Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Musical as Drama

The Musical as Drama

Scott McMillin
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Musical as Drama
    Book Description:

    Derived from the colorful traditions of vaudeville, burlesque, revue, and operetta, the musical has blossomed into America's most popular form of theater. Scott McMillin has developed a fresh aesthetic theory of this underrated art form, exploring the musical as a type of drama deserving the kind of critical and theoretical regard given to Chekhov or opera. Until recently, the musical has been considered either an "integrated" form of theater or an inferior sibling of opera. McMillin demonstrates that neither of these views is accurate, and that the musical holds true to the disjunctive and irreverent forms of popular entertainment from which it arose a century ago.

    Critics and composers have long held the musical to the standards applied to opera, asserting that each piece should work together to create a seamless drama. But McMillin argues that the musical is a different form of theater, requiring the suspension of the plot for song. The musical's success lies not in the smoothness of unity, but in the crackle of difference. While disparate, the dancing, music, dialogue, and songs combine to explore different aspects of the action and the characters.

    Discussing composers and writers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Kern,The Musical as Dramadescribes the continuity of this distinctively American dramatic genre, from the shows of the 1920s and 1930s to the musicals of today.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6540-6
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    (pp. 1-30)

    THE American musical has been accompanied by a theory easily believed so long as it remains unexamined. The theory is that of the “integrated musical,” according to which all elements of a show—plot, character, song, dance, orchestration, and setting—should blend together into a unity, a seamless whole. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were articulate proponents of this idea, and the historical moment when integration arrived on Broadway is often said, not least of all by Rodgers and Hammerstein, to have been the opening ofOklahoma!in March 1943. As Rodgers later put it, “when a show works...

    (pp. 31-53)

    OF the two orders of time that the musical sets against one another, lyric time—the time of the numbers, as opposed to the time of the book—is the more challenging to think about. Lyric time counts on repetition, which often passes unnoticed, and that is why it is challenging. We do not think about repetition, although it is going on all around us, or in us. We assume we are making progress in our affairs, and we would rather think about that.

    Repetition in song and dance fools everyone with its complexity. Popular songs seem simple and direct...

    (pp. 54-77)

    A BETTER book is what made the musical seem to become integrated, a better book that demanded more care in thinking about the kinds of numbers that would be able to interrupt these good plots. That is part of the argument so far. But we have not faced the character issue fully enough. Integration theory holds that the new musicals deepened the psychology of the characters, as though the way now stood open to the presentation of real people in real situations.“West Side Storyis about real people: real life, real love,” says one of the best books on...

    (pp. 78-101)

    WE HAVE just seen why singing and dancing choruses have been such a long-standing convention in musicals. “A Weekend in the Country” is an effective version of what happens at least once in all musicals: the enlargement of singing and dancing from one or two characters to an ensemble. There is a drive toward ensemble performance in the musical dramatic form, and this drive is the fullest rendition of what I have been calling the voice of the musical. In smaller shows, such as William Finn’s Falsettos trilogy, the ensemble may amount to a quintet or sextet, but the drive...

  9. Chapter Five THE DRAMA OF NUMBERS
    (pp. 102-125)

    A Chorus Line’s way of dramatizing a convention of musical theatre itself leads us to a broader consideration of “backstage” musicals, which have always been with us and have rarely been theorized. Backstage musicals are about putting on musicals, so that the plot is about the means of its own production. Since the characters are show people whose job is song and dance, much of the singing and dancing is called for by the book.Show Boatis about entertainers, so they sing and dance. The Rodgers and HartBabes in Armsis about kids putting on a show in...

  10. Chapter Six THE ORCHESTRA
    (pp. 126-148)

    AT the beginning ofOklahoma!, when Curly comes on singing a cappella about the beautiful morning and a smile crosses Aunt Eller’s face, something is missing. We know what it is when Curly gets to “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” for the note he sings on “eye” is suddenly accompanied by a chord from the orchestra. That’s what was missing, the orchestra. Now it is missing no longer, and Curly is no longer on his own. He has what no cowboy has ever had on a fine summer morning in Indian Territory, an orchestra to accompany...

    (pp. 149-178)

    IF the onstage orchestra puts the instrumentalists into an area where they can be seen, think about the real singers and dancers. They are always in that area. Under normal circumstances, the orchestra is in the pit but the actors are always in the area of “being seen,” the stage. The presence of an orchestra that knows everything emphasizes the fallibility of everyone else, everyone who is a character in the plot or a dancer or a singer, but it especially emphasizes the fallibility of dancers and singers in their numbers. The orchestra also supports the singers and dancers, as...

  12. Chapter Eight WHAT KIND OF DRAMA IS THIS?
    (pp. 179-212)

    STAGE musicals depend on such incongruities as Mrs. Lovett singing about cannibalism after Sweeney Todd has reached a peak of operatic fury in his “Epiphany.” Why should incongruity be desirable, even a delight? The simpler pleasure would seem to be unity, a seamless interweaving of book and music, the Phantom disappearing to heart-rending orchestral accompaniment. The answer is that simpler pleasures are not what one goes to the theatre for in the first place. One goes looking for something other than totalizing systems of omniscience, something related to the strange business of watching people pretend to be other people and...

    (pp. 213-220)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 221-230)