of Broadway shows that were made into film without all of the singing, films such as Rent that are recordings of a Broadway performance and actual film musicals.
Unlike concept musicals, the next type of musical we focus on, these films weave songs into the storyline rather than make them a counterpoint to the story.
Hairspray is an excellent example of a film musical.
For one, music is an integral part of the storyline: Tracy Turnblad’s greatest ambition is to dance on the Corny Collins show. For all of its machinations, that show is essential to the story’s plot.
Other film musicals of this millennium include:
- Chicago: starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, this lively show is a return to Ms Zeta-Jones’ theatre roots
- La La Land: a tribute to Old Hollywood, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone light up the screen in this Damien Chazelle production
- Dreamgirls: Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson show off their vocal prowess and acting chops in this film a clef by Bill Condon
- Les Misérables: Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe thrill as Javerre and Valjean respectively
- Hugh Jackman also starred in another film musical titled The Greatest Showman
Oddly enough, while British cinema made respectable contributions to the film musical genre in the 90s – with titles such as Evita, Absolute Beginners and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, so far in this millennium, we’ve only seen collaborations with American studios.
Naturally, not every musical film comes out of Hollywood; you may be interested in exploring Indian musical films - Bollywood’s history of musical film is almost as long as Hollywood’s!
Still, you will never believe who the greatest purveyor of musical films is…
This type of musical might seem like a bit of a misnomer; after all, aren’t all musicals born of a concept?
In fact, the concept musical is a breed apart from, say, musical comedy. While the latter, as well as most musicals, seeks mainly to entertain, a concept musical intends to showcase a theme or deliver a message.
West Side Story is an excellent example of a concept musical.
It features music by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim, and gets its inspiration from, of all places, Romeo and Juliet.
While superficially, our focus is on the lovers of different backgrounds, the overall message, driven home by songs such as Somewhere and A Boy Like That, is a need to span the racial divide.
By contrast, in Hair, the message is the chasm dividing social classes.
Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with music by Galt MacDermott, this explosive story depicts a group of rebellious young adults’ antics and their much more conservative parents’ reactions.
Hair was significant in many ways, the main one being that it brought the hippie counterculture into the rarefied stratus of polite society, giving theatre-goers a front-row seat to the sexual revolution and the wartime demonstrations the US was undergoing at that time.
Profanity-laced and much ado about drugs and promiscuity, it nevertheless garnered rave reviews and, while nominated for a Tony Award, it won a Grammy Award for its music score.
It also gave birth to our next genre of musical…
Hair dragged musical theatre, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. It breached the veneer of polite society, paving the way for other not-so-genteel productions.
While Hair was still riding its wave of popularity, Andrew Lloyd Webber brought Jesus Christ Superstar to the stage. This rock opera (loosely) details the life of Christ according to the Gospels. It was often labelled blasphemous by the religious right for its alleged irreverence.
This show has little to no dialogue; the entire story is told through song – that is what distinguishes it as a rock opera rather than a musical. Nevertheless, its success, along with Hair, conclusively proved that there is room for rock’n’roll on the musical stage.
Once audiences’ hunger for rock musicals was firmly declared, a creative fever descended on playwrights, musicians and lyricists alike to come up with the next big hit.
A standout among mid-80s pop/rock musical was a comedy-horror show titled Little Shop of Horrors.
Inspiration for this fun show came from the low-budget 1960 film of the same name. Howard Ashman wrote the script and the song lyrics while Alan Menken tackled the score.
You may be familiar with this duo’s work from Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast…
Imagine a small plant, alone on a table in a forlorn flower shop. Life is hard for the shopkeeper, especially because his new plant is hungry for his blood!
Add to that the blond Audrey with a disastrous fashion sense and an even worse choice of boyfriends; she doesn’t know that Seymour, the bumbling florist, would love nothing more than to take her away from their horrible life.
But first, he has to deal with Audrey II…
The show premiered off-Broadway in 1982 but moved to a larger venue because of the high demand for tickets.
It then ran on American stages for the next five years before going on an international tour, including a stopover in London’s West End.
As time went on, this show’s popularity hasn’t waned; in fact, the performing troupe toured the UK as recently as 2016.
Ashman won a Drama Desk Award for this show’s song lyrics while the writing duo shared many other awards and nominations – for this show and for many others.
However, because Little Shop never ran on Broadway, it did not qualify to win a Tony Award… what a shame!
As you can see, there is a musical genre for everyone, whether your tastes run to the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein or the modern composers like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who brought us Hamilton.
Have you seen Hamilton yet?
You don’t have to settle for one type of musical; you may feel like rock one day but prefer a classic, such as Phantom of the Opera the next.
There is nothing at all wrong with that and we are very happy to provide you with a bit of background on the different types of musical theatre.
Feel free to buy tickets for all the shows!