In this time of transition for the American musical, Playbill On-Line asked members to define the qualities that make for a great musical.
We asked you for fundamental principals, and suggested you begin by telling which is your favorite musical, and why.
Here are some of the most interesting answers. Playbill On-Line thanks everyone who submitted a response.
From Allison Ring:
A Great Musical starts with at least one central fascinating character. It must occur in a visually striking setting. There should be strong, universal issues involved, such as the struggle between good and evil, love and hate, success and failure, survival or death. A Great Musical should touch on some of life's great experiences, adventures or emotions. From FHough:
SWEENEY TODD is my favorite show, and it contains what I think all great musicals should have: a solid story, interesting characters, and a score that sweeps a person up out of his seat and into the story.
Costumes, sets, and physical trappings aren't nearly as important to me as people, their story, and the music that weaves its way through their lives.
From Owen Robertson, N.Y.C.:
A truly great musical is the sum of its parts.
You can have a good or nice show with a terrific score, but without a structured book to attach it too, it will ring somewhat hollow. The coin's other side says a riveting book with mediocre songs can make for an okay evening of theatre. Both shows may run, but probably not for long.
But a great musical theatre piece must have the right blend, mixing in bright direction, adept scenic and costume designs and outstanding performances. This is why the animal is so elusive. And all these ingredients have to be so special, so extraordinary to override any personal preferences. It has to be universally goose-bump inducing. It has to be "The King and I", "A Chorus Line" and "Les Miz".
Even if characters are two dimensional, the audience has to care for them, to go with them when they enter into the somewhat surreal moment when mere words aren't enough to express emotion, when all the character *can* do is sing.
And when that song is over, it a) has taken you deeper into the character and b) taken you farther into the plot without you even realizing it. That is the magic of musical theatre (very simple) and the crux of doing it well (not at all simple).
Not to say all perfect musical theatre is a perfect evening. "My Fair Lady" is just about as good as it gets. Eliza's wonderfully simple "I want" song, Higgins' colorful character numbers, the secondary male lead's musically sumptuous, lyrically amazing second act ballad, all rolled up into a pleasing and moving Cinderella story. Yet, it's so perfect it leaves me a little cold. I much prefer Lerner & Lowe's somewhat messy "Camelot". But again, this comes down to personal preferences. I admire "My Fair Lady" more than love it. "Rent" is a far from perfect musical, yet nothing I've seen on the musical stage has excited me as much in a long time as what I witnessed at the New York Theater Workshop last February. Go figger.
I'm sure this letter seems somewhat self-contradictory, but maybe that is what makes a great musical. Maybe it's pure chance. Maybe it's what still works in revival thirty years after it's original production. Maybe it's Andrew Lloyd Webber music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics.
And even if a piece isn't great, it still can be fun and touching and toe-tapping. And wonderful. Just ask Rosie O'Donnell.
From Joey M lmmonte:
For me it's the actors that make a great musical. Each and every actor must know the character completely and play true to it. The actor must be "on" and play the role full out every minute he or she's on stage. When I see an actor who's obviously enjoying him or herself on stage I enjoy the show even more!
From Trevor List, Theater Critic, The Delaware Gazette:
A good musical is one that does one thing: entertains. It doesn't have to be psychological, "artsy," or new or different. If a musical has done it's job, you didn't walk out during intermission, fall asleep, or buy some taffy to keep yourself occupied.
Now, entertainment depends on several components: quality of score, lyrics, and book. If one is lacking, one tends to feel "gypped." But, most (MOST) musicals that make it to Broadway these days are there for a reason: they've earned the right to be. And the ultimate arbiter will be the public lining-up at the box office.
Sometimes this physical (sets, direction, lighting, orchestra, etc.) can out-weigh the work itself; Harold Prince once said to Andrew Lloyd Webber "You can't hear a musical, if you can't look at it..."
A great musical needs an exciting storyline to begin with, and needs to be able to effect you emotionally. Like my favorite musical, MISS SAIGON, the story, staging, lighting, sets and music are very effective and makes you laugh, cry and makes you want to see it again.
Basically anything not written by Rodgers & Hammerstein is good. R&H are so cheesy and outdated. All their shows are the same with no point. Something like Superstar or Phantom is so much better.
My favorite musical is : Sunday in the Park with George
Why? It touched me. It moved me. The plot was very simple, but the music and the emotions were very complex. The music carries us from love to flirtation to anger to confusion. The music is not meant to show, but meant to be the words and feelings for the characters. Musicals that are all about show do very well, but don't move or stir up thoughts. A great musical does not create a spotlight for some star or a platform for some dazzling set. A great musical does not need that, it could be performed on a bare stage with amateurs and street clothes and still touch you. That is what makes a great musical.
My favorite musical is Sweeney Todd. It has all the things I like best about musicals, a thrilling plot,, brilliant music, humor that works better every time you see it. Most important, characters who are big enough to warrant the passion required to break into song.
A truly great musical isn't that different from a great play. It can be adapted to a number of different interpretations. Each time you see the piece, you see something new that you never thought of before.
What makes a great musical? Great stories.
Sometimes, we forget the word "theatre" in "musical theatre" Theatre in any form is storytelling, and great stories have two things in common: conflict, and universal themes. Take, for example, one of my favorite musicals, "The King and I." As the late Yul Brynner noted in an interview, the show has been a lasting success because it is full of universal conflicts: East versus West, man versus woman, king versus commoner--all wrapped up in one relationship, and summed up in a number, "Shall We Dance" that is memorable visually and musically.
As Stephen Sondheim has noted, a successful musical number is one that moves the story along--one that reveals a character, draws events together or foreshadows them, or even sets the tone for a location or event. This brings up another key ingredient of a great musical: great lyrics. This may seem obvious, but at the present I believe there's more composing talent than lyric-writing talent. Telling a story in song without being obvious or obscure is a priceless talent. Would that we would do more to nurture it!
From Adam Fine:
One of the most important components of a musical is the book itself. The songs may be great, but does the story hold up without the music? To that extent, does the music actually assist in telling the story, or is it superfluous, as it was in the early days? It's the book that creates the rhythm and dynamic for the musical numbers to shine in. Arthur Laurents wrote (what I would call) the best book for a musical when he penned "Gypsy." Take out the songs, and you have a solid play that can stand on its own. Add the songs, and you have musical history.
First of all, my favorite musical is Les Miserables. It has all of the characteristics I associate with a great musical. I believe great musicals should have a solid plot, a clear message with universal application, a story and characters people can relate to, be entertaining enough to prevent your thoughts from wandering away from the show, and it should be able to carry on after the original cast with fresh interpretations, not copycats.
Unlike some musicals, such as Cats, Les Miserables has a plot. The plot is clearly presented on-stage, starting with Valjean's release from prison to his death. It has a message of redemption, love, and kindness, which applies to everyone. It is a message that can be carried from the theater and applied to everyday life. Although I haven't seen it, I think the message is why Rent is a popular show. It addresses things going on today.
Every person can look at the characters in Les Miserables and see one which is similar to them in certain ways, or see other people and say, as an example, "That person is certainly a Thenardier." The characters are those you see in everyday life. The workers in "At the End of the Day" could be any worker in a job facing hard times. You can identify with Fantine's and Eponine's sadness respectively in "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own."
Those who have mourned the death or loss of someone can sympathize with Marius in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
Although I know some people who think Les Miserables is too long, I think it is the fastest three hours I have ever sat through. From the start with the chain gang, the emotion sweeps you in and keeps your gaze transfixed on the stage. Although a great deal of the show is sad, it is still entertaining, and numbers such as "Master of the House" lighten the atmosphere.
Some shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and Beauty and the Beast have some razzle-dazzle special effects that add to the entertainment value and enhance the scenery, and I see nothing wrong with that unless it becomes distracting. But one aspect of Les Miserables that I love it its simplicity. The music sets much of the scene, and in some scenes, lighting takes care of the rest. The barricade and revolve are impressive, but no stunts such as a crashing chandelier or a candle with flames coming off its hands are really needed.
Les Miserables also stays fresh, despite having been going on for 10 years, because each cast member brings their own interpretation, and it's not all cookie-cutter acting. I think that's a key reason other shows such as CATS and Phantom of the Opera have been around as long as they have, and will keep going. Although original performers such as Colm Wilkinson and Michael Crawford are associated with the roles they originated, others such as Craig Schulman and Davis Gaines bring new interpretations that are as widely appreciated as those of their predecessors. It will be interesting to see what happens when they form the next company of Rent.
As I stated above, I think the plot, message, ability to relate, entertainment value, and freshness make for a great musical, and I think that is why shows from Les Miserables to Phantom of the Opera to Rent are loved by many.
From Jonathan Rubin:
I believe that a great musical consists of the following:
1. An interesting plot
2. Characters that the audience can relate to
3. Interesting music
4. Lyrics that the audience can understand and relate to
In my opinion, a musical that meets all of the above criteria is COMPANY (Sondheim/Furth).
From Shana M Sisk:
I think to make a great musical, you need not only a fantastic creative team (or one really motivated person), but a project that has direction.
Those who write the music and lyrics (and book in some cases) need to be totally in sync with each other and work together. The storyline needs to make sense and the music needs to appropriately reflect the moods of the characters and situations. For example, in Big, when Susan sings "Here We Go again" or Young Josh comes out and sings "I Want to know," the music creates emotion by itself and fits each of the respective situations with Susan's frustration and Josh's innocence.
Another example of touching Music is half of the stuff in RENT. Jonathan Larson's Music and Lyrics to songs like "No Day But Today," and "Season's of Love" can't help but reach out and grab the audience. With Rent, there is also the issue of how clever Jonathan Larson was in modernizing the story and still making sense in addition to sending an important message.
Lastly, the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals all have continuity. Songs were specifically placed in the script at certain times, and that's why those musicals have stood the test of time. Sondheim does a lot of that too (after all, he did learn everything from "uncle Oscar").
In conclusion, it takes a lot more than snazzy tunes to make a great musical. If that were the case, show's like "Crazy For You" would be a little more successful and less made fun of. Let's face it, the show was written around the music (which is outstanding). It should be done the other way around.
From Nasli Heeramaneck, Chat Moderator: BROADWAY BABIES, The Prodigy Online Service:
Yes, great music. But, not just any music. Music written for the theatre has a special quality. It's very difficult to describe, but I agree with Alan Jay Lerner in his comment (paraphrased) that music of the theatre is above all other music. It is enduring and not dependent on special technical effects. One example of such a great composer is Cy Coleman. Take City of Angels, his 1990 hit. The music in City of Angels captures the time period perfectly. It is rich, brassy, jazzy, BUT all out Broadway. Songs like With "Every Breath I Take," a lovely torch song are so enduring.
But, music isn't what makes a musical. Certainly it is one of the principal players in a musical. But, it can't hold up a show all by itself. It needs a strong, well written book. I am amazed by the amount of theatre goers who think of the book as a secondary player.
Frankly, a musical can't be good, without a good book. I am not saying that the music is awful. I'm saying that the show is weak without a strong book. It's just a big Ziegfeld show with awful dialogue in between some wonderful songs. If Into the Woods didn't have James Lapine's brilliant book, it would be dull. The writers of the books like Hugh Wheeler, James Lapine and Arthur Laurents do not get enough recognition.
Sure, the music is what stays with you, but the recollection of a poorly written book will burn in your memory forever. I think that because of many 99% sung musicals, the book is being pushed out of the lime light and it shouldn't. What would Oscar Hammerstein's shows be with out his books? They'd be full of lovely melodies and ingenious lyrics but that's it.
Then again, lyrics lose their effectiveness if they don't have a book to support them. If you come out of dull dialogue and go into a witty and wonderful song...the song is going to be dragged down by the dreadful book.
So, come on theatre goers: recognize the importance of the book. For without it a musical is NOT great.
My favorite musical is BARNUM. I love the older "musical comedies," because they were fun. I don't necessarily go to a musical for some deep message. I like to leave the theater dancing up the aisle!