When the word musicals is brought up, of course one immediately thinks of the usual longstanding shows like Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and perhaps gets a feeling of tedium alongside them. But once that feeling is over, I think of shows such as Rent, Spring Awakening, Oh, What a Lovely War!– the sort of musicals that come along once every ten years or so and really stand out as a mark of the age.
It’s easy for our generation to look at some of these musicals and view them as out-dated and boring, but one must consider that their original productions proved to be groundbreaking moments for theatre. The idea of theatre censorship is quite a ridiculous and alien one for people our age, but Hair played a crucial role in the end of this arcane infringement on freedom of speech in this country. At the time of its creation, West Side Story was adventurous in terms of its set design, its foremost focus on choreography and its tragic elements connected to the contemporary rise of gang warfare in America. These were also the first productions to have a considerable amount of the cast from ethnic minorities that would have a ripple effect not only in the world of theatre but in the entire sphere of showbiz.
For me, a good musical gets the combination right between joyful, comedic elements and poignant, serious subject-matter: for instance, Sarafina! the 1988 musical about the Soweto Riots during apartheid leaves the audience on a hopeful note that freedom will come and indeed it did; whilst the HIV positive characters in Rent refuse to dwell in tragedy by living life to the full with love- a point made especially more powerful due to the fact that its creator Jonathan Larson died the day before opening night.
Gritty realism is the phrase that most effectively alludes to musicals I hold in high regard, but that doesn’t mean I’m not partial to a good, old showstopper: it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the wonderful use of animal puppetry in The Lion King or sing along to the catchy cockney tunes in Me and My Girl. In times of doom and gloom, musicals are a great source of escapism, which is why they have stood the test of time remaining popular.
However, as with all types of theatre at the moment there are no new, fresh and exciting pieces out there: although very enjoyable, shows such as Billy Elliot, Legally Blonde and Shrek are reworkings of old material. Somewhere along the line, either through financial pressure or staleness within theatre generally, musicals have lost their sense of purpose: once a medium through which we could electrify and wake up the establishment, it has now become a bit of a lifeless money-making machine. Nevertheless, I still love musicals and although they are somewhat lost, their purpose can still be found.