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Musicals Are Made From Any Subject Matter, However Unlikely

Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber: Master of Musicals - Effie
No theme is too tired, weird, wacky, bizarre or downright unusual, that it can’t be set to music, choreographed and performed on a stage somewhere.

Many stage musicals across the world in the past hundred years have featured unexpected settings, stories, places and events. Murder, rape, incest, betrayal, war and politics have become staple fare of the musical adaptation.

Treatments of Shakespeare (West Side Story; Kiss Me Kate), Victor Hugo (Les Misérables), Dickens (Oliver; Pickwick), Robert Louis Stevenson (Jekyll and Hyde; Treasure Island) and George Bernard Shaw (My Fair Lady); mixed-race relationships (Show Boat) and the game of chess as US-Russian politics have established themselves in the cannon of traditional musical theatre.

Cabaret (1966), set in 1920s Berlin as the Nazis rose to power, incorporated sleaze, corruption and music; The Sound of Music (1959) also featured the Nazi regime. Prohibition-era Chicago (1975) was about female murderers on death row; Carousel (1945) about murder, violence, suicide, love and reincarnation in a fairground, while Fame (1988) inspired youngsters worldwide following students at New York School of Performing Arts, as High School Musical did for the early 2000s.

Old Favourites

Annie Get Your Gun (1946) was about the eventual romance between two wild west sharpshooters, Calamity Jane (1979) had similarities; Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934) concerned a bunch of unusual passengers sailing from America to England; Applause (1970) featured an aging Broadway star; Avenue Q (2002) was an adult spoof on the children’s TV series Sesame Street and Barnum (1980) was about the Greatest Show on Earth, circus.

Brigadoon (1947) took the unlikely premise of two American tourists falling in love in a mythical Scottish fantasy; Camelot (1960) was about King Arthur, Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table, like Spamalot (2004); rebels and freedom fighters starred in The Desert Song (1926), and South Pacific (1949) was about the US Army in World War 2.

Argentine’s Eva Peron was celebrated in Evita (1978); Jewish tradition during pogroms in Russia was the essence of Fiddler on the Roof (1964); The Full Monty (2000) showed unemployed steel workers becoming male strippers and facing their problems through it.

Love and gambling, religion, repentance, jazz and show-dance combined in Guys and Dolls (1950), while love/romance motivated Hello Dolly (1964) and the night club world was the setting for Pal Joey (1940). Gypsy (1959) was about a pushy mum and showbiz, while Grease (1971) rocked with rebellious high school teenagers. Hair (1967) showed hippie adolescents facing the draft in Vietnam-era USA.

In the same period, Miss Saigon (1989) retold Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. 1860’s Siam (Thailand), western culture and love clashed in The King and I (1951). Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982) and Oklahoma (1943) were about love rivalry set in the American West, and the latter dealt with class, death and the ‘American Dream’.

Edgier Material

The sinking of the Titanic (1997) was accepted as most unusual theme for a musical, but that is a highly competitive league. Other festivals of song, choreography and drama of the highest order are found in musicals devoted to thalidomide, the National Health Service, British schools’ inspectorate Ofsted, Margaret Thatcher, Jerry Springer and the murdering 18th century London barber, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his accomplice Mrs Lovett, who cooked their victims into pies.

Stephen Sondheim created it, and also gave the world Assassins (1991), which his website said: ‘explores the history of presidential assassination in America, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr. Assassins climaxes in a surreal sequence where the assassins convince Lee Harvey Oswald that his act is the only way he will connect — with them, with history, and with the world’.

From Britain, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Beautiful Game (2000) set Northern Irish teenagers living through the late 1960s ‘troubles’ and religious hatred in a football (soccer) team of Catholics and Protestants coached by a priest, before becoming overwhelmed by political and religious violence. Billy Elliot (2005) was a working class lad who got to live his dream, becoming a ballet star against his father’s will and a background of the demise of the mining industry and political struggles in northern England.

Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers (1988) was about fraternal twins who went very different ways in life. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978) was based on the true story of the ‘Chicken Ranch Brothel’, active in Texas from the 1840s-1973. Alien blood-eating plants starred in Little Shop of Horrors (1982).

Rent (1994), based loosely on Puccini’s La Boheme, was the story of a group of friends struggling with love, drugs and AIDS. The Rocky Horror Show (1973) was a rock ‘n’ roll horror genre spoof. So, there is no end to themes used.

Pop, Rock and Serious Comedy as Musicals

The Who’s Tommy (1992) was a later version of The Who’s 1969 concept album. The careers, songs and lifestyles of Queen (We Will Rock You), Abba (Mamma Mia), John Lennon (Lennon), The Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) all crowd at one end of the musical entertainment spectrum

At the other, are works like Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (1928), a biting satire using music to tell a story of corruption and betrayal. In between could be said to lie such fantasies as steam trains coming to life, as in Starlight Express (1984); and The Producers (2001), the story of a pair who dreamed-up a failed show to get money from backers, only to find it was a hit.

Nunsense (1985) was a spoof about nuns managing a fundraiser, and The Lion King (1997), based on the Disney animated movie was about jungle animals played by humans, with masks and Elton John music. Hairspray (2002) was about teenagers and civil rights.

All of which goes to show that nothing (successful or failure) is beyond the possibilities for turning into musicals or operas, into show business.

First published on Suite 101,  11 February 2011.

Photo: Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber: Master of Musicals – Effie

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