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Modern musicals and new writing: where did musical theatre leave off?

Katie Kirkpatrick stresses that new musical theatre writing has not disappeared.

CW: Addiction, rape, homophobia, conversion therapy, depression

When theatres around the world closed a year ago, many of the hit shows were film adaptations like Frozen and Moulin Rouge, or jukebox musicals like Tina. While the apparent lack of original musicals can feel disheartening, there’s actually a lot of original work out there. Having spent much of lockdown getting obsessed with recent musicals of varying levels of obscurity, I decided to look at the different ways in which theatre has been growing and changing. 

A New Classic

An obvious place to start is with the most recent winner of the Tony award for Best New Musical: Hadestown. Written by Anais Mitchell and directed by Rachael Chavkin, the show reimagines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with a political edge, incorporating haunting vocal harmonies and an incredible set. Hadestown is a show that restores your faith in modern musicals, as it feels like a new twist on the classic musical. The elaborate set and evocative lighting make it feel like something from another world, and the writing combines soulful ballads that wouldn’t be out of place in the musicals of yesteryear with a folk vibe and an eclectic mix of voices. Hadestown manages to be universal enough to appeal to all kinds of theatregoers, while still offering something we haven’t seen before. 

Reinventing the Jukebox Musical

While normally I’m decidedly not a fan of jukebox musicals, recent Broadway hit Jagged Little Pill stands out from the genre and feels fresh. Morissette’s songs – the soundtrack to generations of teen angst – are cleverly rearranged, and three new songs flesh out the piece well. Its staging is hugely creative, with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui creating an enthralling mix of dance and physical theatre. What sets JLP apart from the bulk of jukebox musicals, in addition to its new material, is the way in which many of the songs are completely reinvented: break-up anthem ‘You Oughta Know’ features lyric changes that make it specific to an LGBT relationship, and ‘That I Would Be Good’ is made into a trio reflecting three different characters’ conflicts with their families. The storyline itself also feels pressingly relevant without being forced: it centres on issues like presciption drug addiction and rape, while also touching on sexuality and race. Perhaps, sometimes, the challenges of using an existing catalogue of songs can give new writing more scope. 

LGBT Representation

Many recent shows have strived to discuss issues that feel relevant to audiences today – last year saw Netflix release the film adaptation of The Prom, an original show based on a true story about a lesbian student who wasn’t allowed to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend. Following in the footsteps of the Tony-winning Fun Home, the Broadway production put its lesbian protagonist in the spotlight and cast several LGBT actors, thus vastly improving representation in theatre where it’s been lacking. Until recently, there have been very few musicals centring the experiences of female LGBT characters, with the most recognised characters being Maureen and Joanne in RENT or the lesbians that appear in the second act of Falsettos. With Fun Home and The Prom leading the way, we can expect more to come: in 2019 I was impressed by a workshop production based on the cult film But I’m a Cheerleader, and there’s a lot of buzz around Lempicka, also directed by Rachel Chavkin, which is headed to Broadway. 

Mental Health

While the first show to come to mind on this topic will for many be smash hit Dear Evan Hansen, a particularly promising production in the works is It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Based on the book of the same name by Ned Vizzini, the author of Be More Chill, Funny Story is about a teenager called Craig who is diagnosed with depression and admitted to an adult mental health ward. For a storyline that sounds so gloomy, the show is surprisingly witty and candid, while still not shying away from the realities of mental illness. There’s yet to be a fully staged production, but YouTube videos are available of a workshop performance that features Dear Evan Hansen’s Colton Ryan, and it seems a run is expected in the not-too-distant future. Considering the success of Evan Hansen and the conversations about mental health being had in so many cultural spheres, we can surely expect more shows to tackle difficult themes head-on. 

Social Media

That’s not to say all new writing has to be serious and emotional. In recent years, platforms like Twitter and TikTok have become a huge part in finding an audience for new writing. A musical that’s recently gained popularity via sites like YouTube and Twitter is Preston Max Allen’s We Are the Tigers. The show, which had an Off-Broadway production in 2019, is a slasher comedy about a cheerleading sleepover which turns into a murder mystery. Its strength comes from the humour that runs through the book, as well as a soundtrack full of belting and tight harmonies. Shows have also begun to use social media in their scripts and staging – one such show is the Australian Fangirls by Yve Blake, about a 14-year-old girl who will do absolutely anything to meet her boyband idol. This is a trend we are likely to see continue, especially emerging from a time when all our interaction has been digital.

Who’s to say whether theatres will be able to open in June as planned? But regardless of when exactly the curtain rises again, there are plenty of promising new shows out there. Recent shows are pushing boundaries, and appealing to younger generations by talking about issues that matter to them. And with so many exciting writers, directors, and choreographers still creating original work, there’s so much more to come. 

Image credit: Ajay Suresh via Flickr & Creative Commons.

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