Rise of the 21st Century American Musical
Rogers and Hammerstein’s names are still plastered on the screens of Times Square with “Cinderella”, “The Sound of Music”, and “Oklahoma!” being put on a stage for the 100th time. The music of George Gershwin has played everywhere from small night clubs in Chicago to the biggest and best Broadway stages. Stephen Sondheim has had more of his musicals brought from the stage to the screen than J.K. Rowling has had her books. And musical theater is still one of America’s favorite forms of entertainment; everyone loves singing along and following the plot twists until the grand finale.
But, while many think writing musicals is a dying profession and the world of new musical theater is diminishing day by day, young composers and lyricists are thriving and creating everywhere from New York City to San Francisco, and every city in between. And I’m not just talking the Disney hit High School Musical, I’m talking real, hard-core, make the hairs on your back stick right up musicals. On stages! Not screens. They are doing so by focusing on modern-day issues (the woes of social media, racial tensions, and equal rights) and by tackling old-timey stories with a modern twist.
The Book of Mormon
In March 2011, the religious satire musical The Book of Mormon premiered on Broadway. And man, did it become a sensation. Besides remaining on Broadway since it premiered, no small feat, it’s had two U.S. tours (travelling to theaters in every big and medium-sized city across the country), gone to the West End in London, and set up shop in Chicago, Illinois for a year. The story is about a missionary in one of America’s and the world’s most misunderstood and made-fun-of religions: Mormonism (or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). It takes a young man from his church training center in Utah to northern Uganda, where many Americans would never dream of going, as he tries to convert the poor, AIDS and famine-stricken people to his faith. It’s a hilarious musical about an extremely serious topic. It was, after all, produced by the creators of American television series South Park, a raunchy adult cartoon. The musical tackles topics most Americans never have to think about, poverty in foreign lands and the religion of Mormonism.
The Book of Mormon trailer from the Kennedy Center, Washington, DC
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Then in October 2012, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder premiered in a small theater in Hartford, Connecticut and soon came to Broadway in November 2013. Based on a 1907 novel by the British politician, businessman, and playwright Roy Horniman, it tells the story of a British aristocrat who murders his way to being the primary heir to his family’s fortune. He has to do so while juggling a fiancée and mistress, covering his trail of blood and betrayal, and remaining a perfect British gentleman. The musical is riddled with jokes, wit, fight scenes, and grand numbers. A storyline based on long gone morals, clothing, manners, and societal pressure to be a true gentleman has been named “The best new musical of the year” by the Wall Street Journal and won four Tony Awards (the US’s most prestigious theater award).
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder trailer, Broadway Channel
Dear Evan Hansen
I just saw Dear Evan Hansen, probably the absolute newest American musical, that just premiered at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. It’s a completely new story, not based on anything, about a senior in high school who gets caught up in a web of lies when he falsely admits to being the secret best friend of another student who recently committed suicide in order to comfort the grieving family. It’s a story about feeling alone and misunderstood, bullying, grief and love, family relationships, and the effect of social media on our psyche, morals, and interests; issues that are truly at the forefront of American society today. The staging showed a computer screen throughout the show, with Facebook profiles and text messages and Twitter/Instagram/Facebook posts constantly appearing on floor-to-ceiling screens as the characters moved around the stage, meant to represent the constant presence of the media and technology in our lives. It’s a modern musical in every sense of the word; the look, the sound, the meaning. I cried, laughed, cringed, and never wanted it to end. And I am sure it will be the next big thing.
Dear Evan Hansen teaser trailer from Arena Stage, Washington DC
Dear Evan Hansen cast sings “Only Us” from the new musical
Who knows when these three or any of the many more contemporary American musicals will be deemed “classics”, but I am sure they will be eventually. They are kicking up more storms than some of their older, more tame counterparts and are bound to lead to a continuous growth in the list of American musicals. They are truly becoming a part of current American culture. After all, who would ever say no to seeing a Broadway show in the Big Apple if they got the chance?
The Book of Mormon: book, lyrics, and music by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Currently showing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, Broadway, NYC.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder: book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak. Currently showing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Broadway, NYC.
Dear Evan Hansen: book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Currently showing at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Starring Ben Platt, from Pitch Perfect.