May is a mad month. A month of random musings about various topics related to musical theatre. Feel free to share your thoughts on each topic in the comment box below.
Are Period Musicals Dated?
I think there is a difference between something that is dated and something that is a period piece. Sometimes the line can be very fine and sometimes that sensibility is temporary.
Because so many shows during the 1940s and 1950s were already set in the past, this is the kind of thing that was never really an issue for many composers, lyricists and librettists of that time. Although there were some shows set in the then present, these tended to be lightweight musical comedies, albeit with some exceptions. After the Rodgers and Hammserstein revolution, there was a marked trend towards shows set in the past, which was one thing that helped prevent those shows being dated, the other of course being the trend towards developing a more integrated musical language that suited the world of the play being created.
It’s particularly difficult for shows that are set at the time in which they first appear in the years immediately following their premiere. In the play, The History Boys, one of the character says that there is no time period as remote as our immediate past, because we don’t know how we are supposed to view it. Similarly, it is hard for us to process musicals set in our very recent past because we don’t view this time as a period yet. It is also very difficult, I think, for a show that uses the musical styles of the time at which it was written to tell a story set in another period to age well. And conversely, it’s the reason why just putting a contemporary spin on a musical that does conform to period or that develops a consistent musical language within it own dramatic world for the sake of “updating it” or “keeping it fresh” or “making it more accessible” or “making it more realistic” just doesn’t work.
If you look at George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s Company, for example, many of the changes effected to make the show appear less dated are inconsistent – made in some parts of the book and score, but not in others – really just serve to highlight the aspects of the show that are very much related to life in the 1970s. I think that we are coming closer and closer to a time when we will see minor changes such as those made to the book of this show restored and see the piece played as a period piece, which will only be to its benefit, I think. We are at a time when we can start looking back at the latter decades of the 20th century as “periods”, each with their own sense of style.
I also think that is why it is so difficult to judge whether a newer show that is set in contemporary times will become dated or whether it will retain some kind of relevance and play, in later years, as a period piece. In this regard, the discussion about the issue of dating a piece in regard to the new Tales of the City musical (by Jeff Whitty, Jake Shears and John “JJ” Garden), about how the creators are trying to evoke (maybe the spirit) of the era without reproducing it, has been very interesting.