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The Modern Musical: Recent trends and the narrowing gap between Broadway and the West End

By Christina Belter

From the Author: I wrote “The Modern Musical” as my final research paper for Goucher’s three-week intensive course in London called “Dance and Theatre as Cultural Metaphors.” I chose to study musical theater simply because I have always enjoyed it but knew little about it.  Besides, what could possibly be a more enjoyable method of doing research than going to see musicals?  As I delved into my preliminary research, however, I was a little dismayed to find that the critics didn’t think as highly of The Phantom of the Opera as my friends, family, or I did.  Many critics seem to think musicals have recently taken a turn for the worse, or even believe that musical theatre is a dead art form. Mark Grant has dedicated an entire novel to the discussion of The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical, which actually proved to be an especially helpful resource for writing this paper.

In an effort to see why the critics who grew up in the “golden age of musicals” of the 50s and 60s didn’t appreciate the musicals I grew up with, I gathered information from a wide variety of sources.  Novels and review articles from Goucher’s library helped elucidate recent trends. In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s theatre collection provided me with piles of programs and newspaper clippings from West End musicals. Personal interviews with Ian Nethersell, an actor and director of small-scale musicals in the London area, and British theatre historian Sarah Woodcock helped give me an insider’s personal perspective. On my own, I attended musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia on Broadway, and drew my own conclusions.

The first production on our London itinerary was Monty Python’s Spamalot. During the post-performance discussion, it became clear that one of our faculty instructors loved it, while the other was appalled. A number of the students had also seen the Broadway version of the same musical, which made for an interesting cross-cultural comparison. In our free time, a smaller group of us went to see Lord of the Rings, the musical, which may have been the most opulent spectacle I have ever seen. For better or for worse, the modern musicals of the past 30 years reflect our culture and our generation. Regardless of what the critics say has happened to modern theatre, I believe the current trend toward audience involvement appeals especially to our generation because television, videogames, and YouTube lack the novelty of a live performance and the possibility of interaction with the performers.

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