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The Musical is Back

Move over Rodgers and Hammerstein. The Broadway lights now belong to Green Day.

The punk rock trio are the songwriters of one of Broadway’s latest openings: a musical titled American Idiot. With a score featuring electric guitars and themes of war, sex, and drugs, the show won’t soon be confused with Oklahoma!

American Idiot is the latest sign that the musical is hip again. While Green Day’s opus is an example of a rock album being adapted for the stage, Hollywood has also seen opportunities on Broadway, making movies out of such hits as Mama Mia, Nine, Hairspray, and Chicago. The musical comedy Glee won a Golden Globe for best television series earlier this year. And the Disney movie High School Musical sold more than 1.2 million DVDs when it was first released.

Glee and High School Musical appear to owe much of their popularity and success to teens and young adults, says Peter Reynolds, the director of musical theater at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“[The shows] tell a whole new generation: ‘Musicals are for you too,’ just as Rent did in the mid-90s,” says Reynolds, adding that the enrollment numbers in Temple’s theater program are on the rise.

The excitement around musical theater is even spreading to people who had no interest in the performing arts before. Many audio production students at The Art Institute of Philadelphia aspire to careers in television or movie scores, or as recording studio engineers. But that changes when they see a live musical for the first time, says Jim Gallagher, the school’s Academic Director for Audio Production and Web Design.

“For some of them, it was the first time they were exposed to live orchestra music and they were duly impressed,” Gallagher says.

Attending musical performances and other community theater is part of the Audio Production program’s coursework, says Gallagher. Many of the musical techniques used to set the mood in movies or television scores were born in musical theater, he says. And with Glee and High School Musical bringing those song-and-dance routines to the television and big screen, many students are discovering a passion for it.

“[Students] can [look for] jobs almost anywhere in the entertainment industry that uses sound,” Gallagher says. “That includes the theater.”

The standard musical formula fully integrated a story with songs and dances. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II perfected this formula in the 1940s and 1950s with South Pacific, Cinderella, and the Sound of Music, among others.

But in the decades since, playwrights and producers have tinkered with that formula. Shows such as Sweet Charity and Hair depicted the 1960s counterculture. Grease became a hit in the 1970s, and epic musicals such as Cats, Les Miserables, and The Phantom of the Opera drew huge audiences in the 1980s.

Today, kids and teens are driving the popularity of many shows, notably the film High School Musical and Wicked, which New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood notes was seen repeatedly by tween girls. It is, he says, “the only American show to achieve megahit status in the last decade.”

But while teens can be passionate about shows that they love, that enthusiasm can fizzle, says A.J. Meeker, 28, an account manager for an appliance and electronics distributor who has performed in community theater since he was 8. Meeker, who has done turns as Baby John in West Side Story, Harry Beaton in Brigadoon, and Yonkers in Gypsy, says he loves the musical theater for its magical ability to captivate an audience.

While he loves the classics, a turning point for Meeker was the debut of Rent on Broadway. That represented “a dramatic change,” he says. The rock opera, which had storylines dealing with gay relationships, AIDS, love, and death, ran for 12 years and more than 5,000 performances.

Rent broke the mold,” Meeker says. “It took a hard stance on very controversial social issues and I think that paved the way for the more poppy kind of shows and music.”

Poppy or not, today’s musicals have generated needed enthusiasm for the genre, Reynolds says.

“As long as they get young people to the theater, I am all for it,” he says. “There are popular musicals that I am not personally fond of, [but] I want young people to fall in love with theater, so I am a proponent of anything that helps that happen.”

“Nothing will ever be as moving as seeing live actors tell a story before your eyes,” he says. “We have been telling stories this way for centuries and we will continue to do so for centuries. The magic of theater is that it is live.”

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AIPD 2010 - 2011 CALENDAR


9.3.10 September Holiday

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