Musical theatre is often associated with Broadway and the Great White Way, a term coined in the early 20th century referring to the white lights of New York’s famous theatre district.
The nature of musicals has changed over the decades, resulting in a small number of subsets of the genre, or different types of musicals.
The “book” in musical theatre, otherwise known as the script and sometimes referred to as the libretto, consists of spoken dialogue and song lyrics. As a consequence, book musicals have a reliance on the script first, often with heavy dialogue and a narrative that is paramount. Connected songs help propel the plot forward.
Early 20th-century musicals generally relied on known stars singing numerous musical “standards” in the premiere Broadway production. Many of these shows consisted of loosely connected songs with thin characterisation. This, of course, came at the expense of a solid plot.
Audiences soon demanded a more substantial chain of events and before long, the book musical was born with an emphasis on psychologically driven characters. Dialogue, songs and dances were weaved into a cohesive whole.
The 1927 musical Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and the book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was a landmark musical theatre show often considered the first mature book musical in American theatre. Songs such as Ol’ Man River, Make Believe, and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man were carefully integrated into the plot.
Jukebox musicals are called such because they usually consist of a large number of songs by a single recording artist. In order to make these musical theatre shows attractive to audiences, the artist and songs are well-known, sometimes using a back catalogue of material spanning decades.
Criticism of the genre centres around thin plots and flaky characters, sometimes with the careless dumping of songs into the narrative and at other times entire scenes written around a single song.
Jukebox musical flops are commonplace and hits are rare but often spectacular. Runaway jukebox musical successes include Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), Mamma Mia (ABBA), We Will Rock You (Queen), and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Carole King).
Another version of the jukebox musical is seen in Moulin Rouge! The Musical, with the stage show including more than 70 pop songs by dozens of different artists, breaking the genre’s mould of using only songs by a single artist in the production.
Not surprisingly, rock musicals typically consist of rock songs. This genre of musical theatre first emerged in the late 1960s with Hair, the “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”. The show was closely followed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a sung-through musical usually referred to as a rock opera. The following year, the hugely successful Godspell consisted entirely of pop, folk, and rock songs.
A revival of rock musicals occurred in the 1990s with hits such as The Who’s Tommy and Jonathon Larson’s Rent. This century, successful rock musicals have included Spring Awakening, Green Day’s American Idiot, and Jagged Little Pill with songs by Alanis Morissette.
Dance musicals are considered shows that consist of either a storyline connected to dancing and/or an emphasis on dance numbers.
Key examples of both a dance-themed plot and big dance numbers include A Chorus Line (1975), 42nd Street (1980), Fame (1998), Saturday Night Fever (1998) based on the 1977 film of the same name, Fosse (1999), and Billy Elliot The Musical (2005).
Musicals renowned for their dance numbers without a strong dance plot include Anything Goes (1934) with songs by Cole Porter, West Side Story (1957) and Chicago (1975) both choreographed by Bob Fosse and Moulin Rouge! The Musical (2019), based on the 2001 film.
At their centre, concept musicals often have a deeper meaning, theme, message, or metaphor and often lack a linear plot line. This type of musical theatre is usually structured as a series of scenes connected by an overall theme. It is generally agreed that theme rules over plot in a concept musical.
With more serious subject matter, concept musicals are rarely musical comedies, although humourous satire can be presented with an underlying message.
Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021) wrote several concept musicals including Assassins and Company. Other examples of concept musicals include A Chorus Line, Avenue Q, Cats, and Hair.
Sung-through musicals do not include spoken dialogue, with every word sung from start to finish. Shows include Les Miserables, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Hamilton.