Doing Musicals the Right Way
Let’s talk about doing musicals the right way. I watched the Tony awards last night. Although it was shortened version on CBS, it was a lovely tribute to Broadway and theater. So exciting to know Broadway is back in business again.
But I have to say…as always they did musicals the right way.
What do I mean by that remark? Often, I’ve thought about what makes a musical a classic. Who makes the decisions whether a theatrical piece is or is not a classic?
According to one website, any musical written between 1920 and 1959 is considered a classic. When I think about classic musicals, certain ones come to mind–South Pacific, Sound of Music, Oliver!, Peter Pan, The Music Man, Hello Dolly! My Fair Lady and Oklahoma! to name a few.
However, there are recent musicals which should be added to this category of Tony award winners.
I believe they become classics when they are endowed with strong plots, well defined characters, spectacle, universal themes and tremendous scores. Consequently, one could argue that most musicals which make it to Broadway should become classics, right? Maybe and maybe not.
However to me, the brilliance of the musical transcends all other productions and that is what sets is apart from others.
Doing Musicals the Right Way
Let’s consider The Phantom of the Opera for example.
Phantom of the Opera
First, the plot: Based on the 1910 horror novel by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera is a thrilling and romantic account of the legendary Phantom, a musical genius who dwells deep beneath a majestic opera house in Paris.
Shunned by society for his horrible facial deformity, he takes a promising young soprano, Christine, under his wing and grooms her for operatic fame, all the while falling deeply in love with her.
As Christine grows ever more successful, and a handsome young man from her past begins to successfully court her, the Phantom descends into a jealous rage and terrorizes the opera company with increasingly dangerous threats.
The plot takes twists and turns. That’s a clear cut identifier of a classic.
Secondly, let’s consider the spectacle of the production. A person could watch this one scene from Phantom of the Opera (in photo above) and have a good idea of the plot.
In addition, the characters are well rounded with moments of which we can relate. Another quality of a good musical. One moment we hate the Phantom and another we pity him. That tug at our heart strings makes him all the more compelling. Although Phantom of the Opera has less dialogue that most musicals, what dialogue it does have is well crafted.
The mere fact that Phantom of the Opera has been running for 38 years should tell us something, yes? Staying power.
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s music score is magnificent. Perusing the internet researching this blog topic, I ran on to The Guardian’s review of Phantom of the Opera:
“Andrew Lloyd Webber has a true pop sensibility, ladling on the hooks. There are reprises and motifs everywhere, and even similar melodies in two of the big songs. Essentially, never take the unexpected route when the note you want to hear is right there.
That famous descending organ riff and its synth-rock bass may scream 1980s camp, but this is a show committed to bombast, the grisly gothic tale of the murderous phantom menacing a 19th-century Paris theatre unashamedly embraces high drama, backed by a wall of sound when Lloyd Webber’s more dense writing contrasts with the hit melodies.”
Les Miserables should be included the list of modern classic musicals.
Doing Musicals the Right Way and Les Miserables
First, let’s talk about the plot: After 19 years as a prisoner, Jean Valjean is freed by Javert, the officer in charge of the prison workforce. Valjean promptly breaks parole but later uses money from stolen silver to reinvent himself as a mayor and factory owner. Javert vows to bring Valjean back to prison. Eight years later, Valjean becomes the guardian of a child named Cosette after her mother’s death, but Javert’s relentless pursuit means that peace will be a long time coming.
Secondly, the staging is magnificent! When I taught students about set design, I described the spectacle of the production. The revolving stage, the use of lighting and simple set pieces gives the production a feeling of fluidity and pace. In particular, the scene when when Javert ends his life is powerful and raw.
Additionally, the use of fog and a simple bridge hoisted right at the moment Javert jumps to his death is breath taking. This moment of spectacle is tremendously engaging. Consequently, we are transported to the moment of impact as if we were jumping with him. The revolving stage turns as Javert sinks to the floor of the river, rolls in the current and slowly dies as the stage stops its revolve. That’s powerful theater!
Like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables has a long life on Broadway and London where it originated. Forty-two countries have enjoyed the touring company shows. If that isn’t enough, it has been translated into Les Miserables into 21 languages: English, Japanese, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, German, Polish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, French, Czech, Castillian, Mauritian Creole, Flemish, Finnish, Argentinian, Portuguese, Estonian and Mexican Spanish.
Les Miserables is considered a “sung-thru” opera. Because particular moments are sung rather than spoken and vice versa it demands our attention at all times. I can’t say that about every production.
The Music Man
A third “should-be” classic, is The Music Man.
Again, let’s look at the plot: The Music Man is concerns con man Harold Hill, who poses as a boys’ band organizer and leader and sells band instruments and uniforms to naïve Iowa townsfolk, promising to train the members of the new band. Harold is no musician, however, and plans to skip town without giving any music lessons. Prim librarian and piano teacher Marian sees through him, but when Harold helps her younger brother overcome his lisp and social awkwardness, Marian begins to fall in love. Harold risks being caught to win her.
Every classic musical contains universal themes. In this case, The Music Man demonstrates that music heals, redemption, risk romance and authenticity.
Doing Musicals the Right Way
When teachers ask for my recommendation of a crowd pleaser musical which has opportunities for a large cast, first on my list is The Music Man. The characters are charming, fun to portray and there’s room for many ages and grade levels. The dialogue is humorous when it needs to be and poignant in other moments. My favorite line is, “He’s been the raspberry seed in my wisdom tooth long enough.”
With a blend of music indicative of the setting of the story, many of a plot takes twists and turns which is an identifier of a classic, too. For instance, The Music Man has such captivating music it’s used in other genres such as by marching bands (Seventy-six Trombones) and barbershop quartets (Lida Rose.)
Having directed it four times, I can say without a doubt it is one I can depend upon to be successful every time I direct it. Want some advice about directing? Check out: So You Are Directing a Musical…Now What?
Broadway Musical Units
As you may be aware, I create drama education resources for teachers through my store, DramaMommaSpeaks.
I have a new bundle of “Classic Musicals”.
It includes: Les Miserable, The Music Man, Peter Pan, Phantom of the Opera and West Side Story, South Pacific (new)
Each musical can be purchased separately, but if you buy them in a bundle you save up to 20%. And guess what? This is a growing bundle so as I create more Classic Musicals I’ll include include more productions. (Get in at the beginning of the growing bundle and you get all of the rest of the musicals for FREE)
These products include:
- Letter to Teacher
- Two Warm Ups–My Own Version of this Popular Exercise–
- Teacher’s Script–What I Say and How I Say it!
- Photos of the production
- Synopsis of the Musical
- Plot of the Musical–comprehensive and detailed
- Short Biography about the creative team–composer, lyricist, playwright, producer or director
- Biography focused on the author of the novel if it inspired the production
- Why is this musical considered an opera and not a musical?
- Separate File of Photos for Teacher’s Use in Lecture
- History about the Origination of the Production
- AND a Mini-Lesson on What are the Tony Awards?
- List of Tony Awards
- New York City Map with Competing Theaters Labeled
- Student Note Page
- Teacher Note Page Key
- Fascinating Trivia about Broadway
- Equally fascinating trivia about the particular musical
- Songs List
- Extension Activities–Ten Terrific Assignment Suggestions to Secure the Learning and Enrich the Experience either Individual or Group
- Sources & Links to Film Clips from the Show
- And More!
There are many musicals, too numerous to mention, which your students will appreciate exploring. Have you considered Come From Away? Still so timely. It’s an excellent production!
Here’s another Broadway musical, West Side Story
Today, I added Oklahoma!
And Here’s South Pacific
And now The Sound of Music
What other musicals do you think should be labeled as classics? I’d love to know. Contact me at DhcBaldwin@gmail.com or DeborahBaldwin.net