What’s Next: The Future of Musical Theatre
I’ve talked a little bit before about looking forward to what “the future” of musical theatre might be, and with the new crop of this season’s shows already opening out of town and on Broadway, it seems timely to explore the different ways in which this ever-changing art form might evolve. I’ve split this up into the main avenues of change as I see them, but I’m sure there are a million and one possibilities that have never even crossed my mind.
This is probably the most reliable and verifiable way in which musical theatre has changed historically, and the content of future musical theatre will no doubt continue to change to reflect the social mores of any given period. Looking back 100 years, musicals were traditionally frothy, lightweight diversions, song and dance showcases designed to give audiences a jolly good night out thank you very much have a lovely evening. Then certain key writers emerged who took the genre in an altogether more ‘dramatic’ direction: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and so on. Shows started to engage with themes and material which said something about society and culture of the time – dealing with race, violence, sex and love in ways that would have been unheard of 20 years earlier (and that’s just West Side Story).
Cut to where we are today: the Tony Award for Best Musical this year went to Fun Home, the coming out story of a lesbian cartoonist and her father’s subsequent suicide; The Scottsboro Boys musicalises the racist trial of a group of black teenagers falsely convicted of raping two white women; Next to Normal is a two-act rock musical about grief, mental illness and the pharmaceutical industry.
Writers and (more importantly) audiences are coming to realise that there is no limit to what can be successfully musicalised in the right hands. The genre is becoming unpredictable, and we must wait with bated breath to see whatever ‘they’ come up with next.
The other marked change that continues to be felt in musical theatre is a stylistic one. In the early twentieth century, ‘showtunes’ and pop music were almost synonymous. Crossover was frequent and it was common to have songs from musicals become hits with the non-theatregoing public. Moving forward, musicals embraced Motown, disco, rock and everything in between, keeping up to date with contemporary pop sounds. Rock has dominated the new musicals scene in recent years, but now hip hop is finally breaking onto the Great White Way.
An obvious example of this change in the current musical theatre scene is Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose In the Heights and Broadway-bound Hamilton use rap and hip hop influences in ways not previously seen onstage. By adapting modern, culturally relevant styles to the musical theatre mold, Miranda is pushing Broadway forward, keeping its reach wide and doubtless drawing more varied audiences than another Gershwin jukebox show.
As popular music progresses, no doubt new writers will match it beat for beat, and musicals in 40 years will sound as fresh and à la mode as Hamilton does to us today.
What will perhaps be the most significant change we are still to see in musical theatre will come as a breaking down of the barriers between genres. As we have it now, there is a clear and marked distinction to an audience between a play, a musical and a dance show. There are of course examples of works that blur that line (‘plays with music,’ dance-heavy musicals like Contact or An American in Paris), but generally speaking, the separation has always been noticeable. When the average audience member buys a ticket, he wants to know what he is going to get: song and dance or monologues?
There is ground to be broken where the genres overlap, and stories to be told using the tools available in each branch of the art – musical theatre is already incredibly collaborative and fuses techniques and devices every step of the way. However, the rigidity of certain conventions combined with audience expectations is arguably an impediment to real progress and change coming about. Why not have a soliloquy with a dance break? A sung sonnet? When the walls break down between what we traditionally think of as distinct modes of storytelling, then truly revolutionary work can begin.
I can’t wait to see what the future of musical theatre holds. But let it not be said that I don’t love musical theatre as it is. Because I really, really do.