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What makes a good musical?

Gold Theatre MasksI recently watched a clip of the Alan Titchmarsh Show where his guests were from musical theatre. The topic of conversation went briefly on to ‘what makes a musical successful…’ with no straightforward answer. On the same evening I went along to watch Billy Elliot the Musical at the Victoria Palace Theatre and it made me think, why is Billy Elliot so successful and what makes a good musical?

This is what I came up with…

Music (The Score)
The most successful musicals will have music that not only fits with the storyline of the show (The Book) but also has the audience wanting to listen to the music/songs away from the theatre, on their iPods, CD players etc. There are musicals that are inspired by the music and not the storyline and these are commonly referred to as jukebox musicals, whichis a musical that uses popular songs as its musical score. Usually the songs will have a common connection with a musician or a group. Where jukebox musicals are successful it is where popular music also has a strong enough book, with Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock being typical examples. The musicals with the most memorable (and enjoyable) songs are usually the most successful.

The Book
The book is essentially the narrative structure that prevents the musical score from being nothing more than a disjointed medley of songs. Generally speaking musicals with great scores and weak books tend to fail, while those with mediocre scores and solid books have a better chance of succeeding. If a musical has great music AND a great book then all looks promising!

Key elements of the book include; keeping the story line clear, create characters that are easy to relate to, create situations that call characters into song, move in and out of songs as smoothly as possible and try to get the audience to have an emotional connection with the characters.

Creative Team
The creative team essentially put the whole show together and without this team a musical just wouldn’t happen. There are many more than this but it is essentially everyone that is involved in the making of a show including music, lighting, sound, scenery, costumes, production, set design, choreography, orchestration etc. A strong and effective creative team is vital for a successful show. It is difficult to take any part of the creative team and singularly pick them out as being the most important, as they work together as a team.

Only a few successful musicals use fully original story lines, Billy Elliot being one that is based on a film of the same name. Many are adapted from novels, such as Les Miserables (Victor Hugo) and The Phantom of The Opera (Gaston Leroux). When selecting a story for adaptation, the creative team must first determine that music will add to the effectiveness of the storyline, with one of the main requirements being to allow characters to experience a range of emotions and to sing about them, in order to ‘connect’ with the audience.

Scene Structure
The ending of each scene in a musical should project the action forward, pointing the audience’s interest into the following scenes. Since good show tunes often capture a moment of transition, a song (or a brief reprise) is often used to bring scenes to a close. The modern musical is almost always written in a two-act format and audiences are accustomed to it. If nothing else, an audience forced to sit for several hours is tougher to entertain.

The ending of Act 1 should entice the audience to remain for the rest of the show, and if you have not hooked an audience before the interval the chances of a successful show are limited. The end of Act 2 is arguably more important as it has a significant bearing on what audiences go away with a memory of. A powerful final scene can sometimes make up for shortcomings earlier in the show. Many shows reprise their strongest ballad, but the book writer must structure the play so that the last scene is memorable for all the right reasons.

The Writers, Songwriters, Producers and Lyricists
Let’s be honest, there are currently a handful of names in musical theatre who when they put on a show many people will think about going along to see it. It may not be a successful musical but it will probably stand a better chance than most. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Tim Rice are three impresarios that immediately spring to mind, with Elton John another who has also added his musical inspiration to musicals. Having a big name on its own is unlikely to make a poor musical a success in the long-term, but it may help get bums on seats in the short-term.

The Cast
There is no doubt that having a very popular actor or singer in the cast of a musical will help get more people in to watch a show, but this is unlikely to keep a mediocre musical running for long. For a successful show there must be good music and book, with the main cast and ensemble being excellent in what they do, and that is to sing and act, and if the part requires it, to dance. A single actor won’t very often make a musical (successful) but a musical can make (the career of) an actor. Inevitably a successful musical will have more of the leading talent at any given time going for the auditions and this will in turn lead to a strong cast for the more successful musicals. Many theatregoers will often go to see a show just to see one particular actor, but if you are one of those people, just keep a look out for other talented actors and the show itself, and don’t be blinkered into just watching your leading light. In any given performance the cast have to be believable in the roles that they are portraying and get the audience to join them on their journey.

The orchestra is obviously there to create the music, and is an integral part of any musical, the exception being where the music is generated electronically or is pre-recorded. Most orchestras perform from an orchestra pit and they are more often than not unseen, apart from the conductor. A really good orchestra may well go relatively unnoticed as it becomes part of the whole performance, but don’t underestimate the contribution that the orchestra makes to a good musical.

The Audience
First and foremost you can take the most successful musical and there will be many people that do not even like the musical. But it really doesn’t matter as long as there are a lot of people that do! Most successful shows (and arguably all) have an audience that includes many who will come and see the show more than once. The successful musical will therefore not only appeal to a large group of people, but will also have them wanting to come back again and again.

What makes a good musical?
While all of the above contribute to a good musical, the key ingredient for me is that the audience is reached on an emotional level that is in line with what is happening on the stage. When this happens then the stage and auditorium are as one. If there are moments in a show when you can feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck then you are probably going to come back again. In answer to the earlier question, why is Billy Elliot so successful? It has all of the above…

What do YOU think makes a good musical?

Neil Cheesman @LondonTheatre1

Updated 7th October 2014

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One Comment

  1. Agree totally with this blog!

    What I hate with so many musicals that seem to be plaguing theatres at the moment is that they have no honesty. They were written as a musical for musical sake. Such as, Shrek. The whole time I was watching it I could tell the writers got writers block and just went…UHHH put another tap section in there, make it 7 minutes.

    In musicals, the singing and dancing needs to have a reason. The point of musical theatre as a story telling device is when a character is too emotional to talk about something, they sing about it and when it’s too emotional to sing about it, they dance it.
    That’s why Billy Elliot is so good. It sticks to that structure and it all makes sense, the book, music and lyrics and design of the show works together.

    For example in the big solo of Billy’s, Electricity. He is asked to explain what he feels like when he is dancing. He can’t tell them through words so he sings, then the song becomes too much for him to express through song and he shows them with dance. BOOOM musical theatre at its raw bones where it should stay!

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