Musicals and Popular Culture

I’ve loved theater for as long as I can remember. I didn’t realize how long I’d been a fan of the art until recently, during a conversation in which I couldn’t remember what the first musical I ever saw was nor could I remember when I saw it. I have a vague recollection of it being a student production of “Into the Woods” but I couldn’t tell you for certain. From the 40’s to the 60’s, musicals were a huge part of popular culture. Movie studios made original musicals throughout the year. Cinema’s actors and actresses were expected to be able to sing and dance their way through a musical just as much as they were expected to be dramatic actors. Still, this gradually fell by the wayside. Broadway and musical theater became something to be dismissed. The few movie musicals tended to be animated Disney films. However, I’ve been lucky enough to watch this slowly change. Throughout my life, theater has grown to become synonymous with popular culture. How did this come to be?

A number of people trace the beginning of theater’s journey back into the limelight to “High School Musical,” the Disney channel original movie that became a phenomenon. While previous Disney movies had musical numbers (see “The Cheetah Girls” and “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”), none of them were set up like “High School Musical.” They featured pop stars who sang as part of performances in the plot. In contrast, “High School Musical” functioned like a traditional movie or stage musical. Some of the songs were performances, but many were purely musical numbers that allowed the characters to express emotions and thoughts. The movie became the most successful Disney original of all time, spawning two sequels and a spin-off. It introduced millions of young people to musicals and musical theater. Even Broadway began to market to teen fans of the musical, as seen in this promotional clip for “In The Heights” in which Lin Manuel-Miranda parodies “High School Musical 2’s” song “Bet on It.”

Soon after, FOX’s “Glee” became one of the most well-known shows on television. The show featured musical performances in every episode, though they were mostly sung as part of the glee club’s performances. “Glee” continuously dominated the Billboard Top 100 during its run, which ultimately lasted for six seasons. Riding this wave, NBC decided to run its first live musical performance by showing “The Sound of Music” in 2013. While this was a tradition during musicals’ golden age, this was something current audiences had never seen. Even though Carrie Underwood’s performance as Maria was widely panned, network television quickly bought into the premise. NBC now has four live musicals under its belt, while FOX has three. ABC has attempted to join in the mix with a failed remake of “Dirty Dancing” and a promise of an adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Upcoming live musicals on television include FOX’s “A Christmas Story,” FOX’s “Rent,” and NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

TV shows and movies in the style of classical musicals have grown more and more popular. This past year, the original movie musical “La La Land” became critically acclaimed and won a number of Oscars. Live-action original musicals made specifically for the screen have been out of fashion for decades; the few movie musicals seen in recent years have been translations of musicals already popular on stage or Disney animated films. The show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on the CW has continued “Glee’s” streak of TV shows with musical numbers. However, it differs from “Glee” in that its musical numbers function as monologues and conversations for the characters, add humor, and allow moments of emotional catharsis (as opposed to functioning as performances the characters are doing as part of the plot). They are also all original numbers, as opposed to “Glee’s” reworking of popular songs and show tunes. 

Beyond the spread of musicals into TV and film, Broadway and traditional theater have also started to merge into popular culture. The musical “Hamilton” captured the attention of the American public in a way not seen since “Rent” in 1996. Creator and star Lin Manuel-Miranda rose to stardom, featuring on rap tracks, starring on late night television, and even hosting “Saturday Night Live.” The show became a major Broadway attraction with ticket prices reaching into the thousands and has spread to include permanent shows in New York City, Chicago, and London. The National tour has already begun to sell out. It also dominated the music scene. The cast album is the highest charting cast album since the height of musicals in 1963 and peaked at number one on the Rap charts (above artists such as Drake).

This trend of musicals growing more common in popular culture shows no sign of slowing. TV live musicals are planned up until 2019. Streaming services such as BroadwayHD and Netflix have begun to make footage of Broadway musicals available to the public, allowing their reach to extend beyond those with the money and ability to see Broadway shows. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” plans to run a fourth season (it’s in the middle of its third season now.) Even better, we’ll be getting another original movie musical. “The Greatest Showman,” featuring music by the lyric team behind “La La Land,” is set to release this December. It will star Zendaya, Hugh Jackman, and, bringing this blog full circle, Zac Efron of “High School Musical”.

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About the Author

Elissa Miller is a sophomore at UNC Charlotte studying Communications and Political Science. When she isn’t reviewing theater for Niner Times, she is pretending to be a homicide detective for the Mock Trial team and forcing her friends to binge watch television with her. In the future, she would like to be an investigative journalist, a lawyer, or the second female President of the United States (because if there isn’t one before the time she gets there, that’s just sad).

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