Masaryk university brno faculty of education

Musical origin Definition of musical

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Musical origin

    1. Definition of musical

In order to define Hair as a musical and to find its place among others of this genre, it is important to define musical as an art form first.

1.1.2 Characteristic features

There is no universally applicable definition of musical, mainly because the genre itself is evolving and changing too quickly to be grasped. But there are several characteristics that are common to all musicals.

A first of them is that musical is a synthesis of music, drama and dance. If I borrow Prostějovský’s attempt to describe it:
Musical is a relatively young form of popular musical theatre that developed in New York. Generally it consists of two parts that combine elements of drama, operetta, burlesque and variety show and opera. Often it arises from a literary master and uses means of pop music, jazz and dance, while the epic scenes, songs and ballet are integral part of the plot. The three parts musical could be divided into are story, libretto and music. (21)
A second characteristic is the topic of musical, which makes them special. There are serious topics (West Side Story), rock themes (Jesus Christ Superstar) and even slightly comedy pieces (Grease); their production differs according to the topic’s mood.

Money is the third characteristics of every musical – “even a small musical is more expensive to produce than a play” (Atkey 5) - and the commercial success is something the producers are aiming to achieve. It is producers who have the highest authority in musical industry and the important task of all authors is to find a very good one. Producers represent the fourth musicals’ characteristics.

The need of money is expressed in the effort to catch audience’s interest at any cost and this effort is the fifth musical characteristic. This is done by moving borders of what is possible at the stage to something impossible – “landing helicopter should be an ordinary thing” (Prostějovský 22).

Musicals are typical for their emphasis to amusement rather than sending some unpleasant message to audience, “there are those who believe musicals should do nothing more than entertain” (Atkey 5). This is the sixth characteristics of musicals.

Definition of musical is therefore based on seven characteristics – it is a synthesis of drama, dance and music, secondly their topics are unique, thirdly musicals are characteristic for the need of money, fourthly they need a very good producer to survive, fifthly they catch interest at any cost and sixthly their main aim is to amuse.

As this thesis shows in following chapters, Hair was a synthesis of dance, music and drama. It also had a very clear topic and it tried to catch audience’s interest. The money issue was less important for Hair than for other musical and authors also connected amusement with very important message to share with audience. Although a bit unique, Hair still fits my definition of musicals.

1.2 Broadway musical theatre tradition

It is also important to find out whether Hair as a musical had any potential or tradition in being the society mirror, therefore I will investigate the history of musical theatre at Broadway as well.

1.2.1 Broadway

“Broadway is the street in New York that has come to symbolize live theater entertainment and musicals throughout the world” (Jensen n. pag.). Up to today there are 36 of theatres creating the so-called “Great White Way” (Greiner n. pag.). And musical became favorite type of theatre performances on Broadway.

Prostějovský very interestingly points out that “United States after declaring their independence fought pretty hard to distance from Europe even in terms of art” (24). Thanks to the censorship that influenced the old continent – in Great Britain for example “Lord Chamberlain licensed every performance until 1968” (Nathan n. pag.) - musical as we know it in fact is the first kind of art that originated purely in the United States.

It is not the intention of this thesis to map the whole history of muscials, but rather to portray the development until Hair. Its influences on the future will shortly be dealt in the final part of thesis.

1.2.2 Beginnings

Theatrical troupes in America were mostly transatlantic extensions of theatrical circuit of Great Britain (Everett, Laird 5) and The Threepenny Opera performed by the English theatre company (although originally German) in New York in 1750, is usually regarded as the first step on the way to modern musicals.

The development of theatre performances was seen in the nineteenth century, mainly thanks to New York immigrants who became better off and were in the need of being entertained. Prostějovský claims that “without operetta, burlesque, vaudeville and revue musical would surely never occur” (25). These forms were imported from Europe and frequently “extensively modified for American audiences” (Everett, Laird 7).

Later at the beginning of the twentieth century operettas and revues would not survive without including jazz melodies and rhythms of ragtime. Prostějovský claims that “by integrating jazz into musical comedies, these finally got a kind of national flavor” (26).

At the beginning of the twentieth century Broadway became a cultural centre of New York City attracting audiences of middle class people. The plays and shows were cheerful and did not really deal with social issues and interest of audience inevitably led to the birth of first Broadway stars.

Once the United States became involved in the First World War in 1917, “Broadway plays even represented kind of escape from reality, the more patriotic the better” (Hannah n. pag.).

1.2.3 The twenties

The twenties are known as the “Roaring Twenties”, reckless, irresponsible and materialistic era (Hannah n. pag.). Librettists started to work hard to connect the plot of the show to the musical numbers and the text began to be the part that really mattered, because it for the first time attempted to mirror social events. First show that connected movements, music, songs and plot together into a clear shape was Show Boat
in 1927. Realism also occurred here for the first time as both the white and black actors were included and the plot handled serious social issues. The audience was nevertheless rather shocked and “left the theater without applause” (Prostějovský 27) but all in all Broadway was full of fresh ideas, new styles and hope.

1.2.4 Film and radio

The problems of musicals started in 1929 with the Great Depression which nevertheless offered plenty of new and interesting topics to be dramatized. The plays were concerned with the state of things more than ever before. Apart from the economic crisis the second wound to Broadway was caused by the development of film and radio. These were cheaper, new and offered the same genres as Broadway. Broadway stars were leaving for a career in Hollywood. Broadway knew it had to take a different direction and situated itself into the role of society and politics critic. There were not many successful plays consequently; the most significant was the opera Porgy and Bess
in 1935.

1.2.5 Television

The next step in musical development was Oklahoma!
in 1943, first real musical using “dance as an integral part of plot rather as decoration” (Salzman 103) that made a huge success even abroad. Also the musical dramas that discussed more and more serious social problems were a step forward.

But in the end of the forties Broadway had to survive another shot - development of television. Musicals became more opulent and narrative to catch audience’s interest. With the withdrawal of many artists to television industry, “Broadway had become less of an industry and more of a loose array of individuals, which by 1950 was not afraid to express unorthodox opinions and preserved a freedom of speech” (Hannah n. pag.); although in comparison to later decade they did not take the full advantage of it.

Two very key musicals were released in fifties – My Fair Lady
in 1956 and West Side Story
in 1957. The two determined next development because - although formally following musical rules - they were completely different from one another.

A great amount of money brought Sound of Music in 1959. In 1964 the premiere of Hello, Dolly! resulted in quite the same success. From this point on “ideals of the mature form of musical genre became Brigadoon, Kiss Me, Kate, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof” (Hoggard 12).

1.2.6 The sixties

Finally, the sixties were both the golden age and the age of crisis of the musical. New genres of pop music were utterly unknown to Broadway authors. The Beatles arrival at the music scene meant revolution in show-business - mass open-air festivals and “records produced by the millions confirmed crisis of American musical theatre” (Wilmeth, Bigsby 14).

“The New York theatre community did include many devoted to revitalising the form and making it more relevant to modern life” (Everett, Laird 237). The psyche of the nation was shaken by contemporary events and many artists tried to “catch the mood and address the audience using popular music” (Wilmeth, Bigsby 14).

New rock musicals– including the first one, Hair
- were irrational responses to social situation, destroying some traditional theatre rules; it showed that for achieving popularity authors have to react on current events with as realistic presentation as possible.

Nevertheless, rock musicals were not the only responses to social mood of the sixties. Stephen Sondheim came up with something new as well, his “concept musical” (Hoggard, 14), starting with Company, was utterly different, were not as alternative and were using more of Broadway traditional style.

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