From Opera To Musical Theater: Old Stories in A New Millennium

“Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”

These questions challenge the audiences of the blockbuster musical sensation Hamilton every day. Anticipation and excitement for Hamilton has dogged the musical since its inception. One of the taglines on the production’s publicity materials is “An American Musical,” noting the show’s content as well as its country of origin. However, one of the musical’s defining characteristics is that its general structure comes from outside of American musical theatre, as the show is sung-and-rapped-through. Lin-Manuel Miranda has essentially created a new opera for twenty-first century America. The structure of the musical is not the only echo of opera in the piece: Alexander Hamilton dies a tragic death at the hand of his colleague, he has to field romantic advancements from different sisters in a wealthy family, he fights in legendary battles for the good of his country—in fact, he doesn’t sound much different than many opera protagonists. The art form of musical theatre and its operatic origins has been revitalized through Miranda and twenty-first century hip-hop and rap; in other words, he has made opera “cool” again, and we should be on the lookout for more musicals that draw from their classical origins. If the success of Hamilton is any indication, musical theatre could see a renaissance of Broadway opera in the years to come.

Miranda has often cited RENT, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera based on Puccini’s La Bohème, as being a major creative contribution to his young life and growth as an artist. So it’s unsurprising that the basic form of Hamilton is similar to RENT’s, albeit with Miranda’s distinct style. Instead of composing rock music to convey a dramatic storyline from an opera, as Larson did, Miranda wrote a plot based on a sensational biographical story. The plot is conveyed through continuous music and rapping that includes multiple repeated themes, which is very similar to how classic operas are composed.

However, Broadway and opera were synonymous long before Larson composed RENT. Operas and operettas repeatedly made their way to the Broadway stage. During the 1940s, opera was the basis for new musical theatre, such as Carmen Jones, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen (which was, in turn, based on Prosper Merimee’s novel of the same name). Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score sounded contemporarily popular to their World War II-era audiences and placed Carmen in a parachute factory outside Chicago. This type of production was both familiar and unfamiliar, but a new musical emulating opera appealed to both nostalgic and adventurous Broadway theater-goers. Based on the success of more contemporary shows like RENT and Hamilton, they still can.

In Olney, Maryland, the Olney Theatre Center has partnered up with the New York City-based Tectonic Theatre Project on another version of Carmen. Moisés Kaufman, acclaimed playwright and director, is at the helm of the production, which is scheduled to begin performances on February 10. Kaufman’s work with Tectonic Theatre Project has been characterized as largely dealing with major sociological issues and larger-than-life characters in incredible circumstances. The story of Carmen is a legendary tragedy of sexuality, indecision, and revenge; what could be more incredible than that?

The original character of Carmen was deceased at the start of Mérimée’s novel; the protagonist, an anthropologist based on Mérimée himself, meets José and hears the story in hindsight. Her story is told for her through the perspectives of multiple people, none of whom seem to know her particularly well. Ironically, her story has become renowned in many cultures and countries all over the world; it has seen a myriad of settings and contexts—the character of Carmen has been transformed into a young actress in Philadelphia (in MTV’s “hip-hopera” adaptation starring Beyoncé), an aspiring Bollywood Dancer in the City of Bradford in England (in BBC Three’s Bollywood Carmen Live), and a male mechanic (in Matthew Bourne’s ballet Car Man: An Auto-Erotic Thriller). The tale of Carmen is that of a self-made woman; she is employed at a cigar factory, she intelligently escapes her arrest, and does not let a man keep her tied to a single place. There are many conversations right now about female representation in the spheres of theatre, film, television, and literature; this may be the best time to tell the well-known story about a woman who knows how to use her power to achieve her goals.

In the last decade, musical theatre has been a welcoming arena for the idea of Carmen returning to the stage in non-operatic form. In 2007, a new version of the opera incorporating flamenco dancing and contemporary music by John Ewbank and AnnMarie Milazzo premiered at La Jolla Playhouse. In 2008, a version of Carmen created by Frank Wildhorn, Jack Murphy, and Norman Allen broke box office records in the Czech Republic. As if that wasn’t enough, a bilingual reimagining of Carmen Jones set in pre-Castro Havana, Cuba was workshopped in 2014, starting rumors of a London production and international tour. Clearly, the theatrical world is not done telling the story of Carmen and her romantic entanglements.

Kaufman’s Carmen may be the Carmen America could use. “Carmen is Cuba,” as Kaufman says. “For me, Carmen, it’s about this character that has survived for generations and generations and generations. She’s Diana, she is this character that we recognize that keeps reappearing in literature. And the question is why? Why her? What is it about Carmen that makes her immortal?…When the world changes, you want to see this indomitable woman survive any transition. And I think that setting it in the Cuban Revolution allows us to see that, allows us to see what happens to Carmen when the world is burning.” Kaufman and his assembled creative team have traveled to Havana and researched Afro-Cuban culture for the past few years, trying to capture an authentic essence of Cuba’s people so that they can show it onstage. American interest in Cuba has grown as the two countries have loosened regulations on the economic embargo in place since 1961. More Americans than ever understand the political history of the island and the consequences of the Cuban Revolution. Musical theatre enthusiasts gave a cheer at the announcement that Broadway would return to Cuba for the first time in decades with a musical produced by Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment in Havana. Their selection? RENT.

Opera and the stories told in operas for the past few centuries are still very much alive in contemporary musical theatre, and keeping the stories in separate arenas limits both forms. Whether we re-appropriate storylines or mimic forms that we admire from a shared artistic history, embracing the two genres together can create brilliant stage works. Many new musical theatre writers are already embracing them: the structure of Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s developing musical Republic is largely inspired by opera, Ryan Scott Oliver’s Jasper in Deadland follows the often-operatized story of Orpheus and occasionally parodies opera, and Dave Malloy’s pop opera Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 will return to New York this fall in a Broadway production starring Josh Groban. Whether it’s a new adaptation of an opera like Carmen or a sung-through epic story like Hamilton, musical theatre and opera are fusing on stages around the world and creating productions that straddle both forms to successful ends.

Alexandra Ley is a dramaturg, writer, producer, and performer currently working as a Dramaturgy Apprentice at the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, MD. She holds a B.A. in American Studies & Theatre from Barnard College and has interned at The Warner Theater, Goodspeed Opera House, TADA! Youth Theater, Samuel French, Inc., Richard Kornberg & Associates, and New Yorker magazine. Outside of theatre, she’s passionate about reading books from as many different genres as possible, watching BBC television shows, and discovering new tea blends. She wrote and hosted Harry Potter trivia at bars around Manhattan for a year, and she has a list of her favorite team names. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

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