Part 4 of my series on Expanding Musical Theatre Development.
4. Subversion: The Soul of Musical Theatre
Musicals reflect the era in which they’re written. What makes them exciting in the present, and relevant down the road, are the ways they subvert the ideas and conventions of their time.
Author Scott McMillin, in The Musical As Drama, challenged my entire outlook on the art form. He argues that rather than striving for a perfect cohesion of plot, dialogue, song, and dance, great writers juxtapose these disparate elements in surprising ways, each contributing something unique to the work.
He points out that in an opera, Sweeney Todd would vengefully sing “I am full of joy,” and the bloodshed would recommence immediately. Instead, because it’s a musical, Mrs Lovett says, “That’s all fine and nice, but there’s still the matter of the corpses.” Without the drama of Epiphany, A Little Priest would not provide relief. Without the relief of A Little Priest, Epiphany would not be musical theatre.
It’s an extension of musical theatre’s roots, vaudeville and operetta, both rebelling against operatic and social conventions. Each new era of musical theatre rebels against its predecessors and finds new cultural norms to roast. Guess who the best system-defiers are? Outsiders. Fresh eyes.
Let’s test the subversion theory, in general.
Six—Modern pop production + wives of Henry VII doing some revisionist history
Hamilton—subverts the distant, glossed up story of the Founding Fathers by juxtaposing their stories with modern, diverse American culture. Traditional musical theatre structure meets rap, hip-hop, and other popular genres, while sprinkling references to musicals and other popular influences.
Hadestown—subverts the myth by juxtaposing ancient Greek storytelling and folk/New Orleans musical storytelling. Subverts cultural acceptance of exploitative labor practices, isolationism, and the devaluation of art and love as motivators.
Dear Evan Hansen—subverts convention surrounding art about suicide, juxtaposing peppy tunes against dramatic ballads.
Something Rotten—Rockstar Shakespeare challenged by man who pays Nostradamus’ nephew to tell him about Cats the Musical. A closeted conservative leader. The whole thing.
Gentleman’s Guide—this modern operetta (juxtaposition) with delightful tunes and gorgeous love songs features accidental murder, intentional murder, the song “It’s Better With a Man,” and a protagonist who maintains two love interests even after the finale.
Book of Mormon—Avenue Q composer meets South Park writers. Need I say more?
Matilda—Addresses abuse, with lots of fun along the way. We are R.E.V.O.L.T.I.N.G.
Sister Act—I’ve got some light heresy cued up for your enjoyment:
Shrek—adds extra depth and comedy to an already subversive film? Nailed it.
In the Heights—You wouldn’t hope that seeing a multi-dimensional Latino culture would be subversion of genre, but wow was it. People suggested drug problems and pregnancy as ways to punch up the story, but Lin knew that the honest stakes the characters face were more compelling. Also, rap, reggaeton, bachata, boleros juxtaposed against jazz standards and musical theatre conventions.
Wicked—subverts the entire story of The Wizard of Oz and its own source material, Gregory Maguire’s book. “What Is This Feeling” subverts traditional love songs. Elphaba is the most subversive character in the canon, battling an autocrat guilty of animal cruelty, while overcoming trauma from society’s prejudice. 4 female leads, all with distinct powers and flaws? Talk about subversive to convention.
Avenue Q—Every single song. Nearly every second of dialogue.
Rent—my hometown was all aflurry when my university didn’t change the choreography of La Vie Bohéme for the high school matinee performance.
Beauty and the Beast: “We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us.” Addresses xenophobia, judging on appearance, and chauvinism with a spoonful of sugar.
The Lion King—African traditions, elaborate puppetry, Elton John, and oh yeah, Hamlet. Heavy juxtapositions.
Miss Saigon—Portrays the horror of war, humanizes our then-recent enemies, acknowledges our abuses against them. The American dream sequence.
Phantom of the Opera—So subversive no one knows if it’s a romantic comedy or a tragedy.
Les Mis—Long French novel about a convict and a failed student revolution given synth rock anthem and recitative treatment before it was cool. Literally everyone is fighting against a system, including its proponent, who commits suicide when the system fails him.
Jesus Christ Superstar—Bible + rock music + humanized Jesus.
Into the Woods—Act 1: Cleverly intertwined fairytales, delightfully subverting each other. Act 2: A hellscape with too many consecutive ballads, and yet I’m weeping for joy?
Company—A romantic comedy that lambasts romance, and leaves its protagonist alone at the end, but is still life-affirming.
Pippin—After rejecting every path society suggests for the protagonist, the actor playing the protagonist rejects the narrator? Is that… possible?
How To Succeed—Everything corporate gets roasted to a crisp.
West Side Story—despite the Latino representation issues, wildly progressive statements about racial discrimination and conflict for the time. Hooligans dancing to a sophisticated fusion of classical and jazz.
South Pacific—Racial prejudice and oppression, examining patriotism and colonialism, layered up against “Honey-Bun.”
The Sound of Music—I learned to hate fascism and love marionettes on the same 2 VHS tape set.
Not every show nails the subversion. The 2013 R&H Cinderella rewrite featured a lot of snark and political statements, but it didn’t work for me because the tone was more Golden Girls than modern, the lyrics couldn’t match the dialogue’s tone, and the politics were commenting on feudal governments, not our contemporary ones. Irreverence isn’t the same thing as subversion.
That’s one of the most significant things about theatre—it can’t live in a bubble. It needs a time and place. It needs fresh voices. And where can we find diverse places suitable to the diverse work we want to do?
Next: Part 5
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