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The Wicked Stage: Can musicals be used as tools for social change?

Posted on 14 October 2012 Written by

Last year I wrote a response to fellow writer Elinor Walpole’s article on the relevancy of musical theatre in today’s society. I argued that musicals didn’t need to be explicitly relevant to us and that they are there for the joy of escapism. I still stand by that, but it would do musicals a disservice to say that’s all they can achieve. I read an article recently, by Frederick J. Heide, Natalie Porter and Paul K Saito, about a study in the US looking at how musical theatre can be used to change audiences’ attitudes through the power of theatre and music.

 “The major goal of the current study was to assess whether a musical comedy could shift attitudes as other narrative forms have done”. To monitor this they looked at the levels of captivation, intellectual stimulation, emotional involvement, spiritual value and social bonding. It isn’t hard to see which elements of musicals relate to these aspects: a sense of spectacle encouraged by lavish sets and costume provides the captivation, the plot and the melody of the songs cover the intellectual and emotional aspects – how many of us have got a little choked up over the Les Misérables trailer?

Theatre, like spirituality, is ephemeral, and this makes it hard to pin down. But I like to believe that different people take different things from a show. The social bonding aspect is fascinating though: David Mamet says of an audience “they are not involved in the sharing of ideas of the drama, but rather experience the thrill of the communal hunt”. In a show context, when I went to see the West End revival of Hairspray there was a moment when the characters Edna and Wilbur Turnblad seemingly corpsed. The audience found this hilarious and there was this feeling of excitement that all of us in the auditorium had witnessed something no one else would see. Of course later I found out this had happened at every performance and that it was a set up, but for that one shining moment I had a real connection with the rest of the audience.

The benefits of studies such as these are that they highlight the misconception that musicals are ineffectual and distant from real life, but you can easily make implicit connections between Carousel and the mentally torn soldiers coming home from World War Two, and there are other more explicit examples such as the HIV/AIDS backdrop to Rent. Often it’s the apparently random breaking into song that puts people off musicals, but Scott Miller is quoted in the article as saying: “all art is artificial… singing is just the language of musical theatre the way iambic pentameter is the language of Shakespeare.”

I still feel musicals are more for entertainment and frivolity compared with other forms of theatre. But of course all theatre naturally reflects the word we live in, consciously or subconsciously. What I struggle with is the idea of musicals being this massive force to change the world and how we live. But maybe just getting people to start conversations and question their own beliefs through the power of music is enough.

*Note: The full article can be found in Volume 6 of the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, titled Do You Hear The People Sing? Musical Theatre and Attitude Changes.

Image by Alan Cleaver.

Sarah Green

Sarah Green

Sarah is a musical theatre graduate now studying for her Masters in theatre practice with hopes of going onto a PHD. She has been writing for A Younger Theatre since September 2011 on all things musical theatre related.

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