For some strange reason, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times decided to write an article about the differences between musicals and operas. To me, it’s an unimportant matter, a question of semantics, and I’ll cheerfully admit my prejudice here: I’m anti-semantic.
But maybe there’s some good reason to define the terms: if it’s good enough for The Times’ readership, it’s good enough for mine, too. So: are you of the mind that the existence of dialogue means it’s a musical? Then you haven’t seen the word-filled Carmen, The Magic Flute or Fidelio, three of the more famous operas, or musicals like Miss Saigon, Falsettos, or Our Wedding, which lack dialogue. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. (Sorry, I started thinking about words Our Wedding didn’t contain.)
1. In a musical, the composer usually does not do the orchestrations; opera composers most often do. Kurt Weill found time to orchestrate his musicals, but the true reason Broadway requires professional orchestrators is that there’s often last minute composing to be done, and the composer doesn’t have time.
2. Which reminds me that opera composers tend to think about writing for the full orchestra, while musical writers more often think in terms of piano and voice. Now, I’m trying to expand beyond that in the show I’m writing now, but the sad truth is creators of musicals are rarely sure their shows will ever be done with full orchestras. A different sort of mind-frame applies.
3. Operas require, and are conceived for, operatic singing. I suppose I could define “operatic singing” but I’m sure you all know it when you hear it.
4. Is the show conceived of for the opera stage, or the less lofty realm of theatre? There are a zillion subtle differences between operas and musicals in how the musicianship is handled.
5. Operas, for more than a century, have a level of musical complexity and sophistication that musicals lack. There are plenty of naifs with no musical training who’ve written good musicals.
6. An opera is, for the most part, a musical expression by the composer, and the composer is always more important than the librettist. Musicals are theatrical expressions in which all collaborators must be considered equally important.
7. The audience for opera is attending in hopes of hearing great voices. People who go to musicals go for a greater variety of things: the story, the dancing, the wit of the lyrics, e.g.; rare is the opera-goer who attends for these reasons.
8. Every writer of a musical hopes to see the work performed night after night. Operas are so demanding they tend to be done in just a few performances, usually not consecutively. And think of Broadway stars compared to opera stars. Sutton Foster gave eight performances a week in The Drowsy Chaperone for an entire year before deciding not to show off no more for real. Diva Renee Fleming, in a year’s time, does 21 concerts and 33 performances of 5 operas for a total of 54 performances and no one thinks she’s a slouch.
9. The approach of the performers makes a difference. In singing an opera, the most important thing is that you sound wonderful. Many masterful performers of musicals don’t sound all that beautiful, but they act their lyrics effectively, which is more important in the realm of the stage. Tony-winners like Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and John McMartin have instruments that affect but could hardly be called mellifluous.
10. Broadway, the home of the musical, must present new works with a certain amount of frequency. Many of the world’s great opera companies go for years without presenting a newly-minted opera. I must admit I find that very sad.
It’s a little like Jeff Foxworthy’s catch-phrase, “You may be a redneck if…” Applying these ten delineators won’t always work. Think of a doctor reading a set of test results, proclaiming, “Well, we have several indicators, here, that seem to suggest the patient is …[dramatic pause]… a musical!”
But what can be said of the works that seem to fall in between the cracks?
Porgy and Bess premiered on Broadway, doing the usual regimen of night-after-night that musicals do. Criterion 4 is telling us it’s a musical. But George Gershwin told everyone he was writing an opera, studied the craft of orchestration in order to orchestrate it himself, and took many years to do so. There was also a long search for black singers with operatic voices. Fine as the libretto is – and Sondheim feels the first act is the greatest set of lyrics ever written for the stage (they’re by DuBose Heyward) – the world thought of it as Gershwin’s musical expression, rightly, and not an even steven collaboration. Even Stephen would agree: opera.
The Most Happy Fella also premiered on Broadway, and is something of an intentional hybrid. Yes, you hear operatic singing, but only from the characters who speak Italian. The characters of Herman and Cleo have a Broadway musical comedy sound. And the leading lady exists in both realms. She’s a tough dame, grounded in kitchen sink reality who eventually gets won over by the romantic Italian “fella” and begins to sing like him. The other man in the triangle, Joe, was originally cast with a pop singer.
Jesus Christ Superstar uses several sophisticated musical devices, but not ones you wouldn’t find in a Leonard Bernstein musical. The creators called their two-disc album a “rock opera” but this was somewhat tongue in cheek. It’s a completely sung rock musical and while some insist it’s an opera, I remain a Doubting Thomas.
Bernstein was that rare composer-of-musicals who thought in terms of full orchestras. He wasn’t solely responsible for the orchestrations, though. The work that seems to confuse people is Candide. Candide is an episodic musical comedy that spoofs opera in all its songs. You can see why folks would be confused by that.
Around the time of Candide, Gian-Carlo Menotti created some operas for Broadway. He certainly thought they were operas. Weill’s Street Scene is a similar case, operatic in its approach and its voices. But, because I haven’t seen it, I can’t categorize Jerry Springer: The Opera. I’ve played a few songs from it, and they revel in obscene outrageousness, but that doesn’t tell us much. I’ll get back to you when I finally see it.
You hear plenty of operatic singing in The Light in the Piazza, by both American and Italian characters. The unusually lush (read: classical-sounding) orchestrations are by composer Adam Guettel in collaboration with Ted Sperling. And there’s also a credit that reads “Additional Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin.” Scroll back to Criterion 5. This music has a level of harmonic sophistication unmatched by any Broadway musical written in my lifetime. And yet, in the second act, all the music stops and the lead character addresses us. It’s an incredibly important moment, a key plot point, revelatory, sad and dramatic. The monologue convinced me that I was seeing a musical simply because all the operas I know don’t come to a sudden halt to deliver a long unaccompanied speech of this magnitude. Get back to me if you can think of one.