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The Musical

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Melissa: Josh, that's how musicals work. When you're too emotional to talk, you sing; when you're too emotional to sing, you dance.
Josh: What happens when you're too emotional to dance? Does it loop back around to talking? Because that's where I'm at right now.

A musical is any presentation in which a major part of the exposition and/or action comes through the medium of song (and often, but not necessarily, dance as well). This sounds simple, but it has so many permutations that it is a loaded term for most people. For example, if you were to say that the only real difference between an Opera and a musical is in what theaters they're showing it in, expect vehement protests—and yet, trying to come up with definitions that will perfectly separate one from the other is just about impossible. It doesn't help that musicals were influenced by opera—specifically the comic genre of "light" opera or operetta—and that many late-19th and early-20th century plays-with-singing could easily be classified as either. A prime example is the works of Gilbert and Sullivan: at the time they were called operas (they didn't call the company and theatre G&S wrote for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company playing at the Savoy Opera for nothing), but today they are often considered to be the earliest notable examples of musicals.

By far the most common perception of a musical is properly termed "musical theater", in which a play is performed with several songs interspersed at major plot points in the story. In the United States, these are most often associated with Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, and can be either original material or adapted from any number of sources (though adaptations are far more common than original musicals; see All Musicals Are Adaptations).

A distinction is made between "book musicals", in which songs are interspersed between chunks of spoken dialogue and action (the spoken dialogue being referred to as the "book"), and musicals that are "sung through" like an Opera, i.e. nearly every word is sung from curtain-up to curtain-down, with only occasional spoken lines.note  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Guys and Dolls are examples of book musicals; Cats and Les Misérables are sung through. Each variety has its advantages and disadvantages: with a sung through musical, there's the danger of having too much utterly mundane dialogue set to music in a way that draws the audience's attention to the blatant artificiality of the concept; with a book musical, the transitions from musical scenes to spoken dialogue and vice versa can be awkward and forced if they're not handled carefully.

In the West, musical films are often either animated, like classic Disney films, or adapted from stage musicals. Film adaptations of stage musicals have to deal with two major issues:

  • First, theatre is typically more forgiving of grand, melodramatic gestures, such as… well, bursting into song at highly emotional moments… that just look silly on film. Directors often deal with this by adding in some sort of frame story to justify all the singing (as in Chicago, where the songs are envisioned as taking place inside Roxie's head; the song "Class" had to be cut because there was no way to fit that scheme); alternatively, they can just go with the inherent high camp of the genre and hope they get away with it.
  • Second, films have bigger budgets than stage plays and often need to have "big names" to make sure of having an audience to justify the budget — but most Hollywood-standard "big names" can't carry a tune in a bucket. There was a time when the standard solution was to hire a real singer to dub over the "name" (as, for instance, with Natalie Wood being dubbed by Marni Nixon in West Side Story — Nixon also dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), but this has fallen out of favour — with the result that many "musical" films are distinctly unmusical. The alternative solution of hiring popular singers to play the roles brings with it the possibility that they can't act, which can be equally painful to watch.

There's also the problem that film and theater are very different media (as are television and film) and there are important differences that don't always translate well:

  • Film can zoom in and pan out to control the audience's focus. Theatre controls this with dialogue and blocking (how actors and props are positioned). No less a luminary than Stephen Sondheim has said that one reason why it's hard to adapt a stage musical to film is that in film a close-up can tell you everything that a song can — so why bother with the song?
  • Film is image-driven, whereas theater is dialogue-driven. Film can have little or no dialogue and tell the story with pictures; theater can have very little physical movement and tell the story with verbal images.
  • Theater is more artificial and can be effective with very sparse or abstract sets, while film is more naturalistic and demands detailed and authentic backgrounds.
  • Singing well requires the sort of physical movement and concentration that, on film, looks like overacting. The physical and technological demands of filming a scene also make it hard to get a singing performance that is both good and well-recorded. The usual solution to this is to pre-record the song and have the actor lip-sync to the track they (or someone else) recorded, but this can result in a performance that doesn't fully match the music.

However, film and theater have one thing in common: you get 90 minutes of butt time, and if you run longer than that, you'd BETTER be good.

The movie/musical adaptation cycle goes both ways, with many examples of Recursive Adaptation (e.g. The Producers, Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors).

There's also the trend of the Jukebox Musical, and also the Rock Opera, which often starts as a Concept Album.

Since far more people can see a Hollywood film than a Broadway musical (even one that runs for years), films adapting stage musicals are especially prone to Adaptation Displacement. In the Indian Hindi-language film industry known colloquially as Bollywood, musicals are the default genre, but it is very rare in the West for live-action musical films to be original, rather than adaptations.

Japan, South Korea, France, and Germany also have strong musical theatre scenes that include plenty of shows English-language fans have never heard of. European musicals like Elisabeth and La Légende du Roi Arthur are some of the most popular musicals in these countries, re-run again and again. The Japanese troupe Takarazuka Revue has been creating their own unique brand of musicals, 100 years strong, but "mainstream" original musicals in Japan and Korea have picked up in the 2010's and 2020's, such as Frankenstein, Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto, and The Devil.

When this is incorporated into a TV show, see Musical Episode. A frequent sufferer of Title: The Adaptation, probably because All Musicals Are Adaptations.

If you were wondering just where all that singing was coming from, see Musical World Hypotheses. Compare Hollywood Darkness, Musicalus Interruptus.

For a list of tropes related to Musical Drama and Songs you get to sing, see Musical Number Index. For a list of animated movie musicals, go here.

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    Anime, Manga, and 2. 5 D Theatre 
  • Stage adaptations of anime that are aimed squarely at those who are already fans of the series are known as 2.5D Theater. The phenomenon started in the 1990's, but it exploded in popularity in the late 2010's, with 194 2.5D plays produced in 2018. Listed here are 2.5D musicals. For 2.5D non-musical plays, please see Screen-to-Stage Adaptation.

Musical Anime:

    Audio Plays 

    Fan Works 

    Live-Action TV 



    Video Games 

    Web Animation 

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 


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Alternative Title(s): Musical, Musical Theater



Margaret Thatcher's attempts to suppress Spycatcher by Peter Wright have resulted in it being adapted into just about every form of popular media available.

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