Audiences today have gotten used to musicals that know (and admit) that they're musicals. For all of the excitement around Broadway's upcoming musical comedy, Something Rotten! starting previews March 23, people hardly mention the quirk that this musical is about the creation of the first musical. Meta-musicals, as this self-aware genre has come to be known, are now a common thing. Based on the Greek word "meta" (meaning beyond), the term is used to describe theatre which somehow recognizes or comments on its own literal circumstances as a piece of performance, often times in connection with some acknowledgment oft he presence of a live audience. This is a somewhat slippery concept as all theatre, in many ways, inherently calls attention to its own performative nature. The actors may pretend there is a "fourth wall" cosmically separating them from the audience, but we know they know we’re there.
This is even more true in musicals, where singing and dancing (and the presence of instrumental music) offer a constant reminder that this is not reality. The meta-musicals take this a step beyond this inherently presentational quality. For many shows, this is a key element of the work’s construction. For example, Chicago is a musical vaudeville, where all the stylized theatricality can be justified as part of the entertainment the show purports to be. This framing device (or similar ones such as circuses or pageants or variety shows, for example) helps an audience to accept the use of music and other elements without constantly having their immersion in the story interrupted. The mega meta-musicals go even further in calling attention to their own artifice.
Click through to read my selections for the Top Ten Meta-Musicals.
Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart's 1962 hit, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, is a pretty standard baseline meta-musical. The evening's narrator and protagonist, Pseudolus, begins the show addressing the audience directly ("Playgoers, I bid you welcome…") launching into the audience-pleasing "Comedy Tonight," which spells out in great detail exactly what is to follow. Throughout the show, Pseudolus continues his storytelling, often overriding the supposed reality of his situation within the plot in favor of a real-time exchange with the audience regarding their shared experience watching the actual show.
In some ways, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff's Cabaret is a very traditional book show — not a meta-musical at all. As long as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are carrying out their courtship in song or Sally Bowles is pitching a "Perfectly Marvelous" time to Cliff, we might as well be watching Oklahoma! or Kiss Me, Kate. But then there are the songs Sally performs at the Kit Kat Club, and then there the Emcee's Kit Kat numbers, which are similar to Sally's, except instead of watching the Kit Kat audience watch the performance, we just watch the performance — we become the Kit Kat audience. This is particularly powerful in the title song, which begins with Sally singing to her onstage Kit Kat audience and ends with her serenading us in the actual theatre. The whole evening builds to this moment, when the song, which ostensibly comments on the story, actually becomes the story.
Popular songwriter Rupert Holmes killed two birds with one stone when he came up with the idea to use a British music hall framing device for his musicalization of Charles Dickens' unfinished novel "The Mystery Of Edwin Drood." For one thing, this gave him a "justification" for all the singing (and in fact allowed him a much more entertaining presentational style than the material may have otherwise supported) and it also allowed him to have the audience vote on a sort of "choose-your-own-adventure" ending, since they were already in communication with the performers because of the interactive music hall form. You certainly can't experience that in a movie theatre!
In Spamalot, Monty Python's 2005 Broadway musical adaptation (or "rip-off," as the sub-title proclaims) of their cult film "Monty Python And The Holy Grail," the occasion of the work being presented as a Broadway musical is acknowledged, parodied, lampooned and ultimately celebrated. Just as Monty Python's films strike a meta tone in commenting on their own existence as a movie, so does their Broadway show, with no holds barred, gleefully taking on all the tropes of the form.
The 2001 hit Urinetown caused quite a bit of stir in its sort of post-modern sensibility as a major meta-musical. The show appealed to many audiences not necessarily fans of the Broadway musical in general, but somehow able to "get" Urinetown because the convention of singing and dancing was not taken for granted, but commented on. Throughout the action, Officer Lockstock and Little Sally, offer a hilariously skewering dialogue in referential counterpoint to the general themes and plot. There was concern that this new school of thought might herald the end of traditional musical theatre. Of course, time has shown Urinetown to be a beloved piece of the canon and we can now rest assured the future of Broadway lies in broadening its definition, not narrowing it.
When writer and star John Cameron Mitchell directed the movie version of his seminal Off-Broadway hit (now a Broadway triumph), Hedwig And The Angry Inch, he had the musical's inherent meta-ness to contend with. In the stage version of Hedwig, the audience forms a live audience for a night in the character Hedwig's concert tour. It is clear what is meant to be standard songs and dialogue that are scripted and what is intended to come across as unscripted events unfolding in real time on this particular night. Indeed, the whole set-up of Hedwig and her back-up singer Yitzhak and the band unravels as Hedwig confronts the demons of the story. Mitchell's solution for the film was a good one, but ultimately renders it far less meta than the live theatre version.
The characters in Falsettos know they're in a musical. That sounds like a strange point to make in that it's arguably true of all musicals. After all, these people are singing — surely they are aware! But there's an established convention of ignoring that fact, at least on some levels, suspending our disbelief, as the phrase goes. In Falsettos, however, this self-consciousness is part of the story. It's as if, rather than watching a musical recreating events in people's lives, we are watching these real people perform a musical telling us what's going on in their lives. Oddly, this makes it more real. Since we don't have to pretend we're watching make-believe things happen, it's somehow easier to believe they happened to these people prior to their arrival at the theatre, and now it's really them singing about it.
Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers's divisive 2009 emo rock historical musical comedy may have pushed the envelope too far for some audiences, unwilling to suspend their disbelief and take the meta ride of the show. For the rest of us, the experience was a rare theatrical treat. Watching the story of Andrew Jackson and the Populist movement of his time, it's hard to ignore the fact that it's being told by rag-tag group of versatile comic actors throwing on the occasional wig or jacket to become a different character, often cross-dressing, and singing music decidedly not of the period. But that's the point. This show is as much about our experience relating to the work as an audience, witnessing it being performed by a cast, as it is about the actual events of the story.
In singer-songwriter-playwright Stew's acclaimed musical, Passing Strange, the character Stew (played by Stew himself) narrates the story of a character known as "The Youth." The Stew onstage acknowledges the band and interacts with the audience and it's all very presentational, culminating in an extremely meta conclusion wherein The Youth is revealed to be the younger Stew and the show Passing Strange itself is understood to be "The Real," the "Great Truth" he's been searching for.
The ultimate meta-musical is [title of show], a musical about a group of friends creating a musical, which is the musical [title of show]. There are many moments in [title of show] when the characters portray themselves actually writing and composing [title of show] in real time, on stage in front of the audience. To borrow their own vivid description, it's like "a snake eating its own tail."
(Ben Rimalower is the author and star of the critically acclaimed solo plays Patti Issues and Bad with Money, running in repertory through April 29 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)