Genre and Musical Theatre

With musicals, there’s an old (and false) belief that they are impossibly cheerful, unrealistic, and frivolous. We all love a screwball comedy meant purely for entertainment, but it takes a specific and deliberate choice to write a show that fits perfectly into a certain genre, and most shows do not.

What do I mean by making a deliberate choice? The musical The Drowsy Chaperone checks off every box on the comedy must-haves list: mistaken identity, weddings, and puns, to name a few. We’re taught that most things exist in one extreme or the other, as either a play or a musical, or a comedy or a drama, but what about Peter and the Starcatcher or a Martin McDonagh play? Drowsy may be purely a comedy, but shows that fit so neatly into one classification or the other are less and less common as musical theatre becomes more ambitious. This isn’t new – musical theatre has almost always stretched itself beyond that of strictly feel-good entertainment, so why does this idea persist?

Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Well, those of us who are organizationally minded love some good categorization (the blog Things Organized Neatly comes to mind). I understand the appeal. It makes marketing easier and it helps audience members feel like they know what they’re in for, but does it really work? Comedy/drama is a dichotomy left over from Greek theatre, but even Shakespeare subverted traditional ideas of genre. These categorizations have expanded by necessity, with terms like “dark comedy” coming into existence so we would have a name for new things, but the language we have to talk about genre is by no means sufficient. Even if terminology existed that covered the whole spectrum of theatrical styles, it would be impossible to make everyone know and understand them all.

These are a few of my favorite pills. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

“These are a few of my favorite pills.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In terms of marketing and audience development, the assumption is that people won’t want to see something that they know may have upsetting content. Shows that aren’t upbeat or a recognizable commodity are spun to seem more pleasant, or at least less specifically sad. A perfect example of this strategy working is Next to Normal – not a particularly happy show, to be sure. Its tagline was, “This family is about to face the music,” which doesn’t betray the show or present it explicitly as something it’s not, but is vague enough that it’s likely no one will avoid the show based on its content. Besides, even shows like Next to Normal have moments of levity. I find that more realistic, anyway; people laugh through their tears and cut tension with humor.

But we all know that this tactic isn’t always successful. If, based on a show’s marketing, someone believes they’re about to see a comedy (or something close to it) but it isn’t, I can see it going two ways. Either they will be disappointed – “That’s the least funny comedy I’ve ever seen!” – or they’ll be pleasantly surprised by a show’s depth. The latter is obviously the goal; use the expectation of a good time to get people in seats, and then wow them with deeper resonance. With the number of factors that contribute to a show’s success, this often doesn’t work, and as a result, producers take fewer risks on shows that don’t have an immediately obvious audience draw.

Betsy Wolfe, Lindsay Mendez, Ben Crawford, and Alex Brightman perform "The Ballad of Sara Berry" (Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)

Betsy Wolfe, Lindsay Mendez, Ben Crawford, and Alex Brightman perform “The Ballad of Sara Berry” (Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)

I suppose the solution is for everyone to start putting less stock in arbitrary genre classifications, but that’s a stretch. Musical theatre writers today are playing with genre and structure in a huge way – Ryan Scott Oliver’s 35mm, based on Matthew Murphy’s photography, is a dark multimedia piece, and one of my favorites. We either need audiences to broaden their view beyond the limiting classifications of genre, or the industry needs to adapt. Small town tourists will never be the most adventurous theatergoers, but hopefully those in the industry will realize we can set the trends rather than letting them be set for us. We have writers doing their thing, now we just have to give audiences a chance to show up.

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