Not Everything Has To Be a Musical
A playwright's griping on musical theatre
When I was a senior in college, I finally wrote and directed my very first full-length play. At the showcase of its staged reading, I invited the audience to a short talkback afterwards to ask for the audiences thoughts and opinions on how the play could be improved (as a practice I'd like to try going forward in my playwriting career). One audience member chimed in and said:
"Why not set it to music? I could see this working very well as a musical!"
At this, other audience members--and some cast members--excitedly agreed to this statement, all envisioning what kind of lyrics and music could be incorporated to this piece.
At this, I just grinned and shook my head fervently: this was not going to be a musical ever in its life time.
Because it doesn't need to be. Much like many movies and other stories that are being turned into musicals nowadays.
Don't get me wrong, I am most definitely not a musical hater. I love musicals! From popular hits like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen to more "underrated" shows like Dogfight and Heathers: the Musical. I see the value in them too: they're a great gateway into getting audiences into liking theatre, and they provide an emotional depth that sometimes just straight dialogue can't portray.
But not every story needs to be a musical.
For one thing, some stories just do not work as musicals. Yes, it makes perfect sense to put the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to music; Orpheus was known for his music, which is why Hadestown worked as a musical. On the other hand, Mean Girls in and of itself is so iconic without the music, to add music and lyrics to the story just makes it seem so... bland. To me, it lost what made it so great and just became a little cringe-worthy.
Straight plays hold just as much value as musicals. Directors and designers can be just as creative with a straight play as they can with a musical, if not more creative. There's also something about the emotions and messages that can be portrayed through just straight dialogue and action versus song and dance. In Mary Zimmerman's The Odyssey, Odysseus and Penelope's reunion was heart-wrenching and beautiful, but would've been almost entirely diminished by a musical number at that moment. Proof by David Auburn would become downright foolish had anyone try to put it to lyrics and music.
And I know that the same could be said for the opposite: a scene could be improved or the emotional aspects heightened through a dance number and a song, and that it could all depend on writing, I will give that one to the opposing side.
But another reason I think musicals are given too much of a spotlight is that--like it or not--audiences find them easier to digest. It's easier to hold an audience's attention with complex choreography and songs every ten minutes versus people having a conversation, and that's frustrating as a playwright. Because even if you have the perfect script and the perfect dialogue, and everything is blocked, designed, rehearsed, and performed perfectly: there is always going to be someone who says "wow, that would have made a good musical". And it's irritating.
Could this be the whining of a frustrated playwright who hasn't the slightest clue how to write music, but continues to have people suggest I write a musical? Could be. Could it also just be the griping of a tired theatre fan that wants to see more gripping and engaging shows that don't involve singing but has been having trouble finding such? That could be it too.
Either way my point still stands: musicals are great, but not everything needs to be a musical.