How does a musical gain a following? How does it keep it?
On the surface, there’s really nothing relatable about a musical. People rarely just break out into song and dance about something they’re thinking or talking about. It’s not realistic. Yet so many musicals have gained our support.
Why in the world do we love them so much?
I went over to Google to do a little research on which musicals were considered the best of Broadway. I realized quickly that a lot of Google sites claim to know the top ten best musicals — and they all list a different top ten. I decided instead to look at the longest running musicals. Here they are, according to Wikipedia: “The Phantom Of the Opera,” “Chicago,” “The Lion King,” “Cats,” “Les Misérables,” “A Chorus Line,” “Mamma Mia,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Wicked” and “Rent.” All of these productions get at something that we want in a musical. Here is a breakdown of the major components these musicals are built upon:
The first: the story. Though people often want a story that is relatable to their own lives, interest towards a musical isn’t usually lost if the relatability is. “The Lion King” does not directly correlate to events that take place in our daily lives, and it doesn’t have to. We love it, and frankly, that’s enough. A story of love, of growing up, of finding one’s place in the world — these are aspects of a musical that produce an audience’s devotion. All of these musicals in some way or another comment on the parts of a story that make us want more.
The second: the music. Since the musical scores within all these shows are all different and unique, there isn’t one universal component that I can say leads to a musical’s success. The songs become popular and loved when people start to attach real emotions to them. There is something in the lyrics and music that has to hook an audience and for these “longest running musicals,” people have stayed hooked for years.
The third: the cast. The original cast of a musical is often credited with a huge portion of why a musical is so successful. And that makes sense. The relationships between characters and the emotions behind them are brought out through the cast. If people see those relationships and characters as genuine, they naturally “root” for them. Thus, the musical gains a following.
The question at the heart of any musical is this: why should we care? When these musicals answer that question, people remain loyal. The heart of the story, the music, the people — it has to get us to a place where we care. We need something that speaks to the truth of what is in our world today. We crave that from entertainment. If people watch a musical that is upbeat and lively, they might react saying, “yeah, that was fun.” Or reversely, with a drama, “that was sad.” We need something more, something gained or something learned. I think the musicals listed above get us there.
Modern controversy behind popular musicals on Broadway today comes from a worry that many popular musicals are only successful because they are tied to a well-known film, book or character, which has “commercialized” the Broadway stage. These debates make it difficult to distinguish if there are specific elements that make a musical successful or if it is simply a result of the audience’s recognition of a familiar story, with praise that follows when it’s brought to the stage.
I think by dwelling on concerns like these, we lose what makes a musical so magical. The reason that these musicals have gained support and praise is because a story (whether it comes from a book or movie or not), a musical score and a talented cast have come together and brought these elements to life. The audience is captivated by what they see in front of them, and they’re taken to a different place — a different world. They leave the show in awe of what they witnessed and eager for more.
If a musical has produced reactions like these, it deserves a following.