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Differentiating musical theatre from opera is relatively straightforward. If the piece is entirely sung through (or at least, the bulk of it is), it’s an opera. If there are scenes in between the songs, it’s a musical. The Human Comedy, performed by the BU School of Theatre earlier this winter, was programmed as a musical theatre piece but is technically termed a “folk opera” – which seems odd, but makes sense when you consider that the piece is entirely sung. The story is in the songs, and the moments between the “story” – usually recatative – are as well.

But what about “plays with music?” What makes them different from a musical, especially if the music is integral to the story?

As an example, this summer I worked on The Fabulous Lipitones at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre, which is a play about a barber shop quartet. The four actors sing various musical numbers throughout the play (probably at least ten songs), including a finale mash-up performance which is several minutes long. The music was also paired with precise choreography.  This means that a music director and choreographer were added to the production team, and an expert in barbershop and a capella singing also consulted on the actors’ performances. Given that it’s barbershop, no instruments accompanied the performers. But, excise the music from the play and there is essentially no play. If the music is critical to the storytelling and is precisely rehearsed, curated, and accompanied by choreography – what separates this from a musical?

Lipitones at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre.

Lipitones at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre.

As an even closer example, I’ve heard from a friend involved with the production that the upcoming Huntington show The Colored Museum has a great deal of musical performances integrated into the story. This apparently was a surprise challenge for the cast, because apparently no one had expected music to be such a large part of the play (though perhaps it’s not a shock, as the highly vocally talented Billy Porter is directing the show). This invites questions about the casting of a play with music, and the terminology surrounding such a production.

Must a director know, and clearly articulate, before casting a play and beginning rehearsals exactly how much music s/he is planning to incorporate into the show? Surely information regarding the importance of music to the play should be shared with the actors auditioning and with their agents (and to do so would obviously be to the director’s advantage), but should it be required?

Interestingly, there are no stipulations in the Equity handbook / rule book about what makes a production a musical, or any other associated regulations apart from pay, dance captains, the distribution of musical material, and stage management numbers. There is no rule against asking an actor to perform a song or dance in a production not “billed” as a musical. In fact, there is no rule requiring producers and directors to officially “bill” a show as a musical – though perhaps in many cases that official status comes up in individual contract negotiations, such as an actor’s contractual pay for the show?

Because the next piece of the puzzle is pay. Under an Equity contract, actors and stage managers are paid more for a musical. This is due to the implication that a musical is more work, both for the performers and the design and production team. Even if the show is not highly technically or physically challenging, the fact that actors and stage managers must learn and schedule music and dance in addition to lines and staging means that everyone is doing more than they would on a straight play production. However, what happens if actors are contracted under a straight play salary, but the presence of musical performance in the piece evolves, and grows over time? What if significant rehearsal time begins to be devoted towards music direction and choreography (even if these roles are filled by the stage director)? The actors and stage managers are still doing more work. They may even argue that they are doing as much work (or even more?) as they would on a production specified as a musical. But, without the benefits of increased contractual pay.

Once the musical, in which the cast played all their own instruments in addition to singing and acting straight scenes.

Once the musical, in which the cast played all their own instruments in addition to singing and acting straight scenes.

Is it worth investigating a standardization of the definitions of musical theatre? Perhaps this would help with contract negotiation, but when it comes down to it, theatre will always suffer from a rigid enforcement of definitions of its expression. It is a form that is meant to be fluid and flexible, and it thrives on experimentation. Just imagine being in a rehearsal room trying to solve a transition or other important moment in a piece, the director having the clear impulse that the moment needs song, and having a voice in the room stifle that impulse because “we’re not doing a musical.” And given that musicals are contractually more expensive, think of the kinds of plays (Lipitones, for example), that theatre companies may refuse to program because of the factor of increased cost.

Perhaps this is why the theatre has avoided making these distinctions up to this point. Not only will the process be hairy and beg exception, but the result could have very negative consequences as well. I think perhaps it’s best that we continue to live with the grey areas between forms, and address complications that arise on a case-by-case basis.

In the mean time, I am really looking forward to seeing how the musical elements play out in The Colored Museum!


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