Musical Theatre: A Key Change
by David Whiteman
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve performed my last musical at Music Mountain Theatre. Into the Woods was in rehearsal about a year ago and set to run in March. I was also gearing up to direct Alice in Wonderland for the children’s theatre there.
And then IT happened.
Ok, stop rolling your eyes. I’m not going to concentrate this post on the events of the past year entirely. I’m going to take a view from the catwalk of the changes in musical theatre and what precipitated them. I’ll get back to this year and my point of the blog in a moment. Depending on how fast you read.
Musical theatre hasn’t always been what it is. For years, it really wasn’t. Vaudeville ruled. Vaudeville was a series of acts, songs, and dances independent of themselves that made a show. (I won’t get into the Black Crook argument here. Look it up yourselves on your on damn time.) It really wasn’t until Oklahoma that the advent of musical theatre as we know it came about. (Some might argue Show Boat. You guys fight it out with the Black Crook gang.) This was really the first time that the book, and music, and dances were all combined to tell a story with similar motifs connecting them. Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, choreographed by Agnes DeMille and produced in 1943, this show ran for 2,212 performances. Crazy long for that time. It ushered in a whole wave of musicals that still entertain us today. All with a similar style of presentation. Musical theatre was born and it thrived!
Quite often styles of theatre developed because of what was happening at that time in history Like the moments in a show that happen when a characters emotions can only be expressed in a song, some musicals come about because of what is going on in the real world. When NYC became a hotbed of social issues between immigrants and the cultures already living here, West Side Story explored the subject (with a nod to William Shakespeare.) When the counter-culture of the sixties emerged, so did musicals like Hair, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar bringing us a new style of musical, ‘rock operas’.
A sensitivity and awareness of the LGBTQ community propelled musicals like La Cage aux Folles, Rent and Kinky Boots. Cultural awareness brought us Ragtime, Dream Girls, Once on This Island and The Color Purple.
When the Times Square area needed cleaning up, the Disney Theatrical Company stepped in and did just that and brought with it a slew of Disney products to the Broadway stage. Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aida among the first. The affluence of the times also allow the spectacle to arrive and thrive. Les Miserable, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, and, more recently, Hamilton to name a few.
Even a tragedy on the scale of 911 could bring us one of the most beautiful musicals ever, Come From Away.
And then, in the midst of the booming Broadway economy, the lights go out. *Click*. Thank you Covid. (You knew I’d get back there sooner or later.) Shows and theaters closed and everyone involved with them were out of work. Silencing theatre. Or did it?
Now, as always, talent, inventiveness, creativity and pure energy and drive has allowed some theatre to poke its head out of the rubble of the pandemic. Our very own MMT produced “Murder at Cheltenham Manor” (Coming to a stage near you soon). Theatre on video. But still theatre. We’ve seen other companies like MMT managing to stay afloat, however tenuously, by having Zoom cabarets and shows. Recently a musical called “A Killer Party” was created and shown on Broadway HD. Zoom videos came into view on our computers of Broadway performers and musician singing songs together. Brian Stoke Mitchell sang “Impossible Dream” from his NYC apartment window! And then, in a magical combination of technologies, a show was written entirely by people on social media, specifically TikTok called “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” appeared. It was shown through Today’s Tix and featured Broadway performers and musicians. It was a delight. Oh, and it raised 2 million dollars for The Actors Fund to boot!
Here’s what I hope comes out of this mess of 2020. Just like theatre that grew out of distraught times or changing social landscapes, I’m hoping that the inventive people in the theatre world today, who normally might not have a voice, will be noticed like Jojo from Seussical, with his singular voice in the universe, and out of this turmoil and trouble will come a new wave of theatre that will lift us up. A new group of performers, songwriters and musicians that will offer a new voice and perhaps bring joy to a world desperately in need of it.
Here’s to the a return of all theatre and the next wave of musical theatre!