Musical: a success made in the USA

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Martí Micolau

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  • The main features of the musical
  • The origins of the musical in the theater
  • The cinematic musical

Among the different musical genres born in America between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one cannot fail to mention il musical, a contaminated form of music, theater and later also entered the world of cinema. The name is short for musical comedy, or musical comedy.

The musical mixes song and prose, music and dance and this alternation makes it akin to European operetta, from which he seems to have drawn inspiration.

The greatest successes of the American musical over time have brought more and more people to the theater, fascinated by the stories told and by the liveliness of dances and songs with an overwhelming rhythm.

Even today in New York the theaters of Broadway show timeless classics such as West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Chicago and many others. Many of these titles also had one cinematographic version which has amplified its notoriety at an international level.

Let's try to understand in detail how a musical is made, what its origins are and how it developed between theater and cinema.

The main features of the musical

The term musical means a sentimental / humorous theatrical performance in which moments of singing and dancing alternate with recited dialogues.

According to critics it would seem to derive from the so-called operetta, a theatrical genre born in France in the mid-nineteenth century that was characterized by the presence of sung parts and ballads and other recited. From this, however, it differs for the emphasis of the plot and for the simplification of the songs that can be sung by actors who are at least in tune.

For other scholars, however, the roots of the musical go back even to the Europe of the eighteenth century, in particular to The work of the beggar by the English playwright john gay who inserted small pieces of music into the plot of his works.

The peculiarities of the operetta were adapted to American taste which favored the brilliant comedies set in the big cities of the United States. The musical therefore contains various types of pop music, inspired by jazz and opera.

They can thus be glimpsed different forms of language that are harmonized and integrated to perfection. In musicals each element must be taken care of in the smallest details, from the choreography, songs, from the actors up to the sets, lights and costumes.

Usually a work of this kind non has a well-defined or codified duration but on average it lasts from an hour and a half to three hours. At the same time, the show is generally composed of two acts of which the first is almost always longer than the second.

In the first act they are introduced most of the most important characters and songs and very often it ends with an unresolved conflict or problems that are difficult to overcome. In the second act, all of these adversity are definitively outdated, and it often happens that musical themes already played at the beginning are repeated.

The spoken dialogues are interspersed with singing performances but it happens that in some musicals the recited parts are almost entirely sung.

For what concerns the stories told in musicals, authors can develop a completely new and original plot or draw inspiration from plays, legends, novels, historical events or films.

The origins of the musical in the theater

The birth of the musical in America was associated with September of 1866 when performed at Niblo's Garden Theater in New York The Black Crook, a comedy born from the collaboration between a prose company and a dance and song company.

The musical seems to be so born from the bourgeois and popular classes of the American population and has over time become an art form aimed at the masses and a heterogeneous audience. Indeed, its structure allows any viewer to follow the story in a smooth and more understandable way than classical prose.

The tradition of the stars and stripes musical takes momentum from the great theaters of Broadway, in New York, and then spread to every corner of the country. Between the Twenties and the Fifties we live a real golden age, difficult to replicate.

Every day the theaters offer different works with more replicas per day to satisfy the requests of an increasingly large audience. It must be emphasized, however, that the success of the musical is not the product of the genius of a single person, but to a transversal cooperation between musicians and writers.

Among the many winning collaborations we can mention those between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for Oklahoma and between George Gershwin and his brother Ira for Funny Face e Lady be good while Cole Porter and several other musicians have dared to try their hand at writing.

Starting from the XNUMXs the boom of the theatrical musical begins to subside for the affirmation of new types of music, such as the rock and roll, which are less suited to melodramatic themes.

However, since the XNUMXs we have been witnessing innovative and irreverent musicals: the most striking example is Hair leading to the stage to the hippie culture so dear to young people, together with social issues such as Vietnam War, pacifism and the sexual revolution.

The cinematic musical

For a variety of reasons related to geographical origin and the English language, the theatrical musical for decades it spread slightly outside England and the United States, with the exception ofSpain and a few other countries. Today it is mostly known for movies rather than theater plays.

With the advent of cinema and sound in the Twenties, the musical has gone beyond the confines of the theater to land at movies, becoming a truly independent genre. This was possible thanks to the big companies Hollywood production houses who proposed films in which they later established long films artistic partnerships between directors and actors / singers.

The first cinematic musical par excellence is The love parade by Ernst Lubitsch, who in 1929 launched the duo Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier into the firmament of American stars.

In the Thirties it was the turn of the most famous couple in the world of musicals, Ginger Rogers e Fred Astaire, which will shoot together 10 films, including Carioca in 1933, Top hat and in 1935 Following the fleet in 1936.

In the following decade and in the early XNUMXs, new and eclectic directors make their entrance. One of the most emblematic was Vincent minnelli, which will give history masterpieces of the caliber of Un americano a Parigi e Gigi.

Meanwhile, many other talented artists such as Judy GarlandOscar Award for A star is born and especially Gene Kelly, unmissable in the film Cantando sotto la pioggia of 1952.

The early 1961s, on the other hand, represent the boundary between classic and modern cinema, and the same category of musical adapts to this transformation. XNUMX marks the debut of West Side Story, the most awarded and critically acclaimed musical film, which will be followed by other memorable films such as My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, All together passionately, Hello Dolly and Funny Girl.

In these years it cannot be forgotten Bob Fosse which in 1972 launched Liza Minnelli with Cabaret, but also Chiacago, Sweet Charity and All That Jazz cannot be forgotten.

The more restless tendencies of the era are fully manifested in more subversive and disruptive musicals, starting with Jesus Christ Superstar and coming up to The Rocky Horror Picture Show e Hair.

Between the seventies and the eighties the disco-music and it is in this groove that they are placed Saturday night fever e Staying Alive. In a different category are more transversal films and with a sparkling texture such as The Blues Brothers, Fame e A Chorus Line.

Since the XNUMXs, a progressive is perceived decline of the film musical, for which few quality works are produced known to the general public. The internationally acclaimed titles that Hollywood has churned out over the past 30 years mostly include Sister Act, Mill Red, Evita, Mamma Mia, which was also attended by the very famous Meryl Streep, and the most recent La La Land, with Emma Stone e Ryan Gosling as protagonists.

Another recent musical, whose debut takes place in 2015, is Hamilton. The soundtrack gives a modern note to a show that tells the story of the founding father Alexander Hamilton: it ranges, in fact, from rap up to Jazz and R&B.

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