Monday, 13 September 2010

Lets Conceptualise

As I'm stuck in the Shire, I've been indulging in some recordings of old musicals. Today's offering was Pippin, the music Stephen Schwartz made before he went mainstream to make Wicked. Which reminds me, what did Stephen Schwartz do during the 80s and 90s? Answers on a postcard. This got me thinking about conceptual musicals and whether, in these times of wanting mindless fun at the theatre, they can survive today?

Firstly, what is a concept musical? A concept musical typically removes a story from its perceived setting, often using a "concept" or certain idea to do this An early, not wholly conceptual idea would be Jesus Christ Superstar. Although the Jesus character was kept true to the perceived image, the setting of the title song thrusts the show in to the realms of concept. The show was brought bang up to date, using the fashion for disco, flares and the funky chicken to bring the message of the bible to the theatre going masses.

The seventies saw a string of conceptual hits, and misses, and started a trend that can still be seen today. I'm going to have a look at some of the best (and worst) concept musicals to hit the stage.

The curse of the cute leading man strikes again, mmm....William Katt...
Pippin perfectly represents a conceptual musical- both in it's book and musical, and it's staging. It tells the story of the son of Charlemagne through a travelling troupe of performers led by the eponymous Leading Player (originally played by Ben Vereen). As they tell the tale, the lines between fiction and real life start to blur as Pippin truly becomes the son of Charlemagne and the troupe turn against him. The play shows that we can change history and make love, not war, in a not so blatant as Hair way. I love the layers of concept in this show and also the fact that it can be enjoyed on so many levels, depending on how much you want to think about it. I also love that Pippin was successful and is still performed a lot regionally today.

Ragni and Rado may have taken conceptual musicals a bit too far with Dude! It was a confusing mix of Shakespeare, biblical mythology and rock music. While I appreciate their creativity, I just don't think audiences could work out what the concept was. And here lies the issue with concept musicals, if you don't give the audience enough hints or make your concept too confusing or complicated, the audience won't care about the characters or your show.

Yeah yeah, I know, sexy ladies, Fosse hands, enough already.
Although the concept musical never really went away, the movement definitely received a revival in 1996 with Chicago. Although I personally refuse to see the stage production because of its cheap stunt casting and recycling of cast members, at the time it was pretty radical, and is one of the few situations where a revival has been more financially successful than the original. the production was completely pared down to skimpy black costumes, a non-existent set and the diminutive band onstage. To the casual onlooker, there is no way a conceptual show like this would still be running but through clever marketing and an emphasis on sex, it has. Whilst I would have been interested in seeing the production when it opened in 1996, it has been cheapened by the Weisslers' incessant need to put untalented celebrities into the roles- more of an issue in the Broadway production.

But one thing I am proud of is the legacy of Chicago to allow other concept shows to believe they can succeed in the current climate. Which brings me on to American Idiot. Yes, I have already dedicated a whole blog post to it, but I feel it is relevant in the journey of the concept musical. Similarly to Jesus Christ Superstar, Idiot originated as a concept album, but this time the concept is almost supplementary to the music, just there to elevate it to another level. The only character to speak is our protagonist Johnny, and he speaks in monologue correspondence to his familiars. this was a brave thing for Michael Mayer to do as he could have easily alienated Greenday fans by intellectualising the show too much. Instead he allows the audience to piece together the story how they want, interesting both Greenday fans and theatre fanatics.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I wish the real Andrew Jackson had looked like that.
I hope this trend will continue with the arrival of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the emo musical about a not so famous president. I have to admit I know little about the show, apart from that it did very well off-Broadway, but I'm glad that something truly original is coming to the Great White Way. If anyone sees it, let me know how it was!


Antimini said...

Hmm still not sure I get the idea of what 'concept' means. Is it when things are more abstract or postmodern? So is minimalism the concept in Chicago because it's not realistic?

Anonymous said...

Stephen Schwartz wrote the lyrics to Rags (1986), Children of Eden (1991) and several Disney films, starting with Pocahontas (1995). Not quite a postcode, but hey.
Add on wikipedia and it turns out he wrote songs for The Trip and three songs for Personals. Who knew? :p

Also, I think I disagree with your meaning of concept musical - I would say a concept musical is one where the statement is more important than the plot (or perhaps a 'plotless' musical that is not quite a song cycle). I can't really see Chicago as a concept musical at all - sure it has minimalist staging, but that's only because it started life as a concert. Of course, I generally don't like genre classification anyway so I haven't put a great deal of thought into this! So maybe Assassins, heck, maybe Cats and Hair, but certainly not JCS (though I do recognise you said it wasn't wholly conceptual) or Chicago.

I might give you American Idiot though - admittedly I don't know that much about it, but I'd agree with the concept musical label from you description of it.

Lucy said...

I think I was using more of the music album definition of concept, for example JCS was a concept album, as was Whistle Down the Wind, so I think the question is if a show is based on a concept album, does that make it a conceptual show?

Personally, I think that a lot of the story is taken away from the show in the revival Chicago and so could be considered slightly conceptual in that it drags out the themese of murder and sex rather than following the story of Roxie Hart.

Having sneakily watched a youtube version of American Idiot, I'd say its concept by both definitions.

Thanks for your comments though, I like my posts to bring up discussion and just shows how different viewpoints can occur in theatre.

PS. He also did Working, in that time but strangely, apart from Rags briefly, had nothing on Broadway for about 20 years.

Lucy said...
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