If you study musical theatre in any sort of depth you will come to realise that nearly every show falls into one of two categories: either a book musical or a concept show.
A book musical strives for realism and integration. A traditional book musical will be thoroughly integrated, in that every song grows out of the plot (as do the dance numbers), and they are part of the narrative as opposed to breaking up the action. There is debate over what the first book musical was, but it is accepted that the first American book musical was Showboat (1928), where Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II sought to integrate the songs with the main action – “In other words a musical like no other musical Broadway had ever seen.” (Frederick Nolan, Sound of Their Music).
Hammerstein didn’t stop there, but went on to create one of the most ground-breaking musicals ever with composer Richard Rogers and choreographer Agnes De Mille – the first musical to integrate dance as well song. They invented the dream ballet sequence, which in Oklahoma (1943) showed Laurey’s deep feelings for Curley but also revealed what characters such as Jud are really like. This was furthered by its naturalistic opening (which I mentioned in my previous blog), which blew musical theatre tradition out the window by opening the show small instead of with a chorus number. Examples of other musicals to follow a more integrated route are Les Miserables (1985), Jesus Christ Superstar (1971), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) Carousel (1945), Legally Blonde (2007) etc.
On the flip side of this are the concept musicals. These are shows where plot can be secondary or virtually non-existent – it is more about the metaphors and experience than it is about telling a story, which means a lot of this work tends to come from an experimental background. The best example of this is Hair (1967), which, whilst being a commentary on society and young people with its themes of drugs and sexual freedom, doesn’t have a plot as such and is more about tackling what a musical can be. Concept musicals also include non-linear shows such as Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970), which tells the story of Bobby; you see moments of his life but not always in chronological order. Jason Robert Brown did something similar with one-act musical The Last Five Years (2002), telling the story of a couple, Cathy and Jamie. Whilst Jamie’s story is told chronologically, Cathy’s is told backwards and their timelines only meet once at the point of Jamie proposing.
Again there is debate over the first concept musical. Some cite Allegro (1947) by ‘Mr Book Musical’, Oscar Hammerstein. Not surprising, then, that it turned out to be a flop; it has not had a major revival since its debut. Interestingly, its plot revolves around the story of a man and included a sort of Greek chorus, both of which his protégée Stephen Sondheim did successfully in Company and Sweeney. So it could be argued that Hammerstein was just ahead of his time. Whilst Hair is probably the best contender for the title of first concept musical, other holders of the concept crown are Cats (1981), which is more about the spectacle and dancing than it is about the plot, and Spring Awakening (2006).
Anyone who knows me or has read my blogs can probably guess that I am a book musical girl at heart; I love the idea of everything being for the plot and think that every song should be a three-act story in itself. But I can see the appeal of concept musicals – it has been noted that book musicals can make shows seem formulaic, so occasionally a concept show is required to breathe fresh air into musical theatre. But I believe both are at threat from the rise of jukebox musicals, which have steadily gained pace since Mamma Mia (1999). For the start of this year, the only ‘new’ show due to come to the big theatres of the West End is a transfer from Broadway of American idiot (2010), a rock musical based on the music of Greenday. Now I loved that band as a teenager but I do wonder as we enter a year of jukebox musicals, films turned into musicals and revivals, if we have lost our book musicals. I have been assured that American Idiot isn’t your typical jukebox musical, but at the end of the day most of the audience will be going for the songs they know rather than for the story, which is where I have problems with jukebox musicals.
2011 did bring us book musicals Betty Blue Eyes and Matilda, but the biggest spark of hope comes from a show that has taken Broadway by storm and is headed our way this autumn. The show that Ben Brantley from The New York Times described as “more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak … [but its] heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.” From the creators of South Park has come one of 2011’s biggest hits: The Book of Mormon. A show that parodies musical theatre and satirises American culture and spirituality, but led last year’s Tony awards and is breaking box office records at the O’Neill Theatre. When this juggernaut arrives in London it gives me hope that 2012 may in fact be an amazing year for musical theatre and the return of originality.
Image by Broadway.me.