What is “New Musical Theatre”?
Last month, my writing partner Derek and I were contacted by Mixing Bowl Productions, a small and brand new theatrical troupe in Cape Town, South Africa. They were gearing up for a three-night concert of American “New Musical Theatre” called No Jazz Hands Allowed that would feature multi-song sets by nearly a dozen American songwriters, including us. For Derek and me, this was a particularly exciting milestone, as it marked the seventh continent our work had been performed on (yes, it turns out “After Hours” had already been performed in an “open mic night” at the coffee house in the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica).
In an attempt to introduce us and our scene to the locals, they sent a bunch of interview questions, including, among many, “How did you start writing?” “Which of your fellow New Musical Theatre composers makes your jaw drop?” “Why musical theatre?” and “How do you define New Musical Theatre and how does it differ from traditional Musical Theatre?” All great questions, but this last one I found particularly fascinating, as I realized that I haven’t actually read any attempts to define what “New Musical Theatre” is or what “New Writers” are. So I thought I’d take a stab at it and that I’d share my response (slightly edited and expanded). I hope that this, far from being the last word on the subject, will be the beginning of the conversation and that others will weigh in and share their thoughts.
First off, I think it’s important that we distinguish “New Musical Theatre” from “musical theatre that is new.” The latter—musicals being written today—often have many of the qualities that musical theater has always had, usually with a more contemporary sound and perhaps a more cinematic conception (i.e. fluid staging, dispensing with the scene/in one/scene/in one construction of earlier shows).
By contrast, “New Musical Theatre,” as curated by websites like NewMusicalTheatre.com and others, probably has a more narrow definition. “New Musical Theatre” does seem to have something distinctive about it, despite the wide variety of work that is considered to be part of its canon. Let's try a few different approaches to the question.
One could say, simply, that “New Musical Theatre” is the collection of theatrical songs being created by young (or young-ish) writers in New York City today (we might add Chicago as well). In terms of subject matter, NMT seems to center around urban and/or youthful subject matters. Admittedly, though, musical theater has always tended to have one or both of these focuses.
One might define the form economically or logistically: “New Musical Theatre” is any contemporary theatrical song that can be performed in concert, without sets, costumes, choreography or larger production values. As producing theater, particularly in New York, is, as we all know, exceedingly expensive, young writers have found a way to get their work into the world without raising tens of thousands—or millions—of dollars. And this way is the concert. Concerts are relatively cheap to produce and easy to rehearse, as there is no choreography or special lighting, and many concert venues are already relatively well set up to create a professional-looking and -sounding show. Moreover, if one plans it for the right Broadway dark night, it’s often possible to get top-notch talent free of charge, since it’s just a one-night commitment, and Broadway singers are often eager to get some variety in their lives after performing the same material night after night. The kicker is that, because Actors’ Equity doesn’t oversee concerts or concert venues, it breaks no rules to videotape the performances. Thus, writers can put concert performances on Youtube, cross-pollinate with the performers’ fan bases, and share their material around the world (that’s certainly how Derek and I just reached our seventh continent). This leads to vastly increased sheet music sales, and sheet music sales comprise the biggest source of income for many NMT writers. In short, I think that the minimal production elements and framing requirements (theatrical stand-alone song at mic with simple lighting) may be a key part of the definition; the title of the South African concert “No Jazz Hands Allowed” suggests that they implicitly consider this focus on the song itself crucial to NMT. This, incidentally, isn’t to say that NMT songs can’t be part of shows (many of our most popular songs are), but their extractability is, perhaps, what makes them “New Musical Theatre.”
Stylistically, NMT tends to feel at least somewhat of this moment (otherwise, I guess, it wouldn’t be “new,” right?). This is often a musical style that uses pop or rock elements (like so much of the work of Drew Gasparini, Alex Sage Oyen, and many others). It may simply be a brashness in the lyric that makes it feel “of our time.” Derek’s and my song “Savin’ It,” for instance, has a very traditional musical style, but the subject matter (a guy lamenting that he keeps falling for women who are “savin’ it for Jesus”) makes it much more contemporary than the musical alone would suggest. The same might be said of Kooman and Dimond's "To Excess."
One other part of the definition—and one that may marry several of these points—is the relationship NMT songs have to their audience. This may be the most controversial part of my definition, and it's certainly more of a trend in the form than an absolute, but it seems to me that many (though certainly not all) NMT songs take the form of a statement, in real time, to an unseen other, while really being internal. In other words, the conceit is that we’re witnessing an address, but the things being said wouldn’t realistically be said in that situation, probably being a little too open or direct to actually be spoken out loud in real time.
Jonathan Reid Gealt’s “Quiet,” for instance, appears to be a person’s confrontation with his or her browbeating lover, but it ultimately feels more like the conversation in the singer’s head, the one he or she wishes they had had. Similarly, Derek’s and my song “Make It Here” (a young performer’s address to his neglectful and discouraging father, begging him to come and see him onstage) is usually performed in concert as a direct address. In Island Song, the show it comes from, though, it’s delivered into a mirror, after a series of failed attempts by phone to have an actual conversation. Perhaps some version of the conversation will eventually happen, but the song itself is the rehearsal and ultimately about the young man’s coming to understand his own feelings. Kooman and Dimond’s “To Excess,” which I mentioned earlier, goes to such an extreme place—while also informing “Claire,” who it is ostensibly being sung to, of certain events she would already know about—that I have trouble believing that it’s truly being sung to her out loud and in real time. In this case, I suppose, the very insanity of the singer makes it difficult to judge whether his ravings are aloud or internal, but I think that ambiguity kind of makes my point. Similarly, Adam Gwon's "I'll Be Here" gains an immediacy by being an address to an unseen other, but part of its rawness or openness is probably aided by the fact that the other is not actually present (he is on the phone). Moreover, the primary action of the song is the singer convincing herself to move on from her previous relationship (her ex-husband died on September 11th, 2001) or, at least, finding peace with her decision to move on. The third-party listener is not a crucial part of the dramatic equation.
Another way of putting it might be that, although the occasion for all of these songs is an address to another person, the singer’s primary relationship is with the audience. If we think about it, this complex triangle among singer, audience, and unseen other is really a blend of popular song and theater song. True theater songs always have the conceit that this is happening right now. In a pop song, we never really think that what’s being expressed is happening at this moment; it’s more of a stylization, an expansion of a former feeling into something more grandiose (like Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” originating from “emotion recollected in tranquility”). “New Musical Theatre” songs tend to pull the immediate and situational quality of theater songs and blend them with the grandiosity and emotional transparency of pop. I hasten to mention that I intend these definitions to be descriptive and not qualitative; there’s nothing inherently right or wrong with being a "New Musical Theatre" song as opposed to a pop song or a theater song, but I think they do all feel different from each other.
The importance of the relationship with the audience in “New Musical Theatre” becomes even more apparent in NMT mainstays like Joe Iconis’s “Blue Hair” or Goldrich and Heisler’s “Taylor the Latte Boy,” where the audience is the singer’s confidant. There is no unseen other in these numbers, and it’s the specificity of the situation that makes them theatrical. The same is true for Alex Sage Oyen’s “Where do the Lonely Folks Go?” (spoiler alert: it’s “McDonald’s at 3AM”) and many other NMT songs.
I might go so far as to say that a song that feels too authentically a statement to another character is not “New Musical Theatre,” but a theater song. Similarly, I might also say that a song without specificity of situation or sense of immediacy is a pop song and not “New Musical Theatre.”
Another way of saying this might be: "New Musical Theatre" is a song that stands alone, but has enough specificity and immediacy to give the impression that it could belong to a larger musical theatrical work. It often finds a subtle irony in the disjunction between big emotions and everyday mundanity, between openness and awkwardness, between sentimentality and harsh reality, and between the antique and the contemporary.
This is an exciting time to be writing musical theater, because of websites like NewMusicalTheatre.com, because of the ability to reach audiences around the world, because of the passion of so many performers and companies across the globe, and because of the diversity and breadth of material being created by our contemporaries. With such a wide variety of material, creating a concise definition of “New Musical Theatre” is probably an impossible task. We can, however, attempt to identify some tendencies or trends within the canon of self-proclaimed “New Musical Theatre” being created today. This is my first stab at it, and I’m excited to continue the discussion.