The King and I
The King and I was perhaps the most influential piece of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s career. It tackled concepts and themes never before attempted by musical theatre. The King and I could be considered to be more profound as it ages and continues to be relevant as time goes on. The political story of Westernization, loss of tradition, assimilation, and diplomacy continues to connect with the present as much as it did in 1890’s Siam. Perhaps more profound than the politics of the show, however, is the message of gender dynamics and slavery. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s intent was to pose to their audiences a moral question, not simply to entertain. Although “risking commercial success”, they created “the most subtextual love story the musical theatre had seen” (Band, 65).
“This is a show about the complexity of real love, not the idealized simplified love usually found in musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s. This was an impossible love, an adult, intellectual, and political Romeo and Juliet” (Band, 65).
The original set design of the show had a trapezoid-shaped mirror hanging above the stage. This mirror was the most important part of the set design, as it connected the meaning and intent of the show. The mirror forces the audience to see themselves as the bystanders of the corruption that occurs onstage. It forces them to see themselves in Nazi Germany, asking the same question as Fräulein Schneider in the show, "What would you do?". The mirror was tilted to reflect "the cabaret performers from a distorting perspective", making the show seem almost as a hallucination (Garebian, 48). The original director of Cabaret, the very famous Hal Prince, wanted to really stress the connection that the story had with contemporary America. He used the mirror as a way to make the audience see themselves in the show, and thus see the actions in the show in their contemporary civilian life. In Fräulein Schneider's song, "What Would You Do?", she asks the audience just as much as she asks Cliff and Sally what they would do if they were in her shoes. After breaking off her engagement with Herr Shultz due to his being a Jew, Schneider can see the impending doom that is headed towards Berlin while others believe it will soon blow over.
Similar to the themes of South Pacific, the song "If You Could See Her" begs the question, "Why do we judge people based on race, gender, religion, and appearance?" In this number, the Emcee questions this using the metaphor of being in a relationship with a gorilla. As ridiculous as this seems, the song expresses a very powerful message about anti-semitism. In the song, the Emcee states that if we could see this gorilla through his eyes, they wouldn't wonder at all why he's in love with her. Towards the end of the song, he asks, "Is it a crime to fall in love?", which gives the audience more sympathy to his cause. It is not until the end of the song that the audience realizes the purpose of the piece. The Emcee's lyrics state, "If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn't look Jewish at all" (Cabaret; Act II, Scene 3). As soon as this line lands, the audience realizes the much greater issue at hand. Through this seemingly simple song, Kander and Ebb express a deep social and political message by getting the audience to realize that regardless of something like religion, we should still show compassion for others and treat others humanely.
Part of Cabaret's brilliance stems from its intent to last forever. The show was written during and has always been revived during turning points in history regarding homosexuality, politics, and civil rights, among other landmark time periods. Each time Cabaret is revived and revised, it grows more and more extreme and powerful in order to keep up with the changing eras that it comments on. Regardless of the time in which it is produced, Cabaret's 1930s Berlin setting is relevant to contemporary issues.
When interviewed in 1987, Joel Grey, the original Master of Ceremonies, said that he "Once again saw compelling parallels to Cabaret's original message in the violent, uncertain world around [him]" (Zink). He also stated that "Political and sociological aspects of what is going on in the world today (1987) seemed enormously pertinent" (Zink).
While only ever Off-Broadway, The Fantasticks is the definition of a concept musical due to its entire existence revolving around a metaphor. The Fantasticks is a metaphorical love story between Matt and Luisa, whose love is tested by El Gallo, who states that "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow" (The Fantasticks, "Try to Remember").
The show uses several images and symbols to convey an overall metaphor about the necessary challenges that a relationship must undergo in order to be real, and not like the stories we read and see on stage. The use of the moon, a very central symbol in the show, expresses the fantasy life that Matt and Luisa live in. They are comforted and protected by the moon's beauty. When the moon in gone and the sun has risen, Matt and Luisa's dream is over and they are no longer sheltered by the perfection that moonlight provided. According to Scott Miller in his in-depth look at The Fantasticks, the sun and moon are the conflicting forces that cause dispute and imperfection in relationships. In the opening of Act II, El Gallo expresses in verse the concept of the moon being the perfect life, and the sun bringing the story back to reality:
In the song, "Round and Round", El Gallo has taken Luisa away and is teaching her and Matt the difficulties of real life. While Matt is taken by other characters (Henry and Mortimer) to experience the brutality of the real world, El Gallo takes Luisa on a trip to experience the world herself. He gives her a mask to view the horrific things that are happening to Matt in the real world. When she wears the mask she doesn't see the distress that Matt is in, but merely sees it through a rosy lens that makes it seem like a game. When she takes off the mask, the truth is revealed to her and she sees the bad things happening to him. The mask is used as a metaphor again, for being blind to the real word problems and instead living life very narrow-mindedly. When the mask is on, Luisa sees life in the moonlight, but when the mask is off, she sees life in the sun.
III. Pop and Rock: Musicals With Modern Twist
Famous for its hippie style, Hair took Broadway where it had never been before. As a commentary of the hippie movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hair was disorganized, chaotic, random, and yet, sophisticated in its intent. The musical was the first rock and roll musical to hit the Broadway stage and its unrhymed lyrics and minimal plot brought Broadway out of its show-stopping slump. Hair "rejected every convention of Broadway" by being so outlandishly different than any other musical before it (Rebels, 67). While the show was unconventional and disliked by a lot of people, it became a massive hit.
Considered by many as one of the most revolutionary musicals of all time, Jonathan Larson's Rent tackled a lot of challenges that other musicals had never dared to touch. Based on the opera La Bohème, the story of Rent comments on the bohemian lifestyle of the 1990s during the AIDS epidemic. The show is written in two styes of melodrama. The first being providential melodrama, in which the setting is universal and is not constrained to a specific time period. Rent embodies this form of melodrama in the story's pertinence to other time periods and locations. The story of Rent can be applied to many different scenarios because of its messages of love and celebrating life. The second form of melodrama that Rent embodies is materialist melodrama. In a materialist melodrama there is a set time period and location, which Rent does have (1990s New York City). A materialist melodrama also tends to put happy endings at risk, which Rent very clearly does in its discussion of the AIDS epidemic. Rent combines these two forms of melodrama to express a tragic story of love and death, while also an optimistic view of celebrating the life that we have remaining.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Rent is the title itself. The title has several different, and very important, meanings. The first being the economic challenges that the characters face, as they are young and struggling to get a job post college. Another meaning of the title is the temporary lifestyles that the characters seem to live in. They live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to keep any type of security and permanence in their lives. This is also similar to the bohemian lifestyle which the show embodies: living unconventionally and not restricting oneself to social norms, thus living an unbinding life. The temporary lives that the characters live are connected with their shortened lives due to disease and their fleeting relationships. Another definition of the word Rent is to be torn. This relates to the musical through the characters being "torn between love and dignity, between anger and pain, between the fear of intimacy and the fear of being alone (Band, 190). Yet another definition of the word Rent is to be "shredded in grief or rage" and also means to be "torn open by painful feelings" (Band, 190). All of these definitions of the word Rent are applicable to the meaning of the show, and Jonathan Larson chose this title deliberately. Rent is a musical that exposes social challenges and tragedies very honestly and the title gives the reader a sense of this painful exposure.