Presentation Title

Musical Theatre and the American Dream: The Hidden Language of Music

Authors' Names

Jane Best

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Abstract/Artist Statement

What does music add to a theatrical production? What depth can lyrics, melody, and harmony add to a story? As a music director, it is my job to answer these questions. Music illuminates the subconscious mind of a musical; the melodies, harmonies, and musical stylings in a show add depth to a theatrical production. These tools can guide actors to more effective and honest storytelling. The musicals in UM’s 2018-2019 season, White Christmas and Assassins, provide an excellent exploration of content and contrast through the way music is used to portray their viewpoints on Americana and the American Dream.

Musical theatre is a topic with a smaller body of research than many other art forms, and scarcely any of the research that exists is from the viewpoint of a music director. Viewing research through the lens of music direction allows for synthesis of literature about the social history of musical theatre with music theory and music history. Specifically, it is fascinating to explore how the stylistic similarities in White Christmas and Assassins are used to wildly different effects. Their scores and interpretations are informed by the history of musical theatre in America, the use of folk and jazz styles throughout the 20th century, and the ways that theatre and music can make a social and/or political statement.

White Christmas uses the music of a master songwriter from the early 1900s, Irving Berlin, to tell the story of a classic musical comedy. His music was a vehicle for escapism and optimism, painting a picture of an America that could be carefree, fun, and full of love and hope. Berlin used big band jazz stylings, witty wordplay, and pleasant harmonies to allow audiences to escape the troubles of the Great Depression and World Wars I and II via the music. Nowadays, audiences can still use this music to escape the anxieties of the modern world.

Contrarily, Stephen Sondheim’s music for Assassins, a much more intentionally political musical, uses folk music to peel back the curtain of idealistic Americana to reveal the darknesses that lie beneath. He uses music that sounds familiar and nostalgic to our ears, but when sung by killers, we see what can happen when the American Dream is taken too far. The contrast between what is being sung, how it is being sung, and who is singing it puts audiences on edge. Instead of escaping via the music, they find themselves drawn in and confronted by the uncomfortable.

Music is a powerful force for connection and empathy. Both musicals in UM’s current season use this force to opposite ends. Musically, one show comforts; one show confronts. The subtleties in the melodies, lyrics, and stylizations allow the actors to more convincingly portray their stories to an audience. As musical theatre artists entertain our audiences, we also open them up to social, moral, and/or political themes that create a fuller artistic and human experience.

Mentor Name

Pamyla Stiehl

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Feb 22nd, 3:20 PM Feb 22nd, 3:35 PM

Musical Theatre and the American Dream: The Hidden Language of Music

UC North Ballroom

What does music add to a theatrical production? What depth can lyrics, melody, and harmony add to a story? As a music director, it is my job to answer these questions. Music illuminates the subconscious mind of a musical; the melodies, harmonies, and musical stylings in a show add depth to a theatrical production. These tools can guide actors to more effective and honest storytelling. The musicals in UM’s 2018-2019 season, White Christmas and Assassins, provide an excellent exploration of content and contrast through the way music is used to portray their viewpoints on Americana and the American Dream.

Musical theatre is a topic with a smaller body of research than many other art forms, and scarcely any of the research that exists is from the viewpoint of a music director. Viewing research through the lens of music direction allows for synthesis of literature about the social history of musical theatre with music theory and music history. Specifically, it is fascinating to explore how the stylistic similarities in White Christmas and Assassins are used to wildly different effects. Their scores and interpretations are informed by the history of musical theatre in America, the use of folk and jazz styles throughout the 20th century, and the ways that theatre and music can make a social and/or political statement.

White Christmas uses the music of a master songwriter from the early 1900s, Irving Berlin, to tell the story of a classic musical comedy. His music was a vehicle for escapism and optimism, painting a picture of an America that could be carefree, fun, and full of love and hope. Berlin used big band jazz stylings, witty wordplay, and pleasant harmonies to allow audiences to escape the troubles of the Great Depression and World Wars I and II via the music. Nowadays, audiences can still use this music to escape the anxieties of the modern world.

Contrarily, Stephen Sondheim’s music for Assassins, a much more intentionally political musical, uses folk music to peel back the curtain of idealistic Americana to reveal the darknesses that lie beneath. He uses music that sounds familiar and nostalgic to our ears, but when sung by killers, we see what can happen when the American Dream is taken too far. The contrast between what is being sung, how it is being sung, and who is singing it puts audiences on edge. Instead of escaping via the music, they find themselves drawn in and confronted by the uncomfortable.

Music is a powerful force for connection and empathy. Both musicals in UM’s current season use this force to opposite ends. Musically, one show comforts; one show confronts. The subtleties in the melodies, lyrics, and stylizations allow the actors to more convincingly portray their stories to an audience. As musical theatre artists entertain our audiences, we also open them up to social, moral, and/or political themes that create a fuller artistic and human experience.