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Popular Music Styles Influence On Musical Theatre Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3534 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The term ‘Contemporary’ when applied to Musical Theatre is slightly misleading, seeing as the term can be applied to any art-form, when something new and different, something that pushes the boundaries of what’s familiar, becomes the current vogue. The desire to create something new and to explore fresh pastures within a particular art-form is not a recent development, and can often be achieved society. In fact ‘contemporary could cover the last 50 years in musical theatre as defined by its being influenced by popular music styles (and the number of revivals), ranging from Motown, Rock & Country (The Wiz, Hair, Tommy) to Pop, Bollywood & Jazz (Rent, Aida, Bombay Dreams). The successes of ‘hit movie’ inspired musical comedies such as The Full Monty, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hairspray, have also seen audiences re-embrace a genre which towards the end of the last century was critically observed as being in decline. Whilst not specifically trending away from the successful, epic musical styles of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera, not the conceptual styles of, for example, Cats or Jerry Springer: The Opera, there was a breath of fresh air with productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Chess, while in the U.S.A, Sondheim continued to meld book, text and song in the various guises of Sweeney Todd, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Assassins and DickTracy. Let’s also not forget that Disney has been successfully transferred to the stage, e.g. The Lion King & Beauty and the Beast.

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There are four main constituents of Musical Theatre, namely, Narrative, Dialogue, Songs & Physicality, and in the last decade or so, there have been many examples, where experimentation within each of these four elements has led to unusually themed, bolder and sometimes more extreme storylines. Musically, you will find today’s influences stray from accepted standards by making use of a more complex variety of instruments and melodies to back up the actors’ dialogue. Look to recent successes such as Avenue Q; Billy Elliot; Dirty rotten Scoundrels; Hairspray; The Full Monty; Parade; Spamalot; We Will Rock You and Wicked, to name but a few.

However, change has not been restricted to what appears on stage in the performance, but has also occurred pre-production, in the concept, the strategy and planning stages of bringing an idea to fruition. Production teams, involved in major projects, and aiming for a Broadway or West End run, will look for substantial alliances through investment and corporate sponsorship, often requiring thousands and in some cases millions of dollars & pounds-worth of funding. High-net worth investors (very often those with a passion for the genre), frequently referred to as ‘business angels’, have also been a significant growth factor so far this century. Many seasoned investors look for diversity in their portfolio, and without question there has been ‘new’ investment in the Arts, with the UK’s City investors having invested in a broad range of theatrical productions of which, musical theatre has been one major benefactor. It wasn’t too long ago that encouraged y a strong rise in West End audiences, theatrical investment appeared less high risk than ever before. Figures in recent years had shown a rise this century, in attendances of 2-3% whilst box office receipts were up 3-4%. Even now, while it’s undoubtedly a more difficult time for the Arts, with the recession biting hard everywhere and the entertainment business seen as an easy target for expenditure cuts, it also holds true that good and enriching entertainment is for most people a satisfactory diversion from the problems of everyday life, and maybe for that reason alone it is worth the investment. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, with U.S. reports of only 20% of the shows produced on Broadway recouping their investment. That actually is no more risky than investing in any innovative start-up company, and there is the upside potential of course, with a very real possibility of absolutely huge rewards. Just consider those shrewd investors who funded such rewarding shows (performance & finance wise) as Cats, Les Miserables, Mamma Mia, Avenue Q, We Will Rock You, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Billy Elliot and Wicked.

Originally capitalized at $3.5 million, Avenue Q (2003) opened on Broadway to positive critical and audience response, before transferring uptown following a successful run at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. What especially pleased the production team was that despite the time of year, it being the middle of the summer, they were able to introduce something quite unique to a new audience and not only please them but actively build and grow a much larger fan-base than had been thought possible with such an innovative product. Not only that, but the show managed to recoup its outlay within a sensational 10 months according to producer Jeffrey Seller. Inspired by the well-known American TV puppet series of Sesame Street, Avenue Q brought an entirely new concept of acting, dancing and singing through puppet characters, to the modern stage.

It has been described as a coming-of-age story, which highlights the issues we’ve all had to face when entering adulthood. Whereas Sesame Street retains that more simplistic and happy-go-lucky view of a child’s world through childlike eyes, Avenue Q characters are young adults, searching for their ‘purpose’ in life and facing all the anxieties and problems of growing up in a modern society whose values have noticeably changed over the preceding decade. Another crucial factor in this production is the use of puppet characters (worked by humans) interacting alongside human characters as if they were of human-like intelligence. All the characters face real adult-themed problems which most of us will recognize, but probably consider much more relevant to today’s stressful lifestyle as opposed to that of ours, 10-20 years ago; they all swear and curse; there is puppet nudity and puppet sex; with sub-plots of racism, pornography and homosexuality noticeable throughout the entire play. Adding to the dissident theme, Avenue Q’s musicality is an unexpected mish mash of foot-tapping, bouncy, cheerful songs that have a childlike quality to them, but are in fact, a little near-the-knuckle, quite vulgar, but ever-so-clever comical comment contained within a tuneful setting. Such tongue-in-cheek, but obviously hilarious ‘grown-ups’ songs like “Everyone’s a little bit racist”, “The internet is for porn” and “You can be as loud as the hell you want when you’re making love” introduce the audience to the wickedly, warped world of Avenue Q. It’s hip, current and very, very funny, meshing 70’s style pop lyrics to the modern day characterization, and in doing so gives added depth to Q’s funnier moment. Take the song “The more you ruv someone”, which on the face of it sounds more like a Sesame Street style song, but with the penning of more upbeat and modern lyrics by Joe Raposo, fits snugly into the more contemporary style of Q.

At the other end of the scale, but of equal importance, is that off the main drag, the tendency has been to produce smaller, less expensive musicals, with fewer cast members or where sometimes the players take on more than one role, keeping costs efficient and all the more likely to produce a small profit, which in some areas of theatre, is a success in itself. Fundamental changes, both artistically and commercially, have occurred in public taste and the arts must adapt to these changes but also follow the money, and by doing so, survive and thrive. Yet despite all the current financial gloom, musical theatre continues to play a major role in the financial economics of theatrical cities, given what theatregoers spend at hotels, restaurants and stores, before even sitting down in their expensive seats to watch the show. It has actually been estimated that musicals may account for as much as 90% of theatre revenues.

Although some critics have argued that this has tended to make mainstream Musical Theatre more of a tourist attraction, rather than an outlet for creative talent, another noticeable trend of the past few years has seen past success stories revisited and updated for the modern audience. Trusting to previous success underpinning the market, together with the inherent promise of built-in audiences, there have been several revivals of well-trodden and recognisable fare, such as Grease (last revived in 2007) or other proven material, particularly from successful films, such as Billy Elliot (stage version 2005) or from acknowledged literature such as Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. Wicked the Musical (2003), thought of as the prequel t the Wizard of Oz, is loosely based on Maguire’s novel (it also references several events form the 1939 film), and tells the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and her troubled relationship with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Their friendship/enmity is brought into focus through their very different persona and opinions (Elphaba, born green and later a political rebel, has to contend with being an outsider in society, while Glinda, being blonde, receives all the accolades and benefits befitting her status) and as a theme, is continued throughout, especially via their competition over the same love-interest, namely Fiyero. The story examines the undercurrent of political intrigue, for example, How did Oz becomes such a confused and degenerate state?, It also examines the main character’s reactions to the Wizard’s corrupt government, before finally highlighting Elphaba’s very public fall from grace. As previously indicated, many contemporary musicals attempt to tell a story through the musicality, making the song choice and lyrical content, highly important to the plot and to the attention of the audience. Indeed, Wicked uses its musicality as a means to communicate some of the deeper issues it brings up. The opening song, ‘No one mourns the wicked’, is absolutely integral to the plot, dramatically celebrating the death of Elphaba, and developing the ongoing theme of the play, that “Things are not always what they seem”, which the audience recognise and appreciate come the final curtain.

It is also here that the story unfolds, flashing back to when Glinda recounts the circumstances of Elphaba’s birth and their time together at Shiz University. Early on there is a moment when Elphaba appears for the first time, when glinda and her white friends are all together, and Elphaba enters, green-skinned and obviously different. They all stop and stare at her for what seems ages, and suddenly we have that ‘Black person in the South’ moment. It’s a big moment, and although unexpected, it sets the tone of the show with its’ profound statement of a divisive code where race, colour & social standing ‘differences’, despite our technical advancements, unfortunately still pervade society.

When Elphaba’s power is pointed out as a potential ticket to see the Wizard himself, she sings ‘The Wizard and I’, hinting at her desire to be accepted, and be viewed as girl who wants to be seen for her soul, not for her colour. If the Wizard believes in her, then so must everyone else. Another big number, ‘Something Bad (is happening in Oz)’ provides a political vehicle hinting at the nature of the Animal oppression, highlighting the interacting between the goat and Elphaba, both of whom are at the fringe of Oz society. The songs continue to relate to the story, and we see the Wizard falsely trying to gain Elphaba’s friendship with ‘A sentimental man’ and ‘Wonderful. Elphaba’s path is a difficult one, undeservedly ostracized by the citizens of Oz through ‘March of the Witch Hunters’, she finally gets to reflect on her relationship and mutual love of Glinda with ‘For Good’, before the mournful tones of the finale and a return to present day show us that all things are not what they seem. Ultimately it comes down to the choices of the two lead characters, but with their destinies fulfilled, also reveals that almost nothing in Oz is what it seems, with those considered to be good, having just possibly wicked tendencies, and perhaps more than a hint of some good in those deemed wicked.

Yet another trend has been that of creating a storyline with the bare minimum of a plot, to fit a collection of songs that have already been hits. Following the success of Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, from 1989, there have been several successful ‘Jukebox Musicals’, as they’ve come to be called, particularly We Will Rock You, which has enjoyed considerable success since it opened in 2002. Somewhat more plot-driven than its predecessors, a science fiction tale part inspired by the film The Matrix and in part a tribute to the band, rock group Queen. It is not in fact a biography of the band’s history, but a cleverly conceived story, drawing on the content of some of Queen’s classic hits to provide the characters and plot to a futuristic landscape that to some degree has been shaped by modern society. The story begins 300 years in the future, with Earth renamed Planet Mall and with global corporations controlling and influencing the thoughts and opinions of the populace. The children and youth of this time have no effective minds of their own, for example, wearing the same clothes, listening to the same music and having the same thoughts and feelings. Rock music is unknown, but the hero and main protagonist Galileo, who hears odd words and rhythms in his head, refuses to conform, and sets about trying to change the World and being back real music. Galileo aided by Scaramouch (both are central characters of arguably Queen’s most successful song, Bohemian Rhapsody) fight against the machine that is conformity. They rally against oppression and along the way meet up with the Bohemians, a group of like-minded young people trying to reintroduce the art of playing musical instruments previously banned by the authorities. In their joint quests, they come up against the Killer Queen (a character derived from yet another great Queen song of the same name), the ruler of the Globalsoft Corporation under whose dominance the planet has been for many years. Both groups of youngsters are eventually able to celebrate the reason rock bands first came together, which was for love apparently, by singing yet another great Queen hit, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’. The writers weave many of the band’s hit songs into the storyline, and also reference many other popular songs of that time through an ever evolving dialogue. For example, several Beatles, Bowie and Rolling Stones hits have been included at different times, in different productions and in different locations to maintain ‘freshness’ to each show.

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Quite a few musicals have also looked to the more epic or extravagant production as seen pree-2000 (for example, the 1980’s success of Phantom of the Opera), by introducing stage & musical adaptations such as The Lord of the Rings in 2007, billed as the biggest stage production in musical theatre history but despite its grandeur, yet to reap reasonable profits. Another less noticeable trend, particularly on Broadway, has been to present musicals uninterrupted by an intermission, with short running times of less than two hours.

Although not strictly Musical Theatre, it’s interesting to note that another popular trend has been towards TV and Film musicals of a more diverse nature than the offerings of the Hollywood Musicals of the mid-20th century. Since the success of Evita in 1996, this new genre of musical has become an industry standard with further notable contributions such as, Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), Phantom of the Opera (2004), Sweeney Todd (2007) and possibly the best of all, Mamma Mia (2008). Made for TV musical shows (particularly in the U.S.) have also proved extremely popular, as noted by recent successful transitions to the small screen for adaptations of South Pacific (2001), and The Music Man (2003) to name but a couple. Some TV shows have even gone so far as to having set episodes produced as a musical, e.g. Ally McBeal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are even musicals being made for the internet now!

It’s probably fair to say, that the biggest trend of the last ten years, is that our latest generation of youngsters have developed an extreme fascination with Musical theatre. The accessibility of smaller, more provincial stages throughout the UK, the larger number of successful graduates in the general performing arts arena, and certainly for those prepared to work hard enough, the joy of performance, is encouraging a revival of dramatic song and, more interesting perhaps, it’s being performed with unbelievable quality.

It’s probably also true that the advent of ‘Lloyd-Webber-driven’ reality television shows, which have thrown scores of potential ‘Marias’ and ‘Josephs’ into our living rooms has meant that people no longer need to remortgage their house, to sample what to some is still a once-a-year special trip to the theatre for their entertainment. There are already websites dedicated to 21st century Musical theatre, and we are only just finishing the first decade. The list of shows is surprisingly long.

Despite the end of Cats, a major player in the triumphant story that is Musical theatre, a string of new, successful musicals has emerged, with Avenue Q, Wicked and We Will Rock You, to the forefront of them. They are every bit as popular as Lloyd Webber’s classics and show that the future of Musical Theatre is in accomplished hands. All three storylines have veered away from the traditional, pre 21st century conception of family based, popcorn style musicals that everyone can sing along to, but may have no substantial plot. Today’s writers look for more absorbing and controversial subject matter, as well as designing new works, will often look to contemporise significant event. Young performers are writing their own musicals, living and breathing the experience. Musical Theatre never went away, maybe just hibernated for a short time at the end of the last century, and is now being taken seriously as never before, becoming increasingly more popular, having thrown off the mantle of uncultured chart music as a preferred entertainment, and quite possibly the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the entertainment industry.

Modernist writers and producers have successfully drawn on the history of Musical theatre as a spectacle, and created stunning new attractions for larger contemporary audiences brought up on the traditions of jazz, funk, blues, swing, country and rock, producing such memorable global phenomenon’s, several as previously mentioned, including Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Rent, The Lion King, Mamma Mia and The Producers. Taking elements of literature, opera, film and theatre and fusing this variety of styles and genres, compliments the current vogue of contemporary audiences wishing to embrace several types of culture. These plays are fine examples of what modern day audiences want to experience, covering the social and economic diversity of everyday life, but mingled with history, politics and war.

In summary, contemporary musical theatre this decade is much broader in musical and vocal styles, and overall carries a stronger plot-line. The production can cover any genre from comedy to tragedy, and include real life, modern and often argumentative issues. The harmonies tend to mirror what’s current in the musical world but not totally to the avoidance of previous styles. With the new breed of ‘musical’ actors, emphasis has been placed on development of text and characters with the singing style more about understanding the context rather that the tone. Songs are readily influenced by new vogues, especially rap, fusion and rock, as well as classical. Investment and making a profit are now more essential to the core than ever, and the show’s creators will consider whatever ways there are to increase the revenue, from writing songs that can be released as singles or albums, to endorsing the show’s credibility by getting celebrities to appear in key roles. Vaudeville and post war Hollywood styled productions were fine for then, but modern audiences demand something more for their expensively purchased stalls or circle seats.


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