Comment on three musicals from the period 1960 – Present Day

This period is categorised by the dominant influences from pop and rock styles on the numbers from musicals, and also development of technology which allowed for body mics, synthesisers, and greater amplification; all of which aided the largest productions known as ‘Megamusicals’, such as the 1980 musical, ‘Les Miserables’.

‘Les Miserables’ is a book-based musical set against a war background; and was such a successful ‘megamusical’ it was released as a film. The show’s prologue alone contains the seven dominant themes and leitmotifs present throughout, thus acting as a typical Broadway overture. One of the opening themes is ‘Look Down’ number which is in a noticeable march style rhythm to represent the working, down-trodden folk who sing it. This bass theme returns whenever these folk are on stage or alluded to and is developed via the use of contrafactum as the urchin, Gavroche sings over the music with altered lyrics. This number along with, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’, features large scale orchestration and staging; they are both chorus numbers sang by the down-trodden folk to portray their togetherness, as well as their message; a wish for freedom.

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Arguably, the most dominant theme within the entire production is Fantine’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’; first heard at the docks, it is the most moving piece. It is the rising third at the climax of each line in the verse that is associated with Fantine and is reprised during her death in an extremely flat key with seven flats. This theme is harmonically identical to Valjean’s, ‘Who am I?’ theme which is mostly pentatonic and played in the violins, wind, and percussion. The similarities in the two characters’ themes symbolise their connection and most significantly; it is played whenever Cosette, Fantine’s birth and Valjean’s adopted daughter, sets eyes on Marius showing that Cosette will fulfil everything Fantine dreamed of.

Lloyd Webber’s 1978 production, ‘Evita’, also featured music which conveyed the plot and emotions of characters. It is also similar to ‘Les Mis’ as the libretto is entirely sung and was made into a film following much success. Two musical styles dominate; each linked to a key mode of expression; the first, Spanish tinged rock, and the second, modern, syncopated, dissonant music. The former is employed primarily to communicate the presence of cynicism, dissembling, or pretence. This is evident in the number, ‘There is No One’ which is in the style of Twentieth Century Art music and waltz, with accented dissonance which also is used to express real feelings.

This style of Spanish tinged soft rock is found in the musical’s most famous song, ‘Don’t Cry for My Argentina’ which features tango bass. The number is about Eva’s relationship with the people. The melody reappears throughout thus, reinforcing its centrality to the story. The opening number sang by the narrator, ‘Oh! What a Circus’ is sang to the same melody as ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ in contrafactum.

The number ‘On This Night of a Thousand Stars’ features musical borrowing, borrowing musical material from the Latin standard, ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.

Like the two previous musicals, ‘Sweeney Todd’ has been seen as an opera as the dialogue is underscored by the music giving it a recitative quality. This 1979 musicals opens with a short prelude followed by the deafening sound of a factory whistle which may be symbolic of the Victorian Industrial age, however, is more likely being used as a foreshadowing device as it is the sound which is heard each time Sweeney kills a new victim.

The first number is a chorus number, ‘Ballad of Sweeney Todd’; this also ends the show thus framing it. The modal melody and drone accompaniment creates the impression of a timeless folk-legend. The chorus are employed here to comment on the action and the vocal polyphony represents how a real crowd may shout over one another. The climax of this piece is based on the traditional chant, ‘Dies Irae’ by Jenkins.

The most well-known piece from Sweeney Todd is ‘Epiphany’ in which Todd plans to kill the judge who raped his wife. His obsession of motif, ‘D, C, Eb, F’ is played in rapid string semi-quavers, against lengthy pedal notes which enhance emotional tension. Aggressive melodies are supported by dissonant while lyrical lines are accompanied in a Romantic fashion. To show Todd’s fluctuating emotions, he is given a dramatic range of vocal styles; his recitative like low pitched lines at ‘hole in the world’, change to higher, more lyrical lines for ‘they all deserve to die’ and again at ‘Welcome to the grave’ as its now spoken and manic.

All three musicals mentioned have been made into movies due to their success on-stage. This was possible due to the advancement in recording during this period. It was during the period 1960- present day musicals were able to grow as performances and reach more people.

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