I didn’t actually want to write about this today — I have other, more important things that I should probably be writing about, or doing. However, not being one to back down on promises or obligations, here’s the successor to last week’s post on musical theatre!
Last week I looked at the birth and the ‘golden age’ of musicals. It reallywas all fluffy bunnies and lovely string orchestral reprises until 1968… and then Hair arrived on stage. Its full title ‘Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical‘ was perhaps the first sign that change was indeed here. Out went the violins; in came the electric guitars. Gone were the glorious sets and scene changes; now it was all going to be about the rock music.
Hair itself wasn’t great. You probably know one very popular song from it, and not much else: Aquarius (followed by Let The Sunshine In). Rock musicals are not generally masterpieces, but they do become cult classics (there’s something about big-haired and wild cross-dressing musicians from the 60s and 70s that just gets people going, I guess).
Hair was swiftly followed by Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and The Rocky Horror Show. As you can see, not exactly musical juggernauts, but very popular nonetheless! Thankfully, they were enough to keep the masses quiet for the rest of the 70s and 80s. The genre would have to wait until 1996 and the appearance of the rock powerhouse Rent to be re-awoken (Rent deserves a blog entry of its own, so I won’t write anything more about it here).
The end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s saw the first ‘power musicals’ or ‘pop musicals’. These were almost entirely European creations, mainly by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and Andrew Lloyd Webber who between them have crafted the biggest-selling and longest-running musicals of all time. Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, CATS, Evita… you get the idea. Most of these ‘pop musicals’ are exemplified by very poppy musical themes (often with 1 or 2 singles even being released into the charts) and incredibly strong stage direction: chandeliers falling onto the audience, or pieces of the stage rotating and rising, that kind of thing.
A nod should also be directed in Disney’s direction for their film-to-stage adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, both of which are magical, but hardly genre-defining. The Lion King is perhaps the biggest visual spectacle you will ever watch or take part in, and Beauty and the Beast is even more magical than the film! You know that transformation scene at the end of film? Somehow they do that on stage… and better! Their latest production, Mary Poppins is actually one of my favourite stage musicals of all time, and I urge you all to go and see it if you get the chance.
The final thing of note that occured during the 80s and 90s was the arrival of Stephen Sondheim. Now, Sondheim has written an awful lot of trash, but when you take into account that amongst the trash he’s also written more good musicals than anyone else, it’s OK! I mean this guy has penned 20 musicals! His illustrious career is only sullied by the fact that he mentored under the Great Jew himself, Oscar Hammerstein II — the guy that wrote the snooze-worth South Pacific… but he wrote other good stuff too… like The Sound of Music.
Sondheim wrote or composed West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (imagine the posters for that show…), Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods… We could easily be talking about every ‘intelligent’ musical of the last 20 years. What a pro!
Sondheim’s work is possibly only overshadowed by that of Andrew Lloyd Webber. It really comes down to whether you like immensely-intelligent musicals with size-8 lyrics shoehorned into a size-6 shoe, or if you like the ‘easy listening’ musical that Webber has perfected.
With Sondheim covered, I think that brings me up to the last decade and the creation of ‘Jukebox Musicals’ (the value-added act of wrapping a minimal plot around some existing songs, and calling it a musical), and the current splurge of ‘film to stage’ musicals like Titanic, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man and so on.
Oh, and of course Avenue Q! But that’s for next Monday…!