A light approach in our dark world

Musical theatre is often viewed as the lightweight theatre option. Yet was it not the jester in the medieval court who would dare speak the truth to the king via wit and humour? Or, to quote the English proverb: Many a true word is spoken in jest.

It is becoming more widely accepted that musical theatre has the potential to promote attitudinal change and help us in our opinion forming. Whilst some musicals are designed mainly for entertainment alone, such as Oklahoma!, or to tell a historical story, such as Jesus Christ Superstar, the majority carry important messages given in subtle ways. 

Audience members can take the experience and lessons from a musical and translate it into their own lives. They can address subjects not typically covered entertainingly. Modern musicals tackle important issues such as depression, racism and domestic abuse. 

UNCONSCIOUS MESSAGES

Of course, people enjoy a musical, and might not even be aware that an opinion or viewpoint is being forced upon them. In 2012 researchers interviewed a group of theatre goings before and after a musical about their view of hunting. After the musical, the majority were less critical of hunting than beforehand. A result which corroborated the idea that the musical got its message across without them even being aware of it. 

Australian cast of The Sound of Music
Photo by James Morgan

My introduction to the idea of Nazism and the Second World war came to me as a child. My mum took my four siblings and me to see the musical film The Sound of Music at least five times – I somehow suspect now that she may be in a bit in love with the idea of Captain von Trapp manifesting in our street. Naturally, we five children picked up all the lyrics and walked around in formation bellowing the various songs at the tops of our voices. Unfortunately for the neighbourhood, our voices were not as harmonious as those of the children in the musical, and our accents not quite such a crisp Queens English as Julie Andrews or Christopher Plummer’s.

What we didn’t realise was the number of lessons that we were learning more subconsciously than the ones given to us at school. Lessons about believing in oneself, not being afraid to change the course you’ve set your life on, or what to do when you’re scared (in my case hide in the toilet for the last scene with the Nazi’s chasing the family). But I think the most lasting impact it had on my young mind was “to climb every mountain, forge every stream until you find your dreams.” Basically, not letting let resistance stop me has been an opinion that has helped me through many a crisis in life. 

A DIGESTIBLE MESSAGE

The Sound of Music was a tremendous success, going on to become one of the highest-grossing and most well-known musical films of all time. Across the pond: West Side Story, the New York gang warfare musical, had hit broadway and then the silver screen with similar aplomb a few years earlier. It was a great hit in the 1950s and 1960s, but the songs have never faded. Who hasn’t sung ‘I like to be in America’ or ‘I feel Pretty’, whilst doing the washing up?

Opera Australia’s production of West Side Story Photo by Jeff Busby

Musicals are a digestible and popular way of getting messages across. Whilst some people enjoy deciphering Shakespeare’s language to understand his message, since West Side Story was unveiled on the world, millions have watched the story of Romeo and Juliet in its 1950s coat. The eternal issue of racial rivalry was put on the table in a very clear and identifiable way and has never left the table since.

In December 2019 a revived West Side Story was previewed, officially opening in February of this year. And a new big-screen version is being produced with none other than Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair. Due out in December this year, due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, it’s release has been moved to December 2021. So why is West Side Story being re-released at this time? What is it about this street gang telling of a centuries-old play that is relevant to an audience today? Both these stories were thought up long before the term Black Lives Matter hit our vocabulary, demonstrating that Romeo and Juliet has an eternal message. What makes West Side Story particularly interesting is that it presents race through the colours the two gangs choose to wear and they can lay down their colours in the end, having learnt an important lesson the hard way. Perhaps those currently wearing red or blue can take a leaf out of this musical’s book?

West Side Story isn’t the first, and surely won’t be the last musical to shine a spotlight on racial tensions. Showboat touched on it in 1927 and the musicals South Pacific, Hairspray and Hamilton, amongst others, all touch on the theme. 

BRINGING SOCIAL AWARENESS

Operettas tread the fine line between opera and musical. Gilbert and Sullivan managed to put all sorts of messages thinly disguised behind light-heartedness. Take the Mikado, which is set in Japan, far enough away at the time that British politics and lifestyle could be gently and safely satirised. Gilbert used many a foreign location to allow a soft approach of challenging opinions embedded in British institutions. 

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

The 2016 musical film La La Land might also seem to be just a lighthearted bit of dancing and singing at first glance. The name itself seems already to suggest that the film is about someone who’s a bit in gaga land – In fact, it’s a nickname for Los Angeles (LA LA) in California, especially to Hollywood. The screenplay for La La Land was actually written with the idea of picking up the old musical idea but grounding it in the reality of real life. It lightly challenges the Hollywood ideal that love conquers all, and happy ever after endings are always available. Instead, it causes us to weigh up the fact that love can happen and be incredible, but it doesn’t always last forever. You might achieve your dreams, but there might be a sacrifice. We don’t know if Mia and Sebastian regret their choices, but they dared to follow their dreams.

Musical theatre helps bring social awareness by exposing us to social issues, events and cultures. They are a reflection of the country they originate in, and of what is moving there at the time. The script for La La Land was written in 2010, but it took a few years before American financers were ready to take a gamble on new lyrics with a touch of a radical open ending. Whereas the theme of Romeo and Juliet has, unfortunately, remained just as potent through the centuries of humanity. 

A great deal of musical theatre, like many other art forms, endeavour to improve the world around us. It offers the audience the opportunity to explore their own thoughts and feelings in a safe environment. Perhaps even reform a long-held opinion and ideology. 

Sarah Johnson

Sarah is a British born Communication and Media Graduate from the University of Leeds. Sarah has written for a number of publications and has an avid interest in theatre and the arts in general.

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