THE FUTURE OF MUSICAL THEATRE
Where Is Musical Theatre Heading?
Showboat in 1927 ushered the American book musical, where story became unified with the songs. Over the next few decades, musical theatre has changed.
The 30s and 40s were dominated by the jazz influences of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Sigmund Romberg.
The 50s and 60s were led by the melodic strains of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Frank Loesser.
The 70s and 80s were eclipsed by the European mega-musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Schönberg and Boublil. Some American shows had a renaissance with Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban’s A Chorus Line, and the musicals of Stephen Sondheim.
The 90s and 2000s were characterized by the music of Stephen Schwartz, Frank Wildhorn, Jonathan Larsson, and the Disney musicals.
The musical styles of each decade lag behind but eventually reflect the contemporary styles of that era.
Is Musical Theatre Dead?
It is true that the cost of mounting musicals has escalated, and the mean age of the audience has been rising. Most new musicals never survive. At several points in time, journalists and soothsayers have predicted the end of musical theatre. They have been consistently wrong. Musical theatre seemed to lie at death’s door, but at the last minute, always managed to be resuscitated.
In evolutionary biology, an organism adapts to different environments by changing its characteristics. In an analogous way, that’s what’s happening to musical theatre. It constantly adapts in order to survive.
How Has Musical Theatre Adapted?
Here are a few ways that musical theatre has adapted to the ever-changing environment:
These are musicals using the songs written by one songwriting team or band as the framework to construct a story linking these songs. In the classical jukebox musical, the lyrics of the original songs cannot be changed. Examples of jukebox musicals are Mamma Mia!, Across the Universe, and All Shook Up. A subset of the jukebox musical is the "bio musical", which also uses the songs of a songwriter or band to retell the life story of that composer or band. An example of this is The Buddy Holly Story.
This is in contrast to the "hotchpotch musical" (my terminology), where the story has already been written, and songs from a variety of composers and genres are selected to fit into that story. An example of this is Moulin Rouge, which uses non-original songs to fit into it. These are songs from The Sound of Music, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Elton John’s Your Song, and many others. A subset of the hotchpotch musical I will refer to as the "hotchpotch musical revue". An example of this is Menopause, which has no story line, but uses well-known songs but tweaks the lyrics to fit the scenes. Other examples are the Forbidden Broadway series satirizing musical theatre.
The "musical revue" is not new, but like insects, it has considerable survival instincts. It is a show based on a theme, where original songs are written to a unifying subject, usually devoid of story, or if present, the plot is usually very weak. An example of this is I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Other examples are Side by Side by Sondheim, Closer Than Ever, etc. Some people have argued that Andrew Lloyd Webber-TS Eliot’s Cats fits more comfortably as a musical revue.
A "dance musical" is one where the dance component predominates, and there are examples where the musical may not even contain any songs. An example of this is "Movin’ Out", and Contact. The latter drew considerable controversy when it won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical, as it was mainly dance, used only prerecorded music, and there was no singing. A "dance musical revue" is a theme-based dance show, without a story line. An example of this is Fosse. A variation of the "dance musical" is the "kung fu musical" where pugilistic fighting sequences are choreographed to music. An example of this is Soul of Shaolin.
The borrowing of ideas from films is neither new nor original. But it does draw on the popularity and heavy marketing already done for the films. The resulting stage musical succeeds commercially and artistically more often than we might care to admit.
All these forms, and many others (e.g. TV or film musicals, animation musicals, puppet musicals, plays with music, computer games with interactive musical theatre songs, etc.) are, in my opinion, good for musical theatre as a whole, because they widen the audience base, and bring in a new generation of musical theatre aficionados..
Purists and traditionalists will always decry these new variations. However, musical theatre is an evolving art form, and will continue to change. It needs to, in order to survive into the distant future.
Finding the New Audience
Critical to the future success of musical theatre is finding a new and younger audience. There are several places to look for them.
The first is to see what attracts present day teenagers. What you hear on MTV and top of the charts may be the place. There is a slew of hip-hop television and film musicals, which are very popular. So updating the musical style is one important way to attract a new audience.
The second area to explore is that of the live performance band. Perhaps musicals might need to adopt some of the techniques used by successful rock bands. Is it the star power, or is it the loud sounds, or is it herd behavior that makes them so wildly successful?
The third is to find the medium that best massages the audience. The current success of interactive online games and touch-screen devices may give a clue as to where musical theatre might need to venture forth. Who knows, maybe Ninetendo Wii has already invented something akin to their Guitar Hero for musical theatre?
It is conceivable that perhaps cross-cultural studies might give some clues as to how musical theatre can survive. For example, Bollywood films are predominantly musicals. How did they endure so many decades?
Finally, maybe we should cater to the short attention span of the MTV or post-Y-generation (the grandchildren of the Baby Boomers). Short musicals, lasting 10-15 minutes, seem to be garnering an increasing audience.
I am therefore always optimistic about its future. It may change radically. It may be swallowed up by new technology, like the internet or interactive touch screen technology, or three-dimension cinema. It might well change its spots and become quite unrecognizable. But that is the potential power of musical theatre. If it were to go under, then, like the legendary phoenix, it will always arise again from the ashes.