The Mark of a Classic

I recently returned from a trip to New York City where, among other things, I was lucky enough to see An American In Paris. I absolutely loved the show, and among other positive things, the word “classic” kept floating around the theatre in relation to the show. This got me thinking – what exactly constitutes a “classic” musical?

This seemed like an important question for several reasons. First, classic musicals are what seem to set the standard for every new show on Broadway. Everyone holds their breath, wondering if their show will be deemed an “instant classic” and have a place in musical theatre history. Second, classic musicals really start the journey Broadway has undergone to tell stories through song and dance, and how can we begin to understand contemporary musical theatre if we don’t first understand where it came from?

Defining the word “classic” seemed like a good place to start my research. Oxford Dictionary defines the word as “Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.” Following this definition, my first stop in musical research was, naturally, the Golden Age.

The “Golden Age” of musicals, encompassing the years between 1940 and 1960, is called this because of the many musicals that debuted during that time. Composers like Rodgers + Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim found their start and their fame during this time period. We were introduced to shows such as Oklahoma!, West Side Story, and Gypsy, shows that every theatre lover has at least heard of today. Over time, these shows, among others, and these composers have become revered as some of the best of Broadway. What qualities did they all share that made them such a hit?

Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein at auditions at Broadway's St. James Theatre. (Photo by by Al Aumuller, World Telegram. Public Domain.)

Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein at auditions at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. (Photo by by Al Aumuller, World Telegram. Public Domain.)

Well, there’s the love story at the core of all of them. Each musical has a great love within it – between the young girl and the strong man who saves her, between the ambitious mother and her misunderstood daughter. It doesn’t matter who the characters are; there is always a great love story driving the plot. There is also always something keeping the love interests apart – in Oklahoma!, it’s Jud, the violent farmhand, that threatens to separate Curly and Laurey; in West Side Story, the hatred between the Jets and the Sharks prevents Tony and Maria from being together; in Gypsy, the love story between mother and daughter is tainted by Rose’s blinding need for Louise to succeed. Again, it didn’t matter who the characters were or what their relationship was – in order for the plot to work, something had to stand in the way of their love.

Another common thread is the happy ending. While this doesn’t ring true for all – for example, West Side Story, though it ends with the hope of forgiveness and reconciliation from both the Jets and the Sharks, still sees Maria and Tony separated forever – it is a common theme, and that perhaps is what draws audiences to them the most. At the time these musicals were appearing, people did not want reminders of how terrible the world was. They didn’t want reminders of the Depression and of war – they needed to see good triumph over evil, and be reminded that love will see people through to the end, however long the struggle may be. Knowing that no matter the circumstances, the happy endings in these musicals will remain the same certainly plays a large part in drawing me to them over and over again.

Another mark of the Golden Age musicals are the songs that are used, both with the lyrics and the style. There is always a love song sung by the female lead, with a soaring melody and poetic, but sometimes simple, lyrics. There is an upbeat dance number that sticks in your head long after the show is done, and there are theme songs that appear throughout the show – theme music for the villain and for the romantic leads. These are themes that the audience recognizes in a heartbeat, even decades after these musicals were first performed. The composition was simple enough for the audience to grasp, but full of such subtle complexities that one can listen to these soundtracks without ever getting tired of them.

Finally, the characters in these musicals undoubtedly played a role in securing their place among the classics. There is the traditional female lead, a young, naïve girl just looking for love; there is the male figure who captures her heart (yes, even in Gypsy, although the main love story is between mother and daughter); there is a clear villain that strives to keep the love interests apart. Every character has their role and doesn’t stray from it. When you combine this with the happy ending they achieve and the catchy, soaring music that pushes the plot along, you have all of the ingredients of a classic Golden Age musical.

But in recent years, the idea of a classic musical has shifted. Instead of relying on this tried and true formula, musicals began to rely on the message they were able to convey to the audience, and how many people it could connect with that way. Wicked, for example, although containing the love story, including the love triangle, and the happy ending, doesn’t really have clear-cut villain-hero-ingénue characters. Instead, its characters change roles throughout the play: the boy you thought was an airhead is actually brave; the girl that was supposed to play the ingénue has a more complex life than you can imagine; the supposed hero of the story turns out to be the greatest villain. The idea that there is more than one side to people, and that perception can be warped to make you believe anything, is one that hits home with many audiences, and is a big reason why Wicked is still on Broadway today, 12 years after the show first opened. There are few theatre lovers that haven’t heard of Wicked or heard the song “Defying Gravity” before. Although not necessarily considered the “highest quality … of its kind,” Wicked could certainly be considered a classic.

There is a reason that Wicked can now fall into the category of classic musicals. People no longer go to musicals solely to escape; they also go to see characters that they can relate to, in situations like their own, so they can better understand life. Creating that connection with the audience, not just once, but again and again – that is the true mark of a classic musical. We are so lucky to live in a time period where every show we see has some underlying theme to it that we, and audiences all over the world, can connect to.

What will be considered the next Broadway classic? Who knows? But I, for one, am going to enjoy the beauty of everything that appears onstage, knowing that their themes are ones that will resonate for a very long time, no matter what the history books say.

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