Broadway Musicals with the Most Compelling Structures (Part Two)
The other day, I wrote a Part One exploring musical with compelling structures. Today, I continue that list with five more shows that take an unconventional approach to musical theatre storytelling.
Lady in the Dark
For 1941, Moss Hart (Book), Kurt Weill (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics) were definitely stepping outside of the norm of conventional musical comedy when they created the groundbreaking Lady in the Dark. In telling the story of Liza Elliott, a depressed editor of a fashion magazine, they explored the phenomenon of psychoanalysis. Each visit Liza made to her psychiatrist turned into an elaborate musical sequence, each a metaphor for the troubles she is trying to overcome. These sequences were mini-musicals unto themselves: The Glamour Dream, The Wedding Dream, and The Circus Dream.
City of Angels
City of Angels is the story of a pulp fiction writer who is adapting one of his whodunnit novels for the silver screen in 1940s Hollywood. What makes its structure particularly compelling is that the Larry Gelbart script and Cy Coleman/David Zippel score tells two separate stories side-by-side. As the experiences of the novelist Stine unfold in one story, the ever-changing and evolving screenplay he is writing about the gumshoe Stone plays before our eyes, often mirroring Stine’s story. The musical is written so that performers playing a character in one story have a parallel character to play in the other. Even more interesting is that Stine and Stone often talk to each other, breaking the wall between the two stories with their arguments and witty commentary.
Though Cabaret is essentially a linear story, it is set within the confines of a seedy cabaret in Berlin of the 1930s. The proceedings are overseen by the sinister Emcee who invites the audience in. A book scene will play out for the audience, but then a cabaret act will play with one of the many of the Kander and Ebb songs offering commentary on what we have just witnessed.. Since the musical takes place amidst the rise of Hitler, the show-within-a-show numbers are delivered with a brazen and brash cynicism, very razzle dazzle with a dark undercurrent.
The musical Pippin is unconventional in its structure because it features a band of strolling players acting out the story Pippin: His Life and Times. Pippin, the first-born son of Charlemagne, spends the musical searching for his purpose I life, with many of the players taking on the roles of the people in his life. Though it is linear in structure, the musical also episodic and the fourth wall is often broken as the players make wry and pointed commentary on his actions. The Stephen Schwartz score supports this approach as some of the songs are presented in the traditional musical theatre sense from the character point of view, while other songs are reflections on what is taking place.
Debatably (but only marginally so) the most-compelling of all musicals with non-traditional structures is Stephen Sondheim’s and George Furth’s Company. A groundbreaking musical in 1970 that threw linear structure out the door, Companyis considered by many to be the first great concept musicals. Instead of telling a story with plot, Companyexplored the various themes of marriage, bringing together several married couples who are all friends of the musical’s central character, the bachelor Bobby. The show is a series of vignettes, each tackling different components of marriage, interconnected by Bobby who is trying to understand his inability to connect and commit to one person. Company forged new ground in musical theatre writing, forever changing the confines of what traditional musical theatre had always been.
What other musicals with compelling structures can you think of? Please share and tell me why you find it unconventional.