By definition, a concept is an abstract idea which may become a tangible object. Often, the word ‘concept’ precedes a word which expresses something we are all familiar with.

Concept cars, concept architecture… concept musicals?

The first two uses of ‘concept’ are easy to understand. A concept car is one of fantastic design, generally revealed at a car show, meant to entice buyers to that brand but not meant for mass production.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House is a fine example of conceptual architecture. It is a lovely structure with superb effects… but such a home would not be practical for building on a mass scale.

Besides, where would anyone find that many waterfalls to build houses over?

By these two examples, we see that ‘concept’ can represent something that is one-of-a-kind. Does the same definition hold true for artistic endeavours such as musicals? Not exactly.

To an extent, all musicals are conceptual but the concept musical is a breed apart.

Let’s discover together what a concept musical is and explore some popular musicals that you might not have realised are concept musicals.

No need for opera glasses; just come on!

What Is a Concept Musical?

Musical comedies are meant to entertain, not to make you think
Unlike musical comedy, concept musicals want to make you think Image by sandrocisternas from Pixabay

Typically, a story has a beginning, a middle and an end neatly tied together with a plot. Or, at least, a linear recounting of events. The sets may be lush and the costumes sublime but the principal purpose of these theatrical displays is to tell a story.

Concept musicals do not necessarily tell a story and they do not follow a linear progression from beginning to end. Their purpose is to explore a theme and/or convey a message.

Such shows emerged as a genre apart in the 1960s; a time of great social upheaval in the US.

Audiences were growing tired of the ever-more formulaic fare offered up by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music, The King and I), one of the preeminent musical theatre writing teams of Broadway’s Golden Age.

Likewise, Learner and Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot) made a name for themselves by setting stories to music, generally with the same topics (love and righteousness) and the same happy, feel-good mood.

To say that these stories did not mirror the social climate at the time would be a gross understatement.

As a result of seemingly repetitive storylines, theatre attendance went on a slow decline. It wasn’t until 1961 when The Fantasticks debuted off-Broadway that interest in such theatrical performance was renewed.

In the same year, audiences were treated to Stop the World – I Want to Get Off!, the oddly prescient tale of Littlechap, a man who is never quite satisfied with his life. For both of these shows, the theme was reaching emotional maturity… if such a thing is possible.

Those shows did not narrate a story as much as they presented a series of anecdotes strung together, bringing a new flavour to the musical stage.

While these two shows firmly established the concept musical as a legitimate formula for the American musical, the genre didn’t truly take off until nearly a decade later, with the production of Hair, a raucous demonstration of the hippie culture so pervasive at that time.

Hair was the very anathema to polite society.

This revolution in stage shows broke away from the traditional ‘shiny, happy’ style of musical theatre seen in shows like Singin' In The Rain or Mary Poppins. It opened the door to a new generation of playwright, Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim among them.

Still, it wasn’t until A Chorus Line, widely accepted as the quintessential concept musical, that the word ‘conception’ was used in any show’s billing. By the mid-70s, the concept musical was a fait accompli.

Now, we review some of the more renown shows…

How does the concept musical differ from revue musicals?

Cabaret, a Political Statement

Set in 1931 Germany, Cabaret explores the seamy underside of life at the Kit Kat Klub, underscored by a doomed romance between a Gentile and a Jew as the Nazi party strengthens its hold on Germany.

This musical’s origins are convoluted. John Masteroff found inspiration for his book in a play titled I Am a Camera and a book called The Berlin Stories, written by Christopher Isherwood.

He melded both stories into a show with rather dark undertones, for which John Kander wrote the music and Fred Ebb wrote the all of the song lyrics.

While the narrative focus is on American Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with British cabaret singer Sally Bowles, happenings at the Kit Kat Klub serve to remind the audience of the chilling political developments of the time.

Book musicals go by many names; see how many you know!

Chicago's music and lyrics are nothing if not memorable
Chicago is a record breaker among Broadway shows! Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Chicago: Celebrity Criminals on Centre Stage

Set in that city during the Roaring Twenties, the original story was written by beat reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins.

She had been assigned to cover the courthouse and report on the cases decided there. Her satirical play drew on some of the most famous cases she had written about for the newspaper.

By this time, director and choreographer Bob Fosse was well-entrenched in musical theatre circles.

Again teamed up with Fred Ebb and John Kander, the creative team drew on Harold Prince’s production savvy to deliver a glitzy, borderline-shocking reveal of corruption in the criminal justice system.

Ironically, as much as the concept musical was meant to overthrow the formula of previous musical genres, Chicago established a formula for future concept shows.

The main characters would fulfil double roles, contributing to the narrative through discourse but revealing their inner selves through song.

The Broadway production of Chicago (1996) holds the record for the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history. It has won multiple awards, among them Tony Awards for best direction and best actors.

The film version was also an award winner; it took the Best Picture award as well as the one for Best Musical.

Now learn more about film musicals

West Side Story: Colouring the Racial Divide

Although this musical predates the vogue era of concept shows, it is considered one of the earlier forays into this genre.

Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, Arthur Laurents wrote the story in 1957. It came to the attention of composer Leonard Bernstein; soon Stephen Sondheim was recruited to write the lyrics for all of the songs.

Gangs were a relatively recent social phenomenon, as were open expressions of malcontent and resentment of immigrants.

While the team had proposed a collaboration a few years before that ultimately fell through, now all of the elements were coming together to tell a story that would satisfy all of its creators. The group set to work.

The resulting show remains a standout among Broadway musicals, winning multiple awards and has played on the most illustrious stages around the world.

Ironically, for a story that was meant to be of forbidden love between members of rival ethnicities, fans and critics alike consider the affair between Tony and Maria only incidental to the overall message that people should just get along.

Did you know that the original show, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, had a longer run in London than on Broadway? Would you venture a guess as to which jukebox musical claims that title?

Fiddler on the Roof and Sweeney Todd

Before we discuss the next musical on our list, let’s examine these two popular shows.

Both of them are record-setters as well as trendsetters. They have both been revived multiple times and, in the case of Tevye and His Daughters (Fiddler's original story title), it held the record for the number of runs.

It is also remarkable because the same actor, Topol, played the role more than 3500 times.

As sublime as these shows are, neither one is a concept musical – in spite of the producers thinking that bringing such a Jewish-themed show to mainstream audiences was indeed a novel and daring concept.

Fiddler addresses moving away from one’s faith and Sweeney is primarily a story of revenge. While they are both renowned and well-deserving of their Tony Award, neither tale presents an underlying message or particularly explores a theme.

To better categorise musicals, you need our companion article, wherein the differences are all laid out

Cats was staged around the world, including in Prague
Would you believe that the original theatre company performed Cats at the illustrious Prague theatre? Image by Martin Pyško from Pixabay

Cats: Concept or Mega-Musical?

If ever there was a Broadway musical that reflected the spirit of the 80s, Cats would be it.

The world was finally shaking off the shackles of austerity; especially in the UK and US, there was a return to laissez-faire economics. Big government was out and agencies had more latitude to function as they intended.

In Eastern Europe and in China, communism faded like a bad dream, overthrown by the will of the people and license of the leaders.

Sure, there were wars, terrorists and even Black Monday, the 1987 Stock market crash in America that rippled economies around the globe…

Still, the 80s represented a time of freedom, experimentation and the excitement of new horizons… for almost everyone.

On a massive heap of junk, a pack of cats play out their fantasy. Under the moonlight, they gather for the Jellicle Ball to see who will be granted that precious extra life.

Andrew Lloyd Webber conceived of a fantastic show based on a series of poems by T.S.Eliot, the likes of which had never been seen before. Cats were everywhere, even in the audience!

This master of composers was already renown for shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, both of which told stories of persons who had existed. With Cats, he ventured into the realm of fantasy, giving us arguably one of the world’s most popular songs, Memory.

He would go on to write other blockbusters such as The Phantom of the Opera – which premiered even as Cats still commanded large audiences worldwide.

Most importantly, we should note that, of all of Baron Lloyd Webber's productions, Cats changed musical theater. No longer would concept musicals be the norm; people were sick of being preached to. Audiences wanted big entertainment - soaring music and poignant lyrics they could relate to.

For now, the Lloyd Webber mega-musicals are the productions to outdo.

Now find out how pop-rock musicals have to offer their audiences…

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