Any humanities student will be familiar with the term that there’s ‘no such thing’ as originality in any form, whether it be novels, theoretical criticism, or in this case, musical theatre. Particularly in screen-based portrayals of musicals; 2017’s La La Land features a shot-for-shot recreation of a photo shoot from 1957’s Funny Face, parodies of the renowned Singin’ in the Rain (1952) by modern popular culture appear at least ten times a year, and even television shows such as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-19) pay tribute with recreations of musical numbers from such shows as The Music Man (1952).
‘Tribute’ and ‘recreation’ are the interesting terms, here. Modern musicals, such as La La Land are critically dismissed as part of popular culture, rather than being considered ‘artistic’ enough for critical acclaim. Part of this is absolutely their referencing and contextualisation within musicals past. The critical world is significantly snobbish about popular culture, so dousing your modern musical in the waters of the genre’s history isn’t exactly following the road to success. Interestingly, this snobbery does not seem to apply to all referencing.
“Our homage to past glories and recreations of what we love is not a crime, and, in fact, is present in many other genres”
The grossly popular Hamilton (2015) is rife with direct quotations from all areas of popular culture (with even a nod to the creator’s favourite podcast, My Brother, My Brother and Me). This includes musical references. The song “Say No to This” repeats the line, word-and-tune perfect ‘Nobody needs to know’ from The Last Five Years (2001) as well as the line ‘modern major general’ from “Right-Hand Man” attributed to The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and ‘You’ve got to be carefully taught’ (“My Shot”) listed as referencing a line from South Pacific (1958) – and these are just the references listed in the playbill.
If one of the most successful musicals can pay homage to previous musicals and still receive impeccable praise then we must recognise criticism of these other tributes to musicals as ‘lazy’ and ‘tacky’ as what it is: snobbery. The modern pop culture domain is rife with criticism from ‘academics’ – a significant portion of theatre critics have a strong distaste for the recent uptake in adaptation musicals that have arrived upon Broadway, whilst failing to recognise that both Les Miserables (1985) and Wicked (1995), two of the most popular musicals of all time, are themselves, adaptations.
Musical theatre is a wonderful tradition. Once recording sound onto film was possible, we made The Jazz Singer (1927). Our homage to past glories and recreations of what we love is not a crime, and, in fact, is present in many other genres (I’m looking at you, M Night Shaymalan’s genre-referential cinematic universe). Perhaps it’s the refusal of many to take musicals seriously, or to refuse to perceive fiction as ‘meaningful’ unless it has an unhappy ending. But for those of you who aren’t afraid to still enjoy fun, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is still on DVD.