May I Have a Definition...?

One of our actors recently committed the sin of mistaking soundtrack for cast album. Cue the audible gasp from all the gay men. Shit like that can be contagious.

And can we talk about all the "serious" musical theatre books that think through-composed means sung-through...? (Spoiler Alert: It doesn't.)

Makes me wanna slap 'em all with the score to March of the Falsettos. This is the Information Age, people.

Then again, thinking and writing about musical theatre hasn't always been taken seriously; and because neither music scholars nor theatre scholars want to claim the musical theatre (and fuck 'em), the study of musical theatre has always been more Wild West than Ivory Tower.

Cecil Smith wrote the first musical theatre history book back in 1950, called Musical Comedy in America; and then in 1981, Glenn Litton updated it. It's still an interesting book but there's nothing in-depth or particularly relevant to the art form today. During the 70s, the Broadway conductor Lehman Engel wrote several books about musical theatre, but he didn't understand and didn't respect the concept musical, the rock musical, or anything else that came after 1965. And really, just between us, he didn't write all that insightfully even about the kind of shows he had worked on himself. Ethan Mordden, on the other hand, wrote his first history book in 1976, and is still writing today, in a unique style that's half historian and half gossip columnist. His books are such fun to read, but unfortunately, he's another author who thinks the musical theatre died a horrible death in the 1970s. Drama queen.

When I started writing my musical theatre books in the mid-90s, combining background information, context, and textual and musical analysis, nothing else like that was available. Then several years ago, a university professor who had read my books emailed me, asking what's the best musical theatre history book to use for an upcoming class on the art form that he would be teaching. I began replying to his email, but wasn't sure what to recommend. There's Gerald Bordman's overwhelmingly complete American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, first published in 1978, but updated several times since then. It's a cool reference book (I own a copy), but it's over 1,000 pages and it costs over $100, and it doesn't really explore anything in depth. And the only other history books are either hopelessly outdated, out of print, or similarly huge and expensive.

Eventually, that and one other thing led me to write my own history book, Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre. The one other thing was that as I contemplated writing this book, as I thought about what's already out there, I realized every other history book I had ever read about the musical theatre worked from a base assumption that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the peak of the art form.

I heartily disagree.

All of this to say that, in this unrefereed, Wild West of opposing viewpoints, we don't always have uniform definitions of many musical theatre terms. And that's the point of this blog post, to try and nail down the definitions of the terms so many of us use regularly. You may not agree with all of these, but that's to be expected when we're talking about something as subjective as making and appreciating works of art. At least it's a start.

So here goes. Feel free to comment below and argue with any of this...

"Classical" –  pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein revolution (in other words, before the 1940s), including early musical comedy and American operettas. The American musical comedy was born at the turn of the last century, almost all its conventions created (or adapted) by the brilliant actor-director-writer-composer George M. Cohan, whose shows, including the hit Little Johnny Joneschanged everything. Meanwhile, the serious classic American musicals were really just European operettas, in almost every way except for content. But despite American settings and characters, it was still a European form and it wouldn't last far into the century. In the landmark Show Boat (which is way better than most recent productions would lead you to believe), Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein combined the classic musical comedy and American operetta to create a hybrid form that would eventually become the Rodgers & Hammerstein model.

"Modern" – Rodgers & Hammerstein brought modernism to the musical theatre. In general, modernism showed up around the turn of the last century and blossomed between the World Wars, but musical theatre was still a young art form, so we didn't get to modernism till the early 1940s. Modernist musicals rejected many of the cliches and conventions of the classic shows. They were more serious, more complex, more reflective of real world issues, and in certain ways, occasionally experimental. But much of the mid-century morality of these shows is no longer relevant to our world, trapped in the past before Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, Watergate, and the Age of Irony. We can't ignore the fact that R&H's last show was 55 years ago, and the last really successful R&H-style show of that era was Fiddler on the Roof just five years later. Like Show Boat, Fiddler was something of a hybrid, combining the R&H model with the concept musical, still in its infancy.

"Postmodern" – musicals that reject the faux naturalism of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, shows that admitted their artifice, in a new artistic "honesty" for the new Ironic Age that started in the 1960s. Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse, Kander & Ebb, and others brought very Brechtian postmodernism to the musical theatre, rejecting the (arguably silly) "naturalistic" impulses of modernism, now more expressionistic in style, more realistic in content, less focused on linear narrative, more issue-oriented, less interested in answers than in questions, and far more experimental in form. The concept musical was the most obvious result of this movement.

"Concept Musical" – a musical in which narrative storytelling takes a back seat or disappears entirely, a postmodern musical theatre in which one over-riding idea or theme or metaphor is the central point. Sometimes concept musicals like Company and A Chorus Line use linear narrative, but that narrative is interior, psychological, not concrete. There were a couple concept musicals very early on, The Cradle Will Rock (1937) and Love Life (1948), and then The Fantasticks (1959), Man of La Mancha (1965), and Hair (1967). But the form really reached its zenith in the work of Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Scottsboro Boys) and Sondheim and Prince (Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along). The concept musical is still alive and well, in shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and If/Then.

"Neo Musical Comedy" – this is a label I created to describe shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Lysistrata Jones, Bukowsical, Cry-Baby, A New Brain, Spelling Bee, and many others, shows that use the devices and conventions of classic musical comedy, but in a dark, ironic, self-aware, meta-style that both comments on the form itself and also tackles social and political issues. (Note that many neo musical comedies are also concept musicals, and therefore, postmodern.) This is a more serious, more confrontational, more adult form than its ancestor, but the best of these shows are every bit as entertaining. I think there might be an argument that Company and Chicago were neo musical comedies way back in the 70s.

"Neo Rock Musical" – another label I created, to describe shows that use rock as their musical vocabulary, but unlike older rock musicals (JC Superstar, Hair, etc.), in the neo rock musical, the rock and roll is not the point; it's just the language of storytelling. In Hair and Superstar, the choice of rock music is intrinsic to the point of the story; a rebellious musical language for the political rebels at the center of the story. In Next to Normal, the musical language is never the point; it's just a common language between writers and audience, exactly like the foxtrot was in Rodgers & Hammerstein scores in the 40s. The Baby Boomers are finally old enough that rock and roll has become our culture's default language, and now it's become the musical theatre's default language as well.

And it's about fucking time.

I usually sub-divide this category into two. Some new rock shows are really neo musical comedies (BBAJ, Cry-Baby, Lysistrata Jones), while serious new rock shows essentially adopt the R&H storytelling form and structure, but with a rock language (Next to Normal, Dogfight). The rock neo musical comedy is generally not sung-through, while the serious rock musical usually is.

"Meta-Musical" – a musical that refers to itself or is aware of itself (explicitly, like Urinetown, or more subtly, like High Fidelity), and/or a musical that is about its own performance, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some other examples... The Scottsboro Boys is a meta-musical because the premise is that we're watching a minstrel show that tells us this horrific real-world story of injustice. The form of its storytelling is part of the point of the show. Kind of like Chicago, which (in its original version) told us a story through a series of vaudeville acts, literalizing the show's central point that America turns crime into entertainment. Bukowsical is a meta-musical because its premise is that the life and art of Charles Bukowski is being told through the least appropriate storytelling form possible, an upbeat, musical comedy. In these musicals, as well as in Passing Strange, Hedwig ad the Angry Inch, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Bomb-itty of Errors, and others, the show is at least partly about its own performance.

Some contemporary meta-musicals, like Bat Boy and Heathers, are meta only in that they blow up the heightened style of classic musical comedy to epic and ridiculous proportions, to create a world simultaneously very serious and hilarious. We New Liners call it hyper-serious. It's both an embrace and reimagining of all the old conventions to better fit our times, but it does call attention to itself, either broadly (in less successful productions) or more straight-faced. As one of the Bat Boy writers put it, "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression." It's not an easy tightrope for actors or directors; too often they forget the first half of that.

The third kind of meta-musical is really just sketch comedy, where the punch line is meta references. [title of show] is one of the more successful, a musical literally about its creators writing it. This show, along with Silence!, Gutenberg, and too many others just make "meta" into a running joke, for no compelling point or purpose. They mistake reference for cleverness.

"Sung-Through" and "Through-Composed" – Be careful with this one and its almost-twin. Sung-through means sung from beginning to end, with no (or almost no) spoken dialogue. Most pop operas are sung-through. A similar label, through-composed, often gets confused with sung-through, but they mean really different things. Through-composed means that no music ever gets repeated or re-used throughout a long piece of music. In terms of musical theatre, that would mean no two verses would have the same melody, no songs would be reprised, no melodies would be turned into underscoring, etc. I don't think I've ever seen or heard a truly through-composed theatre score (nor would I want to), yet people throw this term around a lot, thinking it means sung-through. It doesn't. I'll get down off my soapbox now. Briefly.

"Musical Theatre" and "Opera" – Throughout high school and college, I used to grapple with the Big Question: what's the difference between musical theatre and opera? It now seems silly to me. Why did I care so much? Sondheim says it's all about audience expectations; if you produce Sweeney Todd in an opera house, it's an opera, and if you present the show in a theatre, it's a musical. I'm not sure I totally agree. I have a similar but slightly different point of view. I think it's about priorities. If the music is the most important element, it's an opera. If the storytelling is the most important element, it's a musical. Like Sondheim's, my definition assumes that the same show could be different things in different contexts. And also, we need to stop caring about this...

"Realism" and "Naturalism" – these terms get thrown around a lot, and with various definitions and usages. After years of discussion, reading, internet searching, and informal surveys of my theatre friends, I've come to a confident conclusion. Realism is about content; naturalism is about style.

Realism is about portraying the world the way it really is, rather than as a fantasy world where poverty and death never intrude. Company is a realistic musical because it deals with human relationships the way they really are, no cliches, no shortcuts, no rose-colored glasses, but it's also very un-naturalistic.

Naturalism is about presenting (human) "nature" as it is, in other words, appearing natural, moving and talking the way people do in real life, with no heightened style or focus. Robert Altman movies are almost all naturalistic (his film M*A*S*H is my favorite example). It's rare that naturalism is called for in musical theatre because it's so unnatural to break into song, but there have been some New Line shows (Love Kills, Hair) in which a kind of modified naturalism (a naturalism that excuses singing) is the right style.

The problem with these terms is that in everyday language, realistic usually means naturalistic. In theatre, it doesn't.

"Brecht" and "Brechtian" – Bertolt Brecht was a brilliant German director and writer, whose most famous work is his musical with Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera (coming to New Line in 2015). He wrote plays and tons of commentary and philosophy on theatre as an art form. Brecht's big idea was, in short, that the audience shouldn't just feel something, but should be thinking as well about what's happening in the story. He called it Verfremdungseffekt; John Willlet translated that in 1964 as alienation effect, but it's now generally called a distancing effect or an estrangement effect.

Whatever you want to call it, it means admitting the artifice of theatre, and forcing the audience to acknowledge that artifice; by breaking the Fourth Wall, by directly addressing the audience, by physically invading the audience's space, by commentary songs, by self-reference and parody, and/or by various other "meta" devices (like the lawyer interrupting Bukowsical, or the entire premise of [title of show]). Brechtianism ( I don't even know if that's a word) replaced the Rodgers & Hammerstein model in the 1960s, with shows like The Fantasticks, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Hair, Promises, Promises, Dames at Sea, and others. But it was Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim who most fully and most effectively embraced it, in Company, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, and Merrily We Roll Along.

Today there are more Brechtian musicals than R&H musicals (Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spring Awakening, Rent, Hedwig, BBAJ, High Fidelity, Wild Party, Spelling Bee, Reefer Madness, Scottsboro Boys, Spider-Man, Carrie, bare, American Idiot, Passing Strange) because today we live in the Age of Irony.

"Diegetic" – This is a label that connotes music or a song that comes out of the world of the story, rather than from the language of the storytelling, music that both the audience and the characters can hear. Maybe that's not all that clear. Usually in musicals, the characters are not aware they're singing. In Spring Awakening, we're not supposed to believe that inside this narrative, all these kids are actually singing in a circle around the couple having sex. Or in Guys and Dolls, when Nathan and Adelaide sing the hilarious fight-song "Sue Me," inside the reality of the story, the characters are not singing their fight on the street; they don't hear it as singing. We only hear it as singing because a musical is telling this story. Singing is just the language of the storytelling, the same way that iambic pentameter is the language of Shakespeare's plays.

But sometimes, the music is actually organic inside the story. For example, in Cabaret, many of the songs are being performed in the Kit Kat Klub, and all the characters are aware that they're singing. Likewise in Rent, when Roger plays and sings "Your Eyes," all the characters know he's singing. Same with Angel's "Today 4 U," and also "We Love You Conrad" in Bye Bye Birdie, "Be Like the Bluebird" in Anything Goes, "Sing" and "One" in A Chorus Line, "The Parlor Songs" in Sweeney Todd, and "Nicest Kids in Town" in Hairspray. These are all diegetic numbers. The music comes from inside the story.

"Libretto" – The script for a musical used to be called its libretto (a term borrowed from the opera world), which literally means "little book," so called because songs take so much time in a musical – often more than half the show's running time – and so the script has to be incredibly compact, economic, and succinct.

"Soundtrack" and "Cast Album" – Movies have two tracks on the piece of film, the visual track and the sound track. So only movies can have soundtracks. Stage shows do not have soundtracks. Did you get that? Recordings of live stage performances are called cast albums or cast recordings. In David Dillon's stage comedy Party, there's a lengthy monologue about this. If you're gay, you can have your card taken away for not knowing this. Straight men are given a pass. Once. So let's review. There is no such things as a Next to Normal soundtrack because Next to Normal has not been filmed, but there is both a Rent cast album and a Rent soundtrack.

Just don't confuse them within earshot of me.

"Fourth Wall" – This is the long-standing convention in many plays and musicals of pretending the audience is on the other side of an invisible wall (it's the "fourth," since most realistic sets provide the other three). The idea of the fourth wall is inherently dishonest; it asks us to "believe" in the false reality onstage, yet we all know it isn't real. The pretense that the artifice of theatre (particularly musical theatre) isn't in fact artificial is just a big ol' lie. Why would an audience go on this ride with us, if we're lying to them...?

It's an even more problematic concept in musical theatre, because the act of breaking into song is such an unnatural act to begin with. The Rodgers & Hammerstein model relies heavily on musical soliloquy, or what we usually call an "interior monologue" – essentially just thinking out loud – behind that fourth wall. But in classic musical comedy, and in the new musical theatre forms of this new century, soliloquies are now just direct address to the audience. The characters tell the audience what they're feeling, rather than pretending to "think out loud" with the audience "eavesdropping." There is no pretense of the fourth wall in a lot of new musicals.

Let an actor play Carousel's "Soliloquy" directly to the audience and see how much more powerful it gets from that honesty. I'm no Shakespeare scholar but I know Richard's monologues in Richard III aren't about thinking out loud; he's talking to us. We're in the room with him. That's so much more honest, and I think it engages the audience even more than fake fourth-wall reality ever can.

"Cheat Out" – This means to turn an actor's body toward the audience a little, even if that's unnatural in the scene (hence the "cheating" part of it), usually so that the audience can better see an actor's face, or if there are no mics, so that the audience can hear the actor better. I usually refer to this as "sharing with the audience," just because I think that's a more accurate label – it's not about cheating; it's about including the audience.

Many actors are taught to always cheat out, or at least to always do it in a musical. But in this age of the new American musical, the convention of cheating out isn't always appropriate. At New Line, we often have a conversation about whether to share or not to share, depending on the style of the show. Sometimes, we consciously choose not to share, to keep intimate conversations onstage in full profile, to intentionally not include the audience, to make them feel like voyeurs. This has been true of bare, Next to Normal, and a few other intensely emotional shows.

"Reprise" – is a repeat of a song, sometimes in exactly the same form (in lesser musicals) or subtly changed (in great musicals) to take on new meaning, or to cast a different light on its original meaning. For the record, it rhymes with Febreeze, not despise. Interestingly there are two different words that are both spelled reprise, but they have different origins, different meanings, and different pronunciations. When it rhymes with Febreeze, it means a musical repetition or recurrence. When it rhymes with despise, it means to repeat a performance or an explanation.

"Entr'acte"– You've probably only ever seen this word in a theatre score or maybe cast album liner notes. It's really just the Act II overture. It comes from the French for "between acts." It's pronounced AHN-trahkt. You'd be amazed how many different ways people have found of pronouncing it. Drives me nuts.

"Eleven O'Clock Number" – This term sometimes has slightly different definitions, but generally the eleven o'clock number comes late in Act II, and it's usually a big revelation for a lead character, often also a showstopper. The label comes from when Broadway shows started later, so these numbers would come around 11:00 p.m. Some examples are "God Answered My Prayers" in Hands on a Hardbody, "Laura, Laura" in High Fidelity, "Work the Wound" in Passing Strange, "So Long, Dearie" in Hello, Dolly!, "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy, "Cabaret" in Cabaret, "The Brotherhood of Man" in How to Succeed, "Memory" in Cats, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" in Grease... you get the idea...

"Underscoring" – music that plays behind dialogue. More and more contemporary theatre composers are using underscoring, often using it like film music. Sweeney Todd, Bat Boy, Passing Strange, and Bonnie & Clyde are all good examples of shows that use a lot of underscoring. Sometimes it's to create or enhance mood or tension, to allow for a short bit of dialogue inside the song, even though the song continues (a great example of this is much of Act II of Bonnie & Clyde), or to give the storytelling energy and momentum.

"Vamp," "Safety," "Jump Cue," & "Cue to Continue" –  These are all musical terms that are unique to musical theatre. A vamp is a piece of music that gets repeated until something happens in action or dialogue, usually two or four measures long, but sometimes as short as one measure or even one beat. It's the musical equivalent of treading water, a musical "loop" that's used for moments in shows that may be different from performance to performance, though usually after a show runs for a while, the vamps pretty much settle into the same length every time. A safety is like a vamp but it's optional, only to be used when something unexpected happens. Usually, the band doesn't have to repeat the safety, but it's there just in case.

cue to continue is just a line of dialogue that tells the band it's time to move on out of the vamp. Usually, when there's a vamp, the band plays the full phrase until the actors are ready for the next phrase, but a jump cue is when the band "jumps" out of the vamp, wherever they may be in it, without finishing the phrase, going on to the next musical phrase. It's often used when music exactly matches a piece of dialogue, like a dramatic "sting" on a particular spoken word, that kind of thing. A lot of contemporary theatre scores have a lot of underscoring, so we scrawl tons of cues into our scores.

"Sitzprobe" – the rehearsal(s), in which the cast and band play through the whole score for the first time, often while sitting in chairs (the literal translation of the German is seated test or trial). In New Line's case, this is usually also the first time the band plays through the score together. It's a chance for the musicians to hear the cast, any dialogue over music, etc., before we really run the show.

"Mark It"  – This is a phrase theatre folks use to mean just moving through a performance, but not doing it full-out, not worrying about character or emotion, just blocking and other practical details. We almost never do this at New Line.

The show is - or isn't - "working"  – This is one of those nebulous, vague phrases that people love to use and hate to hear. Because the act of creating musical theatre is such mysterious alchemy, it's not always clear what is making a show work well or not. This phrase is used a lot when people can feel instinctually that the show isn't right, but they can't articulate what's wrong. I don't use this phrase often, but sometimes, it's the only thing you can say...

What is Art?  Now there's a question. Artists have been asking that question since there have been artists. Personally, I think art is a human expression of something of value that connects with another person in a meaningful way. Art is how we make order out of the crazy chaos of life, how we try to understand ourselves and the world around us. And if you're making art strictly for financial gain or personal aggrandizement, then that's not art; that's masturbation. Art has to be about connection. A lyric from Sunday in the Park with George hints at what art is about –
Anything you do,
Let it come from you,
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.

Art is personal. It's human. It's a gift. And we need it to survive.

So there you have it. As I said, you may disagree with some of these, but I've thought about most of these terms for a very long time. Feel free to suggest other terms that should be included. And promise me you'll never call a cast album a soundtrack.

Long Live the Musical!


Peter J Casey | November 22, 2014 at 2:27 PM

A fine and useful post! I wonder: have you waded through 'The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey' by Joseph P. Swain?

I read it years ago, and remember enjoying it despite the author's grumpiness, fuddy-duddiness, and complaints that no-one (including the authors of Sweeney, Fiddler, and Porgy and Bess) can bring off an ending properly.

Just goes to show how thirsty we are for ANY serious musical analysis of the shows we love.