Is musical theatre inherently snobbish?

Photo: Pinterest
Photo: Pinterest
Photo: Pinterest

The musical Wicked recently celebrated 10 years on the West End, bringing forth a horde of nostalgic tweets from past cast members and slews of loving comments from fans. But beneath the hooves of these prancing, pre-teen unicorns clad in the ruffles of the 19th century French bourgeoisie, brogue-ridden, bespectacled trolls emerged from the depths of academic narcissism, clutching their Penguin Classics copy of King Lear. The monstrous beasts began to wail: “’Tis murder, what popular music has done to theatre –– prithee, keep thine jazz hands away from our houses of art!”

This traditional stereotyping of the true thespian versus the fandom is not new. Plays and musicals have been ensconced in a bloody battle for decades and continue to divide the theatrical community. But is this gap really as wide now as it always has been? Enter Hamilton, the hip-hoppiting, historical musical spectacular that’s not just sweeping the US, but threatening to take over the West End as well (the opening is set for October 2017).

Whatever, big deal, it was expected to dominate the Tonys, so no surprise there. What was unanticipated was the news that the most esteemed award in drama, the Pulitzer Prize, would be bestowed upon Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece as well.

Previously, only eight musicals have won the prize, despite the fact that the award has been in existence for 92 years. This has to say something about the snobbery of Western theatre, right? But I think this most recent addition to the rolls will change the game; the fact that Hamilton is not just a musical, but a rap musical, has set the standard for future Pulitzer nominees, just as Rent did in 1996 as a controversial rock opera.

[pullquote]Just as there must always be a burning light in an empty theatre, surely there must always be snobbery in it, too.[/pullquote]

This levelling of the main stream musical to theatrical excellence, normally a honour reserved for plays, is progression. But just because theatre as a whole has become less snobbish doesn’t mean its subsections have to follow, for the true trolls wallow in the musical fanbase itself. A conversation between a casual fan and a seasoned musical theatre nerd may go something like this: “You like musicals? Oh, I love Wicked!” “You’re dead to me.” Real fans will discourse at great length on the genius of Stephen Sondheim and the tragic casting of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.

They will stop at nothing to pull the spirit and merriment out just as there must always be a burning light in an empty theatre, surely there must always be snobbery in it, too.of musicals, which was precisely what the more traditional Shakespearian snobs were making fun of in the first place; musical theatre snobs are simply fulfilling the outdated wishes of their enemies. Though the future of theatre in general looks bright, the future of musical theatre is equally bleak:

Other forms of theatre have also historically included inherent snobbery: opera is the most famously and traditionally exclusive embodiment of this. Still, I saw a man wearing jeans and a T shirt whilst watching Madam Butterfly several months ago, and apart from maybe the Royal Opera House on opening night, there isn’t a strict dress code anymore. Opera has become a mainstream theatre form precisely because people are becoming less afraid of the art form itself, as well as what snobs have to say.

Why, then, has the opposite happened to musical theatre? Why has its snobbery become more rife than in the past? I think that musical theatre has become so inundated with refugees of life (conventionally, it has always been a happy place anyone can turn to) that a crack had to surface. Blame overpopulation. Unfortunately, this crack has turned into a rift separating the hardcore and casual fans, or the snobs and everyone else.

So, the lesson here, folks, is to love unashamedly. Disregard the whines of “in Victor Hugo’s original…” and “why are they singing when they have AIDS,” and enjoy what you enjoy. Though theatre seems to be trapped in a vicious cycle for now, it may yet find its way to tomorrow (where hopefully the sun will come out).


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