What is Musical theatre?

Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.

Leonard Bernstein

Musical theatre is different to dramatic theatre in that it combines songs, spoken dialogue, and dance to tell a story. A musical is also different to a play with music, in that it gives as much importance to the songs and music as other elements of the production.

Musical theatre is a genre which means that it’s one set type or category of the many different types of theatre in existence. It’s often quite stylistic and can use a variety of theatrical techniques such as elements of physical theatre, still image and ensemble acting.

Opera and Musical theatre

Opera and Musical theatre ‘cross over’ so they might be very alike. The famous musical, Miss Saigon, for example is based on Giacomo Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly. But in the musical, Madame Butterfly's story of a doomed marriage between an American lieutenant and Japanese girl is replaced by a romance between an American GI and a Vietnamese bar girl during the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Programme cover for a production of My Fair Lady

Programme cover from My Fair Lady Credit: Ronald Grant Archive

Opera usually differs to Musical theatre in that opera has a story that is nearly all sung. This sung dialogue is called a libretto. In Musical theatre the story itself is not always delivered in song; often the songs are comments upon what is happening, providing additional insight into how a character is feeling or exploring a theme of the piece. Spoken dialogue is used alongside song and dance. Occasionally the songs themselves can be ‘spoken’. A famous example of this would be the character of Henry Higgins who ‘speaks’ his songs in the musical, My Fair Lady, which is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion. Although this was mainly due to the fact that Rex Harrison, the actor who portrayed Higgins on stage and in the 1964 film wasn’t a singer!

Poster for a production of Phantom Of The Opera

Poster for Phantom Of The Opera Credit: Ronald Grant Archive

The well-known musical, Phantom of the Opera, is also based on another older work. The story was inspired by the French novel, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra by Gaston Leroux.

  1. cameo A short, walk-on performance. A brief appearance in a whole play, film or story.
  2. Elizabethan The 'Golden Age' of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st in Britain from 1558-1603.
  3. ensemble Performers work together in rehearsal/performance to create a moment of action on stage, eg Greek Chorus; slapstick sequence or Physical theatre.
  4. genre A category or type of something. Fiction and non-fiction are two examples of different genres.
  5. naturalistic A form of theatre designed to create the illusion of reality for an audience. Originated in the late 19th century.
  6. Oliver Cromwell A controversial political figure. Ruled Britain as Lord Protector from 1653-1658. Brought about huge changes, from executing the King to the closing of theatres.
  7. still image A tableau, a single freeze frame. All perfomers on stage hold a dramatic pose in absolute stillness and silence to mark a moment as significant.
  8. suspension of disbelief To suspend your disbelief is to forget the performance and be drawn into the action as if it were real.
  9. vignette A short, stand-alone sketch that has a beginning, middle, end and meaning. A complete, mini story entire in itself.