What’s a Musical?

What is a musical?  That sounds like a simple question, with the obvious answer being something like “a theatrical piece where the dialogue is interspersed with songs”.  Unfortunately it isn’t that simple.  For example, is Evita a musical?  It’s certainly billed as one, but the dialogue isn’t interspersed with songs.  That’s because there isn’t any dialogue; the entire show is sung.  On that basis, it ought to be an opera, but it isn’t.  I think that’s because the form of the songs is designed to deliver clarity of plot, character and emotion through lyrics, rather than the operatic exhibition of the voice as an instrument.  I’m on very shaky ground here: it can be argued that bel canto opera has the clarity of modern musicals, or that the whole point of Wagnerian singspiel is to deliver the colour of emotion and plot…
But I digress; my concern here is not the upper boundary, where stage musicals merge into other fully-musical forms, but the lower boundary, where musicals merge into plays.

The reason that this is important to me is that in order to help customers of the Lazy Bee Scripts web site find the scripts they want, we need to classify them.  The classification has to mean something (the same thing!) to us and to the customers and each class has to have reasonable boundaries.  We found that the class of “all plays that include songs” was too broad, since it ran from pieces with an incidental song through to pieces with no dialogue.  (There are a couple of youth theatre pieces by Nicholas Richards and Tim Hallett which are completely sung; one of them – Saint Nicholas and the Three Purses of Gold – is, arguably, an oratorio, since it tells the story in song without (necessarily) having characters acting-out the story.  The other piece – The Lambton Worm – is fully sung but has definite parts for different characters.)

We could set the boundary on the basis of the ratio between dialogue and music, but what’s the rule?  And how would we deal with pantomimes?   (Panto is a form of variety entertainment in which it is normal to include songs, but frequently the songs are chosen to suit the available performers, so the length can vary enormously.)

Our compromise is to split into two categories, based on whether or not music is integral to the piece.  On the one hand, we have “Musicals” where the music is integral: the songs, regardless of the number of them, need to be performed as part of the piece.  On the other hand, we have “Plays With Music” where the songs could be left out without compromising the artistic intention.

This, for example, puts Louise Roche’s Girls Night firmly in the Musicals, since it is set in a karaoke bar where the characters sing popular songs, and it puts my youth theatre piece Witch Hunt into Plays With Music, since there is a song available to complement various parts of the action, but it is not essential.

The “Browse” and “Search” functions on the Lazy Bee Scripts web site now use these classifications – along with many others!

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