Musicals are a unique art form because of their complex synthesis of mediums, such as singing, composing, acting, set design, and costuming, among others. They are arguably the most complete artistic experience, combining the best craftsmanship of visual, musical, and performing arts.
The visual elements of musical theatre – like costume, set design, lighting, choreography, and, to an extent, the stage presence of actors – cultivate an aesthetic that complements and extends the less tangible musical and performance elements of a story. For example, Legally Blonde would be incomplete without the masterful work required to bring Elle Woods’ glittering, pink world to life.
Of course, the namesake feature of musical theatre is sound. The use of music, both instrumental and lyrical, allows audience members to connect quickly with the story and its characters. Meaning is still gathered through dialogue and lyrics; however, the music carries a tremendous amount of sentiment and emotion. Most, if not all, musical scores repeat certain melodies, making a specific sound into a motif; the repetition often bookends plots and signals character growth. Sound can transcend lyrics, expressing emotions that are challenging to put into words.
The hours of dedication and expertise that go into creating a musical is remarkable, and somehow even more electrifying when performed live in a theatre. Unlike in film or music recordings, by not having the power to edit a moment, the performance is more intimate and compelling to watch. The emotion and intensity of the actors’ performance adds suspense and tension to the atmosphere.
As technology has developed, the way musical theatre has been formatted has changed, starting with the development of television all the way to the accessibility of hundreds of theatrical soundtracks through streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. Theatres shows such as They’re Playing My Song have not had a production run longer than a month since its debut in the 1980’s. Nevertheless, one can still enjoy the soundtrack of the original production.
While musicals have become more accessible through technology, nothing can rival the experience of seeing a live show, and nor should we try to pervert or mimic it. The process of going to see a show, including getting dressed up as an audience member, looking over to your neighbour to see if they share the same reactions as you, or giving a raucous standing ovation, are all parts that enhance the cultural and artistic experience of musical theatre.