11 August 2009

2 Essentials

There are two (2) things every musical needs.

Strike that.

There are two (2) things every musical SHOULD have.


There are two (2) things every musical OF NOTE should have:
1. An evocative “world of the play”.
2. A FANTASTIC score.

The above are interrelated: The world of the play inspires something extraordinary from the composer; the music imbues the play with ambiance and texture that is felt in the bones, regardless of (or in addition to) the design elements (if there are any). Though they support each other, I do think its worth to explore each essential independently.

The World of the Play
To me, this is just as—if not more—important than the story. When Rogers and Hammerstein adapted LILIOM into CAROUSEL they relocated the action from Budapest to late 19th Century New England. Perhaps the shift was a little arbitrary, but it is an evocative world visually and musically, one where few other musicals take place. To this day, production stills from even the lowest budget productions are instantly recognizable because the world is so vivid and distinct. For a more current example: From it’s fledgling days as FEELING ELECTRIC to its present Broadway triumph, NEXT TO NORMAL has more or less told the same story with the same—excellent—score. What changed between Second Stage and Broadway? The world of the play. The jokey-winks that had felt out of place off-Broadway were taken out as the creators decided to take their characters—and the world of the play—more seriously. And what a fascinating and subtly described world it is—often a fairly realistic contemporary family drama but one that frequently delves into more “conceptual” worlds, with characters commenting on action in limbo and lines between reality and delusion intentionally and masterfully blurred. And this is a world that NEEDS the music to exist; there is no way any designer could adequately create this world without Tom Kitt’s score.

This may seem like an obvious statement. And no one denies that good music is a crucial element of a good musical. But FANTASTIC music is exciting. I don’t think one needs to walk out of the theater humming the tunes, but one should walk out of the theater wanting to BUY the tunes (if they haven’t already). There is certainly justified criticism to be made about IN THE HEIGHTS, but the world of the play is so appealing, especially as manifested in the ear-to-ear-grin-inducing score. When I saw IN THE HEIGHTS I bought the cast recording at the theater and carried it around with me for weeks forcing anyone even remotely willing to listen. And I told everyone to see it. That same season I saw A CATERED AFFAIR. Like HEIGHTS it dealt with working class New Yorkers struggling with small decisions with almost epic repercussions for the central characters (HEIGHTS had the question of how to pay—and what to sacrifice—for an education, AFFAIR had its wedding). And AFFAIR had a wonderfully strong book with finely etched characters and given fine portrayals by a superb cast. Well directed, beautifully designed, frequently moving. What did I talk about to my friends after the show? I mentioned that someone proposed to his girlfriend onstage, and how much I loved Leslie Kritzer’s high-waisted dresses. The music, though lovely, didn’t demand attention, and, as a result, didn’t get any.

So perhaps I should once again amend my initial statement.

There are three (3) things every musical of note should have:
1. An evocative “world of the play”
2. A FANTASTIC score
3. Someone to expect and insist on 1 and 2.


  1. And don't forget the dream ballet.

  2. I felt the same way about "A Catered Affair" when I saw it. Listened to the cast album once, and moved on thinking about the book and the performances. (And am still miffed I couldn't applaud Leslie Kritzer's "One White Dress").

    A year later, I popped on the album and was surprised at how much more I appreciated the score.

  3. i'm positive i would appreciate CATERED AFFAIR--and probably even enjoy it--upon repeated listens. but...i...just...can't...seem...to...motivate...