From the ‘American Dream’ to the ‘Rock-Opera’. 1950 to 1978 were the hopeless years for the musical. American musical theatre had been showing signs of exhaustion. This most seemingly illogical of genres carries its own ‘ideological project’. Before this, musicals not only demonstrated singing and dancing; they were about singing and dancing, explaining the importance of that experience. Not only did musicals give the most intense pleasure to their audience but also supplied a good reason for that pleasure. With the increase in number of radio stations and the availability of portable radios, recorded music was in high demand; people wanted more.
With the arrival of the Beatles in 1964, Rock music exploded across the land sending other musical trends into hibernation. The occasional attempt to start something new was unsuccessful and led nowhere. The shows were deprived of tune and were unmelodic and formless. With rare exceptions, audiences rarely left the theatre singing the show tunes. Rock and roll couldn’t be assimilated in a dramatic structure. The songs just didn’t tell a story. It was not until 1960 that Broadway faced up to the rising trend. Finally, musical theatre accepted rock music into its production. Never will audiences see new musicals in the style of Oklahoma!, Brigadoon and South Pacific. These musicals were never boring because someone was always bursting into song about how every thing ‘was looking just swell’. The musical not only wanted to sing away your troubles, but your thoughts as well.
The ‘old style’ musical theatre had no social conscience. Always presented in the traditional proscenium arch, the musical isolated the audience from new ideas and innovations. Due to television broadcasting daily updates on world affairs it is now impossible to believe in the generosity of the Universe that the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote about. Today’s audiences can almost find it abhorrent. They are socially aware and informed of current affairs. Musical theatre has advanced technically, intellectually, is universally popular and overflowing with cultural relativism. From 1960 onwards, Broadway came to rely more on its directors, librettists and lyricists. The emphasis of importance being on the directors. Tom O’Horgan, Gower Champion, and most of all, Bob Fosse gave the period some of its sustained achievements. These musicals are one of the most collaborative of art forms. Actors no longer had chunks of dialogue interspersed with musical interludes. The musical became seamless, with characters singing when their emotions became too overbearing for speech. The songs encouraged the musical to move forward and not stand still whilst the ‘star’ sang their showstopper! Stephen Sondheim advocated the “conceptual musical”. He subordinated every aspect of the work to his personal vision. As a result increasing intellectualised musicals confronted audiences that had frequented the theatre as a means...