Starting in the 1960s, creators of the musical began to experiment with new ways of telling stories, exploring new narrative structures that did not rely as greatly on the book musical’s plot-oriented approach. The book musical never disappeared or went out of style, however, and is still the most prevalent genre in popular shows of today. But certain aspects of its conventions have been influenced by stylistic developments that started to occur in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the categories we will explore here are not actually different genres, but are ones that place different amounts and kinds of emphasis on the traditional musical’s various components.
Breaking the Mold
Perhaps the most significant change to occur in the book musical’s development around this time is the continued broadening of the types of subject matter that came to be considered acceptable for presentation on the musical stage. Gypsy, with its gritty realism, might be considered the first show to have initiated this trend and achieved success. Three shows of the rçóos and rçyos —musicals with strong dramatic subjects by new creative teams—stand out as examples: Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof (1964), John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret (1966), and Chicago (1985). Fiddler and Cabaret were directed by Hal Prince, whose later collaborations with Sondheim would continue transforming the genre. Both shows deal with ethnic prejudice and discrimination, exploring issues of Jewish cultural identity in different times and places. Fiddler set a new record, garnering more than three thousand performances and winning many awards. Jerome Robbins choreographed the dances, which were increasingly important to the action, figuring even more greatly into the plot than those of earlier decades. The film version featuring Zero Mostei is now considered a classic.
Cabaret plays with generic convention perhaps more than any of its predecessors, the role of the narrator (the emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, originated by Joel Grey) playing an important part in that process. In addition, many of the songs are commentaries on the events in the plot. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, its serious subject—the encroachment of Nazism in rçjos Germany—was given a darkly ironic treatment. Kander and Ebb had another hit with Chicago. Against the backdrop of prohibition and Al Capone’s crime world, Chicago integrated vaudeville-influenced songs and images with the edgy choreography of Bob Fosse. The recent movie version with performances by film stars Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, and John C. Reilly gave the show new life.
The most important alternative to the book musical to emerge in the 1970s was the concept musical. Shows in this genre are more nonlinear meditations on various themes —explorations of concepts —than unified stories. A Chorus Line (1975) is perhaps the first concept musical to gain critical acclaim, winning nine Tony awards. It is also called a “fully integrated” musical, a reference to the prominence of dance in the action. Bob Fosse created the dances, continuing his rise to prominence as the leading choreographer/director of the decade. The experiences of dancers auditioning for a place in a chorus line, and their individual stories, form the dramatic material. Two songs from the show in particular became well known: “One” and “What I Did for Love.”
Stephen Sondheim, arguably the most significant composer in the history of American musical theatre, is truly in a class by himself. His eclectic works exhibit a dazzlingly broad range of styles and types of dramatic and musical expression. His shows dominated Broadway during the 1970s and much of the 1980S, garnering numerous awards including six Tonys for Best Broadway Musical. Sondheim was classically trained in music, having studied with the modernist composer Milton Babbitt, but his true mentor was Oscar Hammerstein II. After he collaborated in West Side Story’ and Gypsy, Sondheim’s first show for which he composed all the music was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (7962), a hilarious throwback to the tradition of musical comedy. A recurring theme in his subsequent shows is the many different ways people communicate with each other —or do not—in relationships. He creates complex characters who feel deeply. His shows not only explore his characters’ inner lives but address basic, larger questions about what motivates people to do the things they do. The complex psychological portraits he creates emerge as a central feature of his dramatic language. Sondheim’s shows often defy categorization because of his innovative approaches to form and structure and his tireless search for new ways to manipulate generic conventions.
Company (7970) was the first of Sondheim’s collaborations with director Hal Prince, a partnership that would last about a decade and result in Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd. Company is a concept musical exploring the theme of communication; its action centers on the lead character, a single man named Bobby, and his relationships to his married friends and girlfriends. Sondheim both links him with and sets him apart from the other characters through the use of a particular musical motive —a short two-pitch unit that is repeated and transformed throughout the course of the show. The motive is manipulated in specific ways to reflect Bobby’s relationships with the characters, and theirs with each other. Follies (1971) recreates the lavish world of the Ziegfeld Follies, within which characters reexamine their life choices and the consequences of those choices. One of several of Sondheim’s shows to play with time and its passing in intriguing ways, Follies uses flashbacks to the characters’ youth as a central feature of the narrative. A Little Night Music (1973) is sometimes referred to as an operetta for the central role played by the waltz as its predominant musical style; its heartfelt ballad “Send In the Clowns” was made famous by the rçyos pop singer Judy Collins.
Sweeney Todd (1979) has been described as a musical thriller. Its subject matter —a deranged barber who kills his customers and sends them to his neighbor, who then turns them into meat pies to be eaten by the unsuspecting public —is at once disturbing and irresistible. The story’s passion, tragedy, fascinating characters, and suspenseful situations have made it a modern classic that is both hair-raising and heartbreaking. Inspired by melodrama and British lore of the nineteenth century, it is an adaptation of the story The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In contrast to conventional musicals, Sweeney Todd is almost entirely sung throughout (like many operas) with very little spoken dialogue and extensive underscoring. The original east included Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, and in a creative recent revival featuring Patti LuPone, the east played all the instruments onstage (an approach also taken with the revival of Company). The movie version with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter highlighted the plot’s elements of horror.
Sondheim’s prominence lasted into the 1930s and 1940s, during which he continued to experiment with form and nonlinear ways of storytelling. In Merrily We Roll Along (1981) everything runs backward, but audiences found this reverse narrative structure hard to follow (and consequently the show was later revised). Sunday in the Park with George (1984), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (one of the few musicals to do so), ushered in the era of partnership with James Lapine, the writer-direetor who wrote the book. Sondheim and Lapine also created Into the Woods and Passion and revised Menily We Roll Along. Based on the famous painting of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande fatte by the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, Sunday in the Park explores the nature of the creative process, playing with time and dramatic structure in new ways.
The 2003 production of Sweeney Todd, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London. Photo ® Robbie Jack/ Corbis.
Into the Woods (1987) exhibits still more innovation. Lapine and Sondheim won Tony Awards for best book and best musical score. The show is about community responsibility, as characters in different fairy tales gradually begin to interact with and learn from each other in how to live life. One excerpt in particular stands out for its role in the creation of musical and dramatic structure. Sondheim rarely used reprises —repeats of pieces or sections of them —in his shows, believing that if characters grow and develop emotionally, it doesn’t make sense for them to sing the same music over again. The first-aet duet, “Agony,” sung by Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, presents interesting and effective characterization, as they try to outdo each other with descriptions of each maiden’s beauty and inaccessibility. But when the duet is presented as a reprise in the second act, another layer to the mens emotional development, or lack thereof, is revealed: they reprise their earlier music to demonstrate that they have indeed not grown or matured —and they go on just as they have before.
Assassins (1991) is a concept musical and a pastiche —an eclectic mix of musical styles drawn from diverse sources and influences. Presidential assassins (both actual and would-be ) from different periods of history tell their stories and reveal their motivations and goals, reflecting on their shared experiences as alienated outsiders. Passion (1994) represents in some ways a return to more traditional storytelling and musical language. The show is based on the Italian film Passione d’amore, and its musical style is overtly romantic, with lush harmonies and soaring melodies. Its use of flashback recalls Follies. It is perhaps the most sensuous of Sondheim s musicals.