Monday, March 29, 2010

Musicals by Definition

I called my dad in Florida yesterday and asked him, "Dad, how do you define 'musical'?"  After he got done laughing and realized I was seriously asking, he answered me, saying, "It is a play that includes people bursting into song and dance in between scenes where they talk and tell a story."  I thought that was a pretty good answer for a guy who only goes when my mom drags him to the theatre.

The reason I asked him, specifically, was because I think he represents the average theatregoer, and is unaffected by the permutations of the definition that whirl through my head when I think about it.  The more general reason I asked was because of a great point fellow blogger and Broadway/Off-Broadway producer Ken Davenport in his Friday blog.  In it he questions (and wisely so) the exclusion of the Special Theatrical Event Tony, listing five shows that this season could be up for it, as they muddy the waters as to what they might otherwise be, a play or a musical. 

As far as the musicals and special events as musicals, I think it boils down to defining what a musical is.  After all, it was an odd ball show, Contact, that snuck in and won the Tony for Best Musical (and it really was that season), even though a lot of people in the biz didn't think it was a musical - it was three one act dance plays, set to pre-recorded music, with almost no dialogue.  Hence, the creation of the Special Theatrical Event Tony.

I think, perhaps with a little more polish and finesse, my dad's definiton of "musical" is what the vast majority of the public - even frequent theatregoers - would say.  And, indeed most shows fit that definiton.  Today, we call them "conventional" or even "old-fashioned."  This season, by that definition, that would include such shows as Memphis and The Addams FamilyA subset might include American Idiot (I am assuming there is some talking between songs; I haven't seen it yet) and Million Dollar Quartet where a set of songs tells the story, but with small scenes of dialogue to bridge the gap.  All of the musical revivals this season - Bye Bye Birdie, Finian's Rainbow, Ragtime, Promises, Promises, La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music pretty clearly are old school, traditional book musicals.

But let's look at some other shows that have been nominated for and might have even won Best Musical that don't fit that definiton.  In the 80's, they coined the term "through-composed" for musicals that were actually operas performed on a Broadway stage to cover such shows.  They all include "dialogue" set to music (Aspects of Love, Chess, Miss Saigon) or spoken to the music (Cats, Starlight Express).  This season, Come Fly Away is an example of a show that like Cats, shows a series of vignettes that together tell a story, set to music and lyrics - Cats had T.S. Eliot; Come Fly Away has Frank Sinatra (and his lyricists).  I don't recall there being any question about whether or not Cats was a musical, so why question Come Fly Away?

Heck, the 1999 Best Musical was just like Come Fly Away, with even less story.  Substititute Twyla with Bob and you got Fosse.  Again, not much public discussion on whether it was actually a musical... Of course, it was a lean year: Parade offered the only viable alternative winner, as there was also Footloose, The Gershwin's Fascinating Rhythm, It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues and The Civil War.  Of that bunch there were two "conventional musicals", three musical revues and a "through composed" show that told stories of a time period, but with no linear story.  Again, nothing public about whether any shouldn't be considered a "musical." 

And where does this leave Burn the Floor No one, including myself and except maybe the producers, has ever thought of it as a potential Best Musical nominee, but really what makes it different than Come Fly Away?

Musical revues are funny things.  They don't fit the definition of a conventional musical.  They don't tell a story, though they do generally have a unifying element, and yet several have been nominated and/or named Best Musical - Fosse, Ain't Misbehavin', Swing!, The Look of Love, Street Corner Symphony, Dream, to name but a few.  So what do we make of Sondheim on Sondheim?  I just assumed it would be a possible Best Musical nominee.

I don't even want to think about how to categorize Carrie Fisher or Stephen Sondheim, both of whom particpated in shows about themselves.  Can you be nominated for Best Actor or Actress for playing yourself?  And how can you lose?  No one can play you better than you!   No wonder no one from [title of show] was nominated in those categories!

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