Tuesday 7 July 2020

Between the Lines: Musicals 1970-1999

The 1970s started with a bang thanks to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It didn’t create a sudden change in style—many shows continued the older traditions—but it did offer a fresh new path, bringing musical theatre in line with the popular music of the time once more. In the US, Grease looked back to the rock and roll of the 1950s, but Sondheim continued to write traditional book musicals and concept shows, including Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music.

Another big hit of the 1970s was concept musical A Chorus Line, which remained the longest running Broadway show for many years, until overtaken by Cats. And thus a shift took place. The US had ruled musical theatre since the 1920s, but as the 70s turned into the 80s, the British made a comeback.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber kept churning out the hits with Evita, Cats, Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera, heralding the birth of the mega musical. These shows had productions springing up around the world, each accompanied by a ton of official merchandise from T-shirts to coffee mugs to multiple cast recordings in different languages. These shows were not adapted to an overseas audience; they were carbon copies, save for the translated lyrics. Each often also involved a production spectacle to draw the crowds, such as the falling chandelier in Phantom.

Alongside Andrew Lloyd-Webber there came the French duo of Boublil and Schonberg, who penned both Les Misérables and Miss Saigon—two more worldwide hits featuring big set pieces and a truckload of merchandise.

A few other shows worth mentioning from the 1990s are Chess by Benny and Bjorn from ABBA, City of Angels by Cy Coleman, Kiss of the Spider Woman by Kander and Ebb, and Rent by Jonathan Larson. Sondheim was still working away, too, during the latter part of this thirty-year period, putting out shows such as Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Assassins. However, the British productions ruled during these decades.

Finally, in line with the birth of the mega musical, the 1990s also saw the inception of the big corporate musical with Disney’s stage version of Beauty and the Beast... but more on that in September.

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