Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Socially Conscious Musical

 Showboat 1929

Since the first true American musical play, Showboat, there have been socially conscious themes in musicals.  Showboat dealt with something that was most definitely a relevent issue of the day, miscegenation.  Inter-racial relationships were not commonly accepted in 1927 when the musical premiered, and Showboat put the realities of this on the stage, for better or for worse.

I really feel that this social consciousness is a part of the legacy of the "Great American Musical" as PBS would coin it.  From the original, through the Golden Age, up until today, musicals have been weaving important questions into song and dance routines.  Along with the token, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back formulation, social awareness is an integral part of the history of the musical.

Even Rogers and Hammerstein's works, with their generally lighthearted feel and content often dealt with serious social problems: abandonment, robbery, and suicide (Carousel), race relations and war (South Pacific), cultural differences and human rights (The King and I).

Other productions through the ages addressed our prejudices against our neighbors (West Side Story), the counter culture (Hair), races (Caroline, or Change), and those suffering from AIDS (Rent).  All too often, intellectuals are ready to dismiss the musical as "fluff" and "mindless entertainment", and while Broadway has certainly seen it's share of "fluff", you can't write off the entire form.  It's important for those of us who create and advocate for musical theater to ensure that this legacy of social consciousness carries on into the future.

What's the next step?  Which musicals are out there now that are addressing our issues?  Does Next to Normal fit the bill?  Will the upcoming Enron raise new awareness about the need for Corporate Responsibility?  I'm not suggesting that social consciousness should be the goal of a production, but I do think it's something to consider.  What do you think?

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