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Plays and Musicals: What's the Difference?

By Rick Pender · April 2nd, 2014 · Curtain Call

As CityBeat’s theater critic, I write about plays and musicals, so I’m occasionally asked which I like better. The truth is I appreciate both forms. But they are distinct, so let me hold forth on some differences and similarities.

Both happen onstage using actors, scenery, costumes, lighting and so on. A musical adds music to tell its story. Before the modern era, plays sometimes featured songs, but they were often plugged in as added entertainment. Not until Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) did songs advance the story. Today musicals are a typically American form of entertainment, although they are performed worldwide and can certainly originate elsewhere — England has sent many our way, from Phantom of the Opera and Cats to more recent hits such as Billy Elliott and Matilda.

Plays afford greater flexibility. For financial reasons, many regional theaters seek out scripts requiring just a few actors and a single set — such as Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (two actors), currently at Ensemble Theatre, or A Delicate Ship (three actors) by Anna Ziegler, getting its world premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse. Of course, a big cast show can be a hit — Tracy Letts’ three-act Pulitzer Prize winner from 2008, August: Osage County, has 13 vivid characters — but it’s not the norm. 

Musicals need an orchestra and bigger casts, and that adds expense to commercial productions on Broadway, where backers require some assurance of financial success. Producers are often gamblers willing to take on some risk, but a substantial return is rare.

So teams creating musicals, which typically require a composer, a lyricist and probably a book-writer (who crafts the script), often seek tried-and-true properties.

Movies have become a go-to source. With familiar stories and Pop tunes, they seem to resonate with audiences. That’s not always the case, as represented by two not very successful touring shows that stopped at the Aronoff this season — Ghost (based on the 1990 film featuring Patrick Swayze, which used “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers) and Flashdance (the unlikely story of a young female welder yearning to be a ballet dancer that used MTV-styled video scenes for numbers such as “What a Feeling!” and “Maniac”). Such works are overly derivative, too often failing to achieve even the modest the appeal of the work that inspired them, although there are exceptions. The jaunty Hairspray (from John Waters’ 1988 film) was a 2003 Tony winner. 

“Jukebox musicals” typically assemble tunes by an artist or a group into a show. Sometimes familiar music can be added to an unlikely plot: Mamma Mia had a Tony winner in 1999 by plugging tunes by ABBA into a completely silly tale. All Shook Up (Elvis Presley), Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash) and Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys) offered popular tunes, but lacked enough story to hold interest. Occasionally a jukebox show unites familiar music with a story worth telling. Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was a Tony winner (2005), and Million Dollar Quartet (2010) recreated an actual intersection of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash that was interesting. Coming to the Aronoff Center next week for two nights (April 11-12) is American Idiot, a 2010 stage musical based on Green Day’s 2004 recording. It employs music from the concept album to tell the story of three disaffected young men. It was not a gigantic hit, but it does show originality. It’s worth seeing.

I’m more often entertained by the unexpected: The satirical Urinetown (2001) was a totally original concept, the story of a city where access to public facilities was restricted and taxed. next to normal (presented locally by Ensemble Theatre in 2011) used Rock music to tell a wrenching story of a schizophrenic woman and her family.

There’s more flexibility in the world of drama, of course, for translating material into clever stories for the stage. You might want to check out Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth-Century Way at Know Theatre (Friday-May 3), based on a true but forgotten episode in which actors were hired by police in Long Beach, Calif., to entrap gay men in the crime of “social vagrancy.” Or give a try to Venus in Fur by David Ives at the Playhouse (April 19-May 17), a comedy inspired by a forgotten Victorian novel about sadomasochism. The 2011 Broadway hit is the most frequently produced play on American stages this season. I don’t expect either of these will become a musical, but they’ll surely provide a lot of entertainment.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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