Since its premiere in January 2015, Hamilton has made a huge splash in the world of musical theatre. Opening in London on 6th of December, it is unlikely that there will be a much bigger cultural event this year. In a year that has been book-ended by record-breaking musicals, it’s worth looking at the appeal of the musical and its place in the cultural canon.
London has been one of the homes of theatre for centuries now; the first permanent public playhouse opened in Shoreditch in 1576 and The Globe followed not too long after. There are now over a hundred commercial theatres in London, with over forty in its West End district. There are over twenty musicals currently playing, or starting shortly, in London at the time of writing; including Annie, Young Frankenstein, The Book of Mormon, Wicked, Aladdin, The Lion King, Mama Mia, Dreamgirls and Matilda The Musical.
The appeal of these shows varies, from the crude satire of The Book of Mormon, to the Pygmalionesque child in trouble narrative of Annie. But the bones of the musical remain the same. The book; dealing with story; character development; and dramatic structure and including key stage directions and spoken dialogue; the lyrics, often referred to as the libretto; and the score, or music.
A good musical utilises a strong story, with an emotional arc. It also has a series of songs that add flavour and texture to the tale. It’s this elusive mix that really makes a musical come to life. The Book of Mormon uses the grand nature of musical theatre to create a humorous contrast to its coarse jokes. Whereas Mama Mia manufactures a narrative through lines from ABBA’s greatest hits. Productions such as Annie and Matilda The Musical take a more traditional path by telling their stories partially through song. Common to all of these is the sense of spectacle and set design that they deliver on stage.
Musical films began to emerge with the Vitaphone (a method of timing a record to synch up with a projected film) in the mid 1920’s. This gained further prominence with the development of talking pictures. With improvements in film technology the focus on spectacle, something that could be handled quite differently than a stage musical, became paramount. Busby Berkley integrated the precision he had seen in marches in the army into his ever more elaborate dance routines.
By the 1930s the “golden age” of the musical had begun; lasting through to the early fifties and Arthur Freed’s Freed Unit. Some of the classics from this period include 42nd Street, Top Hat, Meet Me in St Louis and Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, 42nd Street is currently undergoing its own revival in London’s West End.
While there were successful musicals throughout the 60s and 70s, the popularity of rock ‘n’ roll and popular music saw a slow-down in the popularity of musicals; something broached by the mega-hit Grease. Less traditional musicals, such as The Blues Brothers and Little Shop of Horrors, became more popular.
Since 2001 there has been a small renaissance in the film musical with several hugely successful musicals such as Moulin Rouge!; Chicago; Dreamgirls; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Les Misérables; and La La Land. All of these productions won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Alongside this, there have been hugely successful musicals in theatres; including The Book of Mormon, Wicked and Hamilton, which earned a record sixteen Tony nominations, going on to win eleven.
The huge success of La La Land started a great year for musicals, with the film winning six Academy Awards, and going on to a huge life on home video. Likewise, Hamilton’s move to the West End in London has been one of the most written about openings for a musical in recent memory. While it may be too early to declare the musical back to its 1930–1950’s heyday; it certainly seems clear that the musical remains in rude health, and for musical fans the best may be yet to come.