If art is a reflection of life, then musical theater is a way of expressing our pain and rage in a way that the spoken word cannot quite vocalize. As our culture has changed over the years, musicals have fulfilled different roles in our lives. They’ve offered respite from national depression, served as a well for pop music, and provided challenging social commentary in a form that is easy to enjoy. Of course, they have also presented us with an excuse to shut off our brains and enjoy a cheesy musical.
Regardless, musical theater has played a part in bringing people together, because unlike opera, you don’t have to have a certain background to understand or appreciate the message the production is trying to impart.
Here are just a few of the musical theater productions that have reformed the art form, and maybe even changed the world.
The lyrics of Hair’s opening song, “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” perfectly describe the hippie movement of peace, happiness, and freedom that are the focus in this musical. The production intended to create an understanding of this new hippie generation, and helping audiences realize why young people were choosing to protest. However, the impact of Hair was so great that several of its songs became anthems of the Anti-Vietnam War peace movement.
Loosely based on the opera La Boheme, Rent focused on the lives of young artists living in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis. There are a wide range of characters that hadn’t taken centre stage in previous musicals, including drag queens, Latina dancers, black college professors and recovering addicts. Rather than stigmatizing these characters, writer Jonathan Larson radically opted for a sympathetic storyline. Rent won a Tony for Best Musical.
Beauty and the Beast (1994)
Although the genre of musical films haven’t been popular since the 1950s, according to Cennarium, there is no denying the Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast brought life back into the movie musical. It was the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and it went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. As such, Beauty and the Beast was the first of many broadway musicals produced by Disney Theatrical, and it marked the beginning of an era of corporate producing. We have Beauty and the Beast to thank for the theatrical production of The Lion King (1997).
Fun Home (2013)
Adapted from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, the story concerns Bechdel’s discovery of her own sexuality, her relationship with her gay father, and her attempts to unlock the mysteries surrounding his life. It is the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist. The production moved to Broadway shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision concerning marriage equality, which made “Fun Home” more than a fantastical musical and instead become a way to express major social conversations through deeply relatable human characters.