"Musicals don't get enough credit for being so surreal. It's like an alternate universe." -Ezra Koenig
By definition, a concept is an abstract idea that may become a tangible object. Often, the word 'concept' precedes a word that expresses something we are all familiar with. For example, we have all heard about concept cars, concept architecture, but what about concept musicals?
The first two uses of 'concept' are easy to understand. A concept car is a fantastic design, generally revealed at a car show, meant to entice buyers to that brand but not for mass production. Conceptual architecture is similar since it can be a lovely structure with superb effects, but such a home would not be practical for building on a mass scale and selling.
These two examples show that 'concept' can represent something that is one-of-a-kind and never to be repeated, a true feat of originality. But, does the same definition hold for artistic endeavours such as musicals? Not exactly. Why's that?
To an extent, all musicals are conceptual, but the concept musical is a breed apart. So, without further delay, in today's article, let's discover together what a concept musical is and explore some popular musicals that you might not have realised are concept musicals.
To better categorise musicals, you need our companion article, wherein the differences are all laid out.
Defining Concept Musicals
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 that modern-day people can relate to and tell their friends about over coffee or a few pints.
Nonetheless, it's worth stating that concept musicals do not necessarily tell a story, and they do not follow a linear progression from beginning to end. Instead, the primary objective of concept musicals is to explore a theme or convey an important message to the audience.
But, why did concept musicals become popular, and how did they develop? Take a look at the following subheading to discover the answer.
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How and Why Did Concept Musicals Develop?
Before the middle of the 20th century, you could say that concept musicals were not talked about or even conceptualised. But, according to historians and lovers of the theatre, concept musical shows emerged as a genre in the 1960s. The 1960s in the United States, where all Broadway productions originate from, was a time of great social upheaval, injustice, and civil turbulence.
You could say that writers and composers had a lot to write about during that time!
In the middle to the latter half of the 20th century, audiences were growing tired of the ever-more formulaic fare offered up by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein. As a result, they developed significant musicals such as The Sound of Music and The King and I.
Likewise, Learner and Loewe, the brilliant minds behind My Fair Lady and Camelot, made a name for themselves by setting stories to music, generally with the same topics of love and righteousness and the same happy, feel-good mood. At the time, the works of Learner and Lowe and Rodgers and Hammerstein were greatly praised and helped people escape from their harsh versions of reality; they will forever be recalled as pillars and legends in the musical theatre world.
However, as a result of seemingly repetitive storylines, theatre attendance went on a slow decline. When The Fantasticks debuted off-Broadway, it wasn't until 1961 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 even possible when discussing loud and flamboyant musicals!
Stop the World - I Want to Get Off! and The Fantasticks did not narrate a story as much as they presented a series of anecdotes strung together, bringing a new flavour to the musical stage that audiences hadn't seen before. And, well, they loved it.
While these two shows firmly established the term "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, which we will discuss in further detail later on this article.
The introduction of the concept musical was a revolution in stage shows that broke away from the traditional "shiny", "always happy", "I don't have a care in the world" style of musical theatre that was commonly seen in shows like Singin' In The Rain or Mary Poppins.
Concept musicals also opened the door to a new generation of playwrights such as Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim; these men have greatly influenced 21st-century musical theatre composers.
In the following paragraphs, we'll take a look at some of the most widely recognised examples of concept musicals to jog our memories and educate ourselves.
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How are Book Musicals and Concept Musicals Different?
Since different types of musicals are present in theatres around the world, some persons might ask themselves, what is the difference between book musicals and concept musicals? Arguably two of the most common genres of musicals, book musicals and musical concept shows, are structured uniquely and have their origins from distinct places.
First and foremost, book musicals tend to integrate the songs and musical numbers with the main action. They strive for realism, and they are thoroughly integrated from the beginning to the end. Every piece from a book musical comes from the plot and continues the narrative instead of breaking it up. Examples of acclaimed book musicals that you might recognise include Showboat, Guys and Dolls, and Oklahoma!
On the other hand, concept musicals do not follow the plot in a structured manner since, in many cases, it can be non-existent and non-linear. The creators behind concept musicals come from an experimental background and are more focused on creating metaphors and experiences that tell a structured story that can quickly be followed. Concept musicals are not necessarily in chronological order and, if there is a plot, it flashes back and forth to the past and present day.
So, now that we've considered the fundamentals of both book and concept musicals, we can highlight that the primary differences rely on the fact that book musicals are more plot-heavy and chronological. In contrast, concept musicals show an experience with less of a plot to respect.
Concept and book musicals remain popular yet are at the threat of being replaced by jukebox musicals that audiences from the 21st century adore since they can sing along and move to the beats.
How does the concept musical differ from revue musicals?
What Are Some Examples of Concept Musicals?
To get a better idea of the genre of concept musicals, the best thing is to identify them and see how they are conceptual. Let's take a look at the six most lauded concept musicals of all time.
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Hair: The First "Concept Musical"
First brought to life on the off-Broadway stage in 1967 and then Broadway in 1968, the musical Hair is considered the first significant concept musical by many experts.
Hair was a rock musical that explored common themes during the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s. In addition, many of the songs in Hair came from the anti-Vietnam War peace movement that was sweeping the United States in the late 1960s.
Conceptualised and transformed into a book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, Hair was highly controversial at the time and the subject matter and use of profanity in the songs' lyrics, which were developed by Galt MacDermot, made it a musical like no other.
Hair is considered a concept musical because it doesn't follow a plotline but instead features a lot of metaphor and symbolism and depicts the everyday angst and experiences during the "peace and love" movement.
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A Chorus Line: The Quintessential Concept Musical
One of the most popular and adored musicals to ever hit the Broadway stage has got to be A Chorus Line. None only are the songs well-written, the music beautifully composed, and the acting superb, but the stage show, A Chorus Line, sticks so close to the rules of concept musicals that it has been called by many the most "quintessential" concept musical.
A Chorus Line premiered on Broadway in 1975 and was composed by Marvin Hamlisch and written by Edward Kleban. The musical centres on 17 Broadway dancers auditioning for spots to be part of the chorus line. The idea of the stage play and its metaphors make it a perfect example of a concept musical.
A Chorus Line is significant to many 20th and 21st century performers since the plot discusses the events that shaped the dancers to want to work in the performing arts and be on stage in front of large audiences.
The 1975 Broadway musical won nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A Chorus Line was a huge box-office hit and has been shown on plenty of renowned stages worldwide.
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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 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 all of the song lyrics.
While the narrative focuses 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.
Cabaret was made into a critically acclaimed and highly popular film in 1972 that launched the careers of Bob Fosse and Liza Minelli.
Book musicals go by many names; see how many you know!
Chicago: Celebrity Criminals on Centre Stage
Set in Chicago 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, and her satirical play drew on some of the most famous issues she had written about for the newspaper.
By the time Chicago made its way to Broadway, director and choreographer Bob Fosse was well-entrenched in musical theatre circles and well-known by many for his artistic abilities.
Fosse again teamed up with Fred Ebb and John Kander. Furthermore, 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 recipe for future concept shows. Therefore, Chicago was a turning point for concept musicals in the mid-1970s.
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 that initially commenced in 1975 and was revived in 1996 holds the record for the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history. In addition, it has won multiple awards, among them Tony Awards for best direction and acting.
The film version was also an award winner since it took the Best Picture award from the Oscars in 2002 and the one for Best Musical at the Golden Globes the same year.
Now learn more about film musicals.
Is West Side Story a Concept Musical?
Although this musical predates the vogue era of concept shows, West Side Story 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, and soon the great 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; therefore, West Side Story brilliantly reflected the social issues in certain cities during the 20th century in America.
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. So the group set out to work, and West Side Story was created.
The resulting show remains a standout among Broadway musicals, winning multiple awards and having played on the most illustrious stages worldwide.
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 get along and have compassion for one another.
Did you know that the original show, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, had a longer run in London than Broadway?
Learn more about jukebox musicals.
Is Cats a Concept Musical?
If ever there was a Broadway musical that reflected the spirit of the 80s, Cats would be it. But, of course, when people think of Broadway musicals, the first titles that come to mind are Cats or The Phantom of the Opera.
In the 1980s, 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 China, communism faded like a bad dream, overthrown by the will of the people and the 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. However, the 80s represented a time of freedom, experimentation and the excitement of new horizons for most people.
So, it's only logical that a bizarre musical such as Cats found its place in the 1980s. The plot? On a massive heap of junk, a pack of cats play out their fantasy. Then, 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!
Lloyd Webber, who is now considered one of his generations geniuses, was already renowned 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 Broadway songs of all time, the majestic Memory.
He would 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 arguably changed musical theatre. How's that? Although Cats can be considered a concept musical that doesn't focus on a linear plot, many theatre critics claimed it was the start of a new type of musical: the megamusical.
Audiences were sick of being preached to and didn't want to find a metaphor in everything they watched. Once again, alike during the 1930s and 1940s, audiences wanted big entertainment that featured soaring music and poignant lyrics they could relate to.
As of 2021, the Lloyd Webber mega-musicals are the productions to outdo, though Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton might be the new favourite of Millennials.
In conclusion, after reading today's article, you are much more prepared to answer the question, what is a concept musical? Along with a correct response, you can highlight some of the examples of concept musicals that have shaped the current productions of musical theatre around the world.
Now find out how pop-rock musicals have to offer their audiences.
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