Musicals: Part 1, Starting at the Very Beginning
September 30, 2014
Musicals are often a highlight of school life for the musically and/or dramatically inclined middle schooler and teen. They provide a chance to find out what it’s like to be on stage, to learn lines and songs and dances, to have others depending on you — and to depend on them, in turn.
The first musicals a young person might be involved in are usually written specifically for kids, and are not well known otherwise. (How many of you recognize “Cowboy on the Moon” as a musical? … Not too many, I suspect. I was in that musical in 7th grade, and I still remember many of the songs. Musicals stay with a person.) Soon, however, the musicals that kids perform in are what we have come to think of as standards — Annie, Get Your Gun; The Sound of Music; Peter Pan and many more.
Kids involved in such a show become aware of the greats who have played in those shows in the past. It’s a way of connecting to something bigger than just a school production. Such an experience can ignite dreams, it can inspire, it can empower.
I thought it might be interesting to look at how musicals as we know them today developed. So for the next few months, the first Wednesday of the month will be dedicated to musical theatre and how it got to be what it is today — and what that means for kids, and for those of us who are interested in getting kids involved in the performing arts.
First up — starting at the very beginning. There has been music in drama since the Greeks first took the stage centuries ago, but it was nothing like the musicals we know today. (Nor like the delightful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.) I’m not going to dwell on the ancient Greeks’ use of music, but you might find it interesting to read this snippet of history from Musicals 101 — scroll down to “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
There are many threads that go into making the modern musical. Opera is generally considered to be one of them, although it differs greatly from musical theatre. In opera, the entire story is told in song, usually in a language other than English. For many, this makes it less accessible. In Europe, the operetta brought musical storytelling closer to ordinary people. In England, a similar form was the comic opera, which reached its height with the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. Also in England, music hall and pantomime were popular forms of entertainment; and in the United States, the similar vaudeville appealed to a wide audience, as well.
My own first experience of music and theatre (just as a member of the audience at that point) was an amateur production of a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera that my mother was part of when I was about 4. Although the heyday of Gilbert & Sullivan was in the late 1800s, there are still many performances of their work even now, all over the English-speaking world. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company is the granddaddy of them all, still in existence in England, still performing Gilbert & Sullivan. If you search for Gilbert and Sullivan online, you’ll find numerous G&S Societies all over the world.
Seeing Mum on stage as Katisha in The Mikado, as well as seeing and hearing her prepare for the role, gave me my first inklings of what it would be like to be up on stage acting out a story. (It also taught me that wigs need to be well anchored. The families of the players got to attend the dress rehearsal. Mum was belting out “Bow, Bow to his Daughter-in-Law Elect” and her wig landed on the stage. As my cousin Greg said, “Auntie Lilian sang so hard her hat fell off.” 😉 )
As I mentioned, music hall in Britain and vaudeville in North America also had a role to play in the development of musical theatre, as they brought musical entertainment — though without the story element — to the general public, unlike opera, which was often viewed as upper class entertainment. In them, a disparate variety of comedians, musicians, dancers and other performers would perform songs, skits, comedy routines, dances — for those of you old enough to remember, think of The Ed Sullivan Show. That was similar, in some ways.
For a good, firsthand view of the dying days of music hall, I recommend reading Julie Andrews’ autobiography, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years. (Coincidentally, today is Julie Andrews’ birthday.) You may also find interesting information at Musicals 101: click here for music hall, and here for vaudeville.
Bringing musical entertainment, and stories told through music, to a large audience was a first step, an empowering step, toward the development of musical theatre. I hope you’ll come back next month to see how musicals developed further — and come back next week to see how a group in New York City is getting kids involved in musicals these days.