Today, I want to chat with you about discovering melodrama: a theatrical adventure for students. I know from my own experience it is so much fun. There used to be a melodrama in Cripple Creek, CO and Dodge City, KS which my parents and I attended. As I was only starting my journey in theater, I was tickled by it. It was so over the top and the corny jokes kept us laughing. We knew it was bad theater, but we just didn’t care. It was fun and that’s what a good melodrama should be.
In the realm of performing arts, this genre stands out for its vivid portrayal of heightened emotions, intense conflicts, and larger-than-life characters – melodrama. As you might expect, I’ve performed and directed several melodramas. If you are like me, you just can’t help yourself and enjoy them, too. If you’d like to learn more about my directing experiences, check out Eighteen Ways To Make Your Directing Experience Less Stressful, Part One
The history of melodrama is a captivating journey through the evolution of theater, reflecting societal changes, artistic innovation, and the eternal fascination with exaggerated emotions. Your students would enjoy learning about them and even performing them.
The Origins: Setting the Stage
If you’ve wondered, the term “melodrama” finds its roots in Greek, where “melos” means music, and “drama” means action or play. Its history traces back to the 18th century, where it emerged as a blend of spoken word and music, primarily in operas and stage productions. These performances often used music to underscore the emotions of the characters, creating a heightened sense of drama.
One of my favorite melodramas to direct is Little Mary Sunshine. Are you familiar with it? From Concord Theatricals, ” This hugely successful off-Broadway show played for almost three years at New York’s Orpheum Theatre, winning an Obie award as the Best of the Season. Billed as “a new musical about an old operetta,” Little Mary Sunshine gently spoofs such old-time favorites as Rose Marie and Naughty Marietta, but has a personality all its own. The plot is a little bit of everything: Colorado Rangers led by stalwart Captain Jim; the lovely Mary Sunshine and her “naughty” maid Nancy; a chorus of giggling schoolgirls; and the ominous but benevolent Indian chief. Hearts are won and lost and won again in this delightful, laugh-filled and charming show.”
The Rise of Theatrical Melodrama
The melodrama we all think of did not gain traction until the 19th century, especially in Europe and America. However, once it caught on, it became a prominent form of entertainment. It’s big draw? It captured the attention of a burgeoning middle-class audience. Because of the The Industrial Revolution and the societal changes it brought, the themes of melodramas were significantly influenced. Plus, the growing divide between social classes made for excellent story lines.
Students enjoy melodramas because of the stark contrasts between good and evil, virtue and vice. Characters were often portrayed in an exaggerated manner, allowing the audience to clearly identify with the hero’s unwavering goodness or the villain’s diabolical intentions. The narratives are often simplistic, so there’s a big plus.
It also emphasizes moral dilemmas and the triumph of virtue over vice. Many of our super heroes movies, although usually considered science fiction, follow the same pattern. Being familiar with super hero plot lines, students have an easy time understanding and portraying the characters in a melodrama.
Theatrical Elements of Melodrama
One thing you can always depend upon in a melodrama is its emphasis on spectacle. Elaborate stage designs, dramatic lighting, and exaggerated gestures added to the overall effect, intensifying the emotional experience for the audience. Generally, music plays a pivotal role, heightening the tension and emotions of key moments.
Furthermore, stock characters (the mean villain, the sensitive hero, the persecuted heroine, the simpleton, the faithful friend and the villain’s sidekick) became a hallmark of melodrama. These characters were archetypes that the audience can easily recognize and of which they can relate. As most of our theater teachers will tell you, our student actors need permission to exaggerate. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s much easier to clown around in class than to actually do so on the stage. Students aren’t willing to step out and be vulnerable when everyone is watching them. Producing a melodrama allows them to cut their acting teeth, to so to speak, while giving them time to adapt to the stage in general.
My Suggestion of Melodramas
If you are considering directing a melodrama, here are a few I’d suggest considering one of these plays.
A Fate Worse Than Death–(7F 5 M) “Gadzooks! What a beautiful night for a murder!” hisses the villain. Yes, there’s plenty of dirty work going on at the crossroads as that fiendish scoundrel, Cassius Carstairs, pursues the pure Carlotta Flower, the persecuted heroine who is more sinned against than sinning. This wildly funny melodrama gives the audience every chance to hiss the villain and applaud the hero and heroine, and to have the time of their lives. With tongue in cheek it incorporates all of the surefire situations used in the old time melodramas and the result is a wonderfully happy piece of nonsense with laughs tumbling over each other in rapid succession.
Two More Suggestions
The Enduring Allure
Audiences enjoy melodramas because they feel familiar. Have you ever seen a melodrama when you were visiting an old western town? Yup. They are everywhere. The everlasting appeal of melodrama lies in its ability to heighten emotions, captivate audiences, and offer a form of escapism. The genre remains a testament to the timeless allure of storytelling through the portrayal of intense emotions and moral conflicts. I don’t plan to direct anymore, although I honestly would re-consider if someone asked me to direct a melodrama. Now, that would be fun!
Have you ever wondered about juke box musicals? Check out this post: Exploring the Magic of Jukebox Musicals: When Hits Shape the Stage
This has me so enthused about melodramas, I think I’ll go create a unit for students to study and write their own melodrama. Now, how’s that?
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What experiences do you have with melodrama? I’d love to hear about them. Please feel free to email me here or at DhcBaldwin@gmail.com