Saturday, August 5, 2017

Musical Theatre - An Unparalleled Art

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By: Lime Green Giraffe Event Co-Director, Lillabeth B.



    Musical theatre is a form of art that has enraptured billions and boasts a global following that has existed for centuries. But it has not won over everyone. Many skeptics would claim this art form is shallow and monotonous, lacking emotional depth or even a good story to tell. These critics, however, don’t understand what musical theatre is, and what makes so many people from so many different backgrounds love it. This article will, hopefully, set the record straight. Musical theatre encompasses all forms of art—visual art, acting, music, and dance—to create a truly immersive and moving experience unparalleled by any single art.

    The visual art of musical theatre is perhaps the least applauded, but it is just as significant as the others. It includes the costumes, scenery, hairstyling, and makeup, and without these, no musical could make a sizable impact. For example, the long-running Broadway and international sensation ‘Wicked’ would never have been such an enormous success without costumes such as Glinda’s beautiful wardrobe, including her sparkling white and blue ballgown. Hair and makeup design are also important in this show, especially on Elphaba, who is transformed from school girl to wicked witch between the first and second acts.

    However, scenic design is arguably the most significant part of a musical’s appearance, as it can be truly transformative. Normally the first thing visible when an audience member walks into the theatre, scenery often set the audience’s expectations of a show. The stage of ‘Wicked’ is surrounded by baroque machinery and clockwork, and begins the show with a map of Oz covering it like a curtain. Above the map is a giant mechanical dragon. This encapsulates the style of storytelling the audience can expect—a fairytale with a dark twist. Most of the musical is performed surrounded by this industrial atmosphere, though the stage is transformed by the elaborate costumes and lighting, an aspect of scenery that can transfigure or transmogrify. All these branches of visual art come together to create a visually striking and moving performance.

    While visual art sets the stage, acting is what makes or breaks a musical. And though quality acting can also be found in films and TV shows, theatre is set apart for one reason: it’s live and in person. Nothing is more immersive than watching a story play out right in front of the audience, without any computer generated imagery. It’s all real, and that is thrilling. And unlike re-watching a movie, each performance of a musical changes at least slightly night-to-night, which is just as exciting. An actor may say a line differently, or there may even be an onstage mishap! And though all stage productions eventually come to an end, the show will live forever in the memories and imaginations of the audience. In addition, other productions of the same musical will allow for entirely new experiences. Shows that stay on Broadway for a long time, such as the original Broadway production of ‘Annie’, which ran for over ten years, normally replace original cast members with new actors after about a year, so fans who see the show again will have a new experience with the same story and music they love.

    Speaking of music, no musical is complete without songs, but this is often where doubts begin to surface. It can be difficult to understand why singing makes theatre better and not worse, and what motivates characters to burst into song. If skeptics took a good look at a musical’s script, they’d see it’s not random. When a character can’t express themselves by speaking, they start to sing. Music isn’t just a pretty melody, but an expression of emotion, and the scores of musicals are no exception. A legendary example is the haunting set of songs in ‘Les Misérables’, a musical based on the French revolution. The story of the show is tragic, and the tear-jerking songs reflect that. Making them all the more melancholy is the fact that some of the songs share melodies but have different lyrics and are sung by different characters. For example, the songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, sung by disgraced mother Fantine, and ‘On My Own’, the ballad of the heartbroken Éponine, share melodies, as well as ‘What Have I Done?’ and ‘Soliloquy’, sung by Valjean and Javert respectively, the show’s nemeses, with devastating effect. This is the genius of the show, and what has allowed it to remain relevant after so many years.

    Some critics claim to dislike the style of music, “show tunes,” musical theatre is stereotyped to use. In the modern era, however, this claim denotes ignorance towards the wide variety of genres Broadway musicals now incorporate into their scores. In the 2015-16 Broadway season, ‘Hamilton’, the smash hit hip-hop musical, made its debut, along with the rock musical ‘School of Rock’ and the jazzy ‘Shuffle Along’. Indie-pop singer Sara Bareilles and comedian and country lover Steve Martin made their Broadway songwriting debuts in ‘Waitress’ and ‘Bright Star’ respectively. There are so many genres of music in Broadway shows, all written with great skill, that anyone can find a cast recording with music they love.

     Another art that has been diversified in musical theatre is dance. While “Broadway” dancing is the only style musicals are seen as having, this isn’t true in many cases. In ‘Hamilton’, contemporary dance was choreographed to express the passion of the musical’s hip-hop score, making it a perfect example of a musical’s score informing its dance style. Dance is a physicalization of the music of a show, and its purpose is to enhance the story by helping the audience visualize the emotion of the plot. While singing is the acoustic display of emotion, dance’s visual and physical manifestation of the music which can be just as striking, if not more so, and is equally important. While some musicals don’t use dance, most use at least some form of choreography, speaking to the importance of this art form in theatre. As with song, dance is also used when speech alone cannot communicate emotions. An example of this is the dream sequence in ‘Oklahoma!’, in which the female lead expresses her love and fears in a poignant and moving ballet. Moments like these couldn’t achieve the emotional depth they’re known for through any other art, making dance essential to musical theatre.

    Musical theatre does nothing if not express emotion, which has allowed it to impact a tremendous amount of people for a very long time. It’s the only art form that allows the audience to experience stories through all forms of art—visual art, acting, music, and dance. Hopefully, those who began as skeptics now understand the allure of musical theatre, and will soon call themselves fans. Musical theatre has sewn, painted, built, acted, sung, and danced its way into global audiences’ hearts, and plans on staying there for quite some time.

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