A little something I wrote on musical theatre history, and its recording, archiving, preservation, and curation.
Musical theatre history is the history of America. It is one of the few truly American art forms, and in its nature as an immediate, living, temporally-based medium, musical theatre draws on and influences its own and surrounding cultural, social, and political context. This isn’t a case of “musicals are important because through them we learn history” – this is a case of those musicals being part of that history. The musical Hamilton is currently making headlines as one of the most enormously, continually, popular new Broadway shows in many years. The show is about American history in a very literal fashion – it tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the nation’s founding fathers, with lines and lyrics directly borrowed from their writing…as well as from other popular musicals, decades of hip-hop and rap artists, and beyond. Hamilton is about history, but it’s also making history with the sheer enthusiasm of its reception. The Broadway production has been sold out months in advance, its stars have graced the cover of non-theatre magazines like Vogue, its popularity is ubiquitous enough that Saturday Night Live made a joke about it, and the President and First Family have gone to see it multiple times. In a time when (as always) theatre-makers like to lament that theatre is dying, Hamilton’s cast album hit number one on the Billboard chart…not for musical theatre albums, but for rap/hip-hop. It’s everywhere, it’s now, and it absolutely puts the lie to the idea that theatre is dead. There is an excitement generated by this show that is certainly on par with that felt in the reception of Broadway’s epochal, genre-altering productions like Oklahoma! (1943) or Company (1970), albeit an excitement aided and amplified by the technology and media now at Hamilton’s marketing team’s disposal. These are musicals that changed the fundamental rules by which musical theatre played. They inevitably shaped the musicals and plays that came after them, and they were themselves a perfect reflection and crystallization of their own times.
Each of these three shows in particular – Oklahoma!, Company, and Hamilton – was (and is being) lauded for the way it dramatically altered the structure of musical theatre writing and expectations of what a “Broadway musical” could be. What now seems old-fashioned in Oklahoma!, with its dream ballet, dramatic and dangerous love triangle plot, and use of an unaccompanied soloist cowboy to open the show rather than a chorus of dancing girls, was audacious and daring in 1943. Its focus on story-first theatre put every aspect of the show, from design to choreography to songs, at the service of the dramatic narrative, earning the accolades of critics who saw in this new work the dawning of a new American ‘lyric theatre’. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s style only seems old-fashioned from our contemporary vantage point precisely because it so thoroughly changed the fundamental forms of its genre, not just its content, that it was promptly imitated by its successors, and created a new standard for the American musical. The same thing happened with Company in 1970, which ushered in a new era of the ‘concept musical’, which played with the story-telling structure that had become the assumed default, creating a whole performance out of fragmented, discrete pieces – songs, vignettes, dance numbers – that revolved around a central concept. As with Oklahoma!, Company’s non-linear structure seems less risky and less audacious today, but only because Company itself existed to re-create the norm.
Hamilton is happening now – it opened at the off-Broadway Public Theater on February 17, 2015, and made its Broadway debut July 13, 2015 – so we can’t say yet what tremors it will cause in the standards of the canon. But the exuberance, awe, and sense of inevitability found in the critical and audience reception alike demonstrates that “this is not a moment, it’s the movement” – already the imitations are getting underway, and the rules by which the Broadway musical has operated for the last few decades have been rewritten.
Musical theatre is a live performance form. That seems obvious, but the temporal nature of the form has implications on its historical preservation. A painting, a statue, a book, can be physically preserved (and can be more thoroughly reproduced), put in galleries and museums and libraries and taken care of, to be enjoyed in its original form for generations to come; a theatrical production can be re-mounted, but never truly re-created or exactly preserved. Song, dance, the words and movements of live actors in the same space as their audience, are by their nature ephemeral, finite, immediate. The closest we can get is through video recordings, but even recording current shows with the best technology at our disposal does not create the same effect as the presence of live actors and a live audience in theatrical communion. Still, it’s certainly better than losing and forgetting the work entirely.
There is more to a show than just the 1-3 hours of performance seen by an audience member. The creative and rehearsal process, the marketing and critical reception, the external sociocultural context, and the historical ramifications created by the show are just as relevant and just as much a part of its vital historical record. This can all be documented and preserved through video and audio recordings, photographs, newspaper clippings, blocking scripts, advertising materials, letters and journals, design sketches, and physical artifacts like set pieces, costumes, props, scripts – just to name a bare minimum.
Caring for and sharing these resources and information – this is the work I want to do with my life.
I envision something between a museum, a library, and a performance space, where guests can experience these materials, read scripts and reviews, listen to audio recordings and watch both video and live performances. A place where emerging fans who may not know anything about musicals can enjoy a sampling of what the art form has to offer, and a place where scholars and dramatists alike can find resources, information, and inspiration for their work in continuing the art. A place where the vitality of American musical theatre history is both archived and preserved, and presented in a multitude of media.