The Search For New Direction In The Musical. From The 'American Dream' To The 'Rock Opera'.
The Search for New Direction in the musical.
From the ‘American Dream’ to the ‘Rock-Opera’.
1950 to 1978 were despondent ones for the musical. American musical theatre had been showing signs of exhaustion. This most seemingly anti-intellectual of genres carries its own ‘ideological project’. Before this, the musicals not only exhibited singing and dancing; they were about singing and dancing, explaining the magnitude of that experience. They not only gave the most intense pleasure to their audience but also supplied the justification for that pleasure. The pop songs of the day were the songs from the shows. With the increase in number of radio stations and the availability of portable radios recorded music became the music of the masses. With the arrival of the Beatles in 1964, Rock music exploded across the land sending other musical trends into hibernation! The occasional attempt to break out of the old moulds were unsuccessful and led nowhere. They showed inadequacies; being unmelodic and formless. With rare exceptions, audiences rarely left the theatre singing the show tunes. Rock and roll couldn’t be assimilated in a dramatic structure. The songs didn’t tell a story. If rock and roll was used it would mean songs did not enhance and push the story forward, they would be separate from the story. Not until 1960 did Broadway face up to the emerging vogue. Musical theatre accepted rock music grudgingly.
The eminence of the British musical has been the most significant theatre phenomenon in the world over the last twenty years. It has not only given British theatres a greatly needed financial boost but has changed ‘popular’ theatre indefinitely. Never will audiences see new musicals in the style of Oklahoma!, Brigadoon and South Pacific. With these musicals there was a danger of tipping from musical into melodrama. They never throbbed with subtlety because someone was always bursting into song about how every thing ‘was looking just swell’. The musical not only wanted to sing away your troubles, but your thoughts as well. The ‘old style’ musical theatre had no social conscience. Always presented in the traditional proscenium arch, the musical isolated the audience from new ideas and innovations. Due to television broadcasting daily updates on world affairs it is now impossible to believe in the benevolence of the Universe that the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote about. Today’s audiences can almost find it abhorrent. They are socially aware and informed of current affairs. Musical theatre has advanced technically, intellectually, is universally popular and overflowing with cultural relativism.
From 1960 onwards, Broadway came to rely more on its directors, librettists and lyricists. The emphasis of importance being on the directors. Tom O’Horgan, Gower Champion, and most of all, Bob Fosse gave the period some of its sustained achievements. These musicals are one of the most collaborative of art forms. Actors no longer had chunks of dialogue interspersed with musical interludes. The musical became seamless, with characters singing when their emotions became too overbearing for speech. The songs encouraged the musical to move forward and not stand still whilst the ‘star’ sang their showstopper! Stephen Sondheim advocated the “conceptual musical”. He subordinated every aspect of the work to his personal vision. As a result increasing intellectualised musicals confronted audiences that had frequented the theatre as a means of escape. When a writer is responsible for the book and the lyrics - as, for example, Oscar Hammerstein and Alan Jay Lerner, were - that writer may be more able to regularly address the same concerns than a composer-lyricist can. Nonetheless, Sondheim has managed to create a body of work that is clearly of a piece, despite the fact that many of the shows that he has co-created have been projects that were brought to him by his collaborators, not ideas that he originated. Undoubtedly, part of the explanation for this is that he tends to work with writers and directors who are in tune with his worldview. Furthermore, however much Sondheim may see himself as someone who enjoys and is good at imitating another writer's style (as he stated in a conversation with Sam Mendes that was broadcast when Mendes's