Musicals, History and Love

Erna as Calliope in Chemical Imbalance by Stuart D. McQuade, Thespians Anonymous 2012

In 2013 Thespians Anonymous will make history by premiering their very first stage musical, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. But where does it stand on the historical scale of musicals? And what is the history of musicals like to begin with?

Let’s start with the Roaring Twenties. Although the first stage performance to fit the modern definition of a musical*, The Black Crook, had premiered in New York already in 1866, by the 1920s the genre had not quite bloomed yet. The musicals of the time were all about gaiety and joy, famous actors, big dance routines and popular songs, not usually about a cohesive storyline.

Show Boat, premiering in 1927, was something completely new and different. Unlike the other musicals of the era, it was very much about the story, interweaving song, dialogue and movement. The story was about performers, stagehands and dock workers on a show boat on the Mississippi river and explored such serious themes as racial prejudice and tragic love. Although the production was a hit, the Great Depression soon drove the audiences back to the gaiety and escapism of the lighter comedy musicals. The uniqueness of Show Boat was not repeated until nearly two decades later.

The 1940s to 1960s have been called the Golden Age of musical theatre. Many of the most famous and accomplished musicals to date were created in the legacy of Show Boat, the first being Oklahoma! in 1943. It did not only integrate songs and dance into a cohesive storyline, but also used all these elements to build the characters and drive the plot about a cowboy and a farm girl.

The Golden Age of musicals didn’t just take the stage but also the big screen, as the most popular and successful stage musicals were adapted to film. Examples include My Fair Lady (stage premier 1956, film adaptation 1964), a story about class differences and transformation in Edwardian era Britain; Sound of Music (1959, 1965) about a nun and a singing family in Austria to be occupied by the Nazi regime; and Fiddler on the Roof (1964, 1971) about a Jewish community in the midst of changing traditions and religious persecutions.

Clearly musicals weren’t all about lightness and gaiety anymore, but they were boldly addressing serious social themes. Ethnic relations and harmony were portrayed in, for example, West Side Story (1957). It took the Shakespearian tale of Romeo and Juliet, set it in contemporary New York and replaced the disputing families of old Verona with rivalling gangs of Puerto Rican and Polish origin. Similarly, homosexuality – a taboo at the time – was addressed by rock musical Hair (1967) with a story set amidst the hippie culture and sexual revolution.

The word of the 1980s was mega musicals. The casts became large and the special effects even larger. There were around 40 singing cats (Cats, 1981), a falling chandelier (Phantom of the Opera, 1986) and a helicopter landing on stage (Miss Saigon, 1989). These things required deep pockets, and the ticket prices were on the rise as well.

In the 1990s, the mega musicals were faced with musicals developed Off-Broadway trying to attract younger (and less affluent) audiences. The most prominent of these was Rent (1996), a rock musical about a group of young artist struggling with poverty as well as HIV and AIDS. Ten years later in 2006, it was succeeded by Spring Awakening, similarly produced Off-Broadway. Although set in the late 19th century, the musical confronted audiences by putting blunt portrayals of abortion, homosexuality, child abuse and suicide on stage.

So, there you have it, a short (and selective) history of musical theatre.

That being said, where does I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (1996) stand on the path of musical theatre history? Originally staged with only four actors, it’s no mega musical, but one of those small-scale, Off-Broadway productions created to be accessible to all kinds of audiences. It’s also an heir to the early 20th century musicals with more gaiety and laughter and less of an overarching storyline. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say there’s no story to it – it’s just not a story about a set of characters over a certain period of time but – perhaps in the footsteps of Sex and the City – a story of urban, romantic, heterosexual love.

Did I mention love? Because that is something all the different era musicals listed above have in common. They’re all stories about love.

Erna Bodström is an incurable thespian who loves musicals, especially those with a social subtext. She also loves chocolate, hugs and walking.

Thespians Anonymous proudly present comedic musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change on 12, 14, 15, 21 and 22 April 2013 at Gloria Kulttuuriarena in Helsinki. For more information see Thespians Anonymous website.

* According to Wikipedia, a (book) musical is a musical play in which song and dance is totally integrated into a well-made story with serious dramatic goals.

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