A Study on Music as a Storytelling Element in Musical Theatre

Musical theatre is “a form of theatrical performance that combines songs, dialogue,  acting and dance.” The actors use words, music and movement in order to  communicate emotions. 

The earliest records of Musical Theatre date back to the 1850’s. Music was used  in Burlesque shows and opérettas (a ‘light opera’ such as Carmen in 1875) in order to  provide comedic entertainment for the more upper class. As well as this, music was  also used in the controversial Minstrel and Vaudeville shows. During these  productions, music was often used to poke fun at black people, giving them the air  of lazy, silly and dim-witted. Minstrel shows remained popular until around 1910,  when the civil rights movement began to pick up more momentum, branding the  shows as offensive and racist and therefore tarnishing the shows.(1) 

Although historians consider ‘The Black Crook’ from 1866 to be the first musical, it  wasn’t until the 1940’s, or “The Golden Age” of Musical Theatre that musicals as we  know them today came around. With musical ‘teams’ such as Rodger and  Hammerstein, who were the mentors of Stephen Sondheim, the classic musicals  such as ‘Oklahoma!,’ ‘The King and I’ and ‘South Pacific’ came about. What was  different about the music in these shows was that the songs and pieces of music  were there in order to further the action of the story. As well as this, dancing  became a means of advancing the plot, with the introduction of Dream Ballets, and  were no longer there as an excuse to have scantily clad women be under the  spotlight. This was also when the idea of bringing darker characters and almost  taboo plot lines was introduced. 

‘Oklahoma!’ is one of the pairs most famous musicals, being the first to use the dream ballet. In this case, the ballet is a fifteen minute long piece in which the  female protagonist, Laurie, is trying to decide between two men. This musical also is  a perfect example of the ‘book musical,’ a show in which all of the songs and dances  are integrated into the plot in order to help evoke feelings and emotions other than  laughter as well as to help push the story along.(2) 

The sixties were the time when musicals started to become more focused on social  themes, such as racial tolerance (West Side Story.) It was also in this era that  musicals became racially integrated, with people of different races playing the parts.  The sixties were also when legendary writer Stephen Sondheim came onto the  theatre scene with ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum’ in 1962. The  success of this musical and a few more of his works allowed him to create new and  relatively ‘out there musicals’ such as ‘Sweeney Todd’ and ‘Into the Woods.’

The success of these musicals paved the way for new themes in musicals, the most  popular being social themes, the musical that is seen to have started this was “Hair,”  a rock musical about hippies during the war on Vietnam. There was also ‘Cabaret’  which had a narrative on the Nazi occupation of Germany and ‘Chicago,’ which spoke  out about sexism and murder during the prohibition in America. The success of  ‘Hair’ allowed more rock musicals to come onto the scene, including classics like the  “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and (eventually) “RENT.” 

“Hair” was really the starting point for a new wave of musicals to come to the  foreground in the theatre world. Its full title is ‘Hair- The American Tribal Love Rock  Musical.’ In this musical we follow Claude as he and his friends, a hippy tribe in New  York City, avoid and fight against conscription for the Vietnam War. The musical  broke ground in the theatre world with its use of bad language, illegal drug use,  sexuality, disrespect for the American flag and also features a nude scene. This  paved the way for other ‘offensive’ musicals like ‘Avenue Q,’ ‘The Book of Mormon’  and ‘Spring Awakening.’(3) 

In the eighties rock musicals gave way to the “mega musicals” or “pop operas” such  as ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘Miss Saigon’ and ‘Cats.’ 

These musicals were allowed bigger budgets which lead to bigger companies, bigger  sets and notable effects such as a helicopter landing onstage in ‘Miss Saigon’ or a  chandelier falling in ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ Many of these “Mega Musicals” are still  running today, Andrew Llyod Webbers ‘Cats’ is the fourth longest running show in  history, was translated into twenty languages and has one of the most iconic  soundtracks of Musical Theatre history, with the song “Memory” being featured on  almost every musical theatre compilation album, as well as having an iconic overture  and choreography. 

Thanks to the booming success in the eighties, musical theatre entered the  mainstream a little bit more, with the “sung through musicals” such as ‘Les  Miserables,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Evita’ becoming more and more popular. 

These days, musicals stick to the more controversial and sometimes educational  topics, using songs and music to get their messages across and enhance their  themes.

One of the most interesting examples is ‘The Scottsboro Boys,’ a musical based on  The Scottsboro Boys trial in the 1930s.  The show has the structure of a Minstrel  show, and is the only musical (bar one) to have an all black cast. The male cast  members also play the white females in a slightly mocking way, not unlike how black  people were portrayed in Minstrel shows. 

The story is told through the eyes of the Scottsboro Boys, using music, songs and  dance to hammer home to emotional themes of the story. This is mainly seen  through the piece ‘Electric Chair,’ in which we are transported into the dreams of 13  year old Eugene, who is bullied by the guardsmen. In this intense tap piece, we see  how he fears the electric chair and how much being in jail is affecting his young brain  as he dances with the electrocuted corpses of two other boys. This is then followed  by the heartbreaking ‘Go Back Home,’ in which he expresses how much he missed  his mother and how he longs to feel safe and secure once again. 

The main purpose of the songs in this musical is to portray the anguish of the men.  The show opens with very upbeat and cheery songs such as ‘Commencing in  Chattanooga.’ This song, influenced by Glenn Millers “Chattanooga ChooChoo” is an  upbeat song that is thick in texture. It uses instruments such as the piano,  harmonica, horns, violin and flutes as well as percussion in order to create the image  of a train leaving a station and the excitement of the men who are ‘popping the  freight.’ There are a lot of vocal harmonies in major chords and the background  music is overshadowed by the men vocalizing a melody. 

This song is then contrasted to “Go Back Home,” a song that takes place in the prison  when the men are allowed to write a letter home.  The majority of the song is the  lead vocalist and a guitar playing a simple melody. Towards the end, as the song  builds to a dramatic climax, instruments such as the violin and cello begin to join.  There are a few, simple harmonies towards the end, which are then minor chords,  adding to the morose feeling. Both songs use simple, repeated melodies which is  common in Musical Theatre songs in order to allow the listener to focus on the story  and emotions conveyed in the pieces. 

‘The Scottsboro Boys’ became a controversial musical in America as there were  complaints of the musical making the white audience feel ‘uncomfortable’ during the  more intense pieces such as the dream ballet and the finale ‘The Scottsboro Boys,’ in  which each boy tells us how the story ended for them, which includes suicide,  terminal illness and even brain damage. It has been said that the musical exploits the  ‘Great White Guilt’ and is too dark and doesnt have enough ‘sexy ladies or romantic  elements’ to be a success.(4)

Currently, the most popular musical is ‘Hamilton: An American Musical,’ a historical  musical about the American founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Written by Lin Manuel Miranda, this hip-hop musical was nominated for a record breaking 16 Tony  awards, winning eleven of them. It caused controversy due to its racially integrated cast, using black men and latino men to play Thomas Jefferson and George  Washington, however this was explained by Miranda, who said that it’s to represent  how America is now. This musical is so popular that it actually sparked the US  Department of Treasury to redesign the $20 bill, putting Harriet Tubman on it.(5)The  musical is also now used in schools in order to educate students about the history of  America and its Founding Fathers, as it is felt that the use of hip-hop and R&B makes  the message of the musical more accessible and interesting to students. 

Musicals use the fact that music makes subjects more accessible in order to open  doors of discussion to more tabboo subjects. ‘Spring Awakening’ discusses teenage  sexuality and its effects. We follow the story of a group of kids living in a very  Catholic area, consequently, their parents have not told them about sex or  pregnancy, which results in a teenage pregnancy, a botched abortion, suicide and  death by anaemia. The musical also discusses physical and sexual abuse and rape  through the song “The Dark I Know Well.” The musical discusses these themes  through songs such as “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk” and “Don’t Do Sadness” and  try to explain how watching shows like this could result in a more open minded,  progressive generation, “The Song of Purple Summer.” 

Musicals also use ‘leitmotifs’ in order to link story lines. Leitmotifs are a reoccurring  musical theme that is associated with a certain character, plot or idea. Examples of  this include Rapunzel sharing the leitmotif of the magic beans in Stephen Sondheims  ‘Into The Woods,’ in order to show that the two plots are linked by the witch. The  musical that uses the most leitmotifs is Les Miserables. Most of the pieces in this musical are built around each characters leitmotifs. The biggest examples of which  would be ‘One Day More,’ in which every character sings their own leitmotifs in  order to create a loud, polyphonic texture (Eponine sings to the tune of ‘On My  Own,’ Cosette and Marius to ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and the Thenardiers to ‘Master of  the House’) or ‘The Confrontation,’ which uses Javerts theme as the building blocks  to an intense argument between Jarvet and Jean Valjean. There are also may  references made to Valjeans theme in this piece. The use of said leitmotifs allow the  story and emotions of the piece to leave a bigger impact on the viewer.(6) 

The use of leitmotifs, as well as the heavy instrumentation in ‘One Day More’ have  made it one of the most iconic pieces of Musical Theatre in existence. The use of the  entire brass section, as well as drums such as the snare make the triumphant,  determined feel of the piece a lot more intense as the characters begin to go to war  (either emotionally or physically) with the flute and bells adding a more emotional  edge to the song. The song pushes the show into the second act where the drama  and emotions become a lot more intense, with the war beginning and the love story  between Cosette and Marius possibly ending. We feel a shift in the emotions of the  show through it.

Another technique used heavily in musicals to enhance the emotional impact of a  piece is Word Painting. An example of this would be the song ‘Something Coming’  from West Side Story. The opening line ‘Who knows?’ is a questioning phrase which  is emphasized by the quiet, soft orchestra. The line ‘It may come cannon balling  down through the sky’ is full of heavily accented notes and the word ‘humming’ is  illustrated by the high violins. The song itself closes in the key of D Major, but instead  of the held, closing note being in the tonic like we would expect, the character of  Tony sings a C natural which creates a feeling of suspense, a feeling that something  big is coming and about to happen.(7) 

Musicals also use counter melodies, usually in the form of duets. A counter melody is  when a second melody occurs at the same time as the main melodic theme. My  favourite example of this would be ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow/ I could Never Rescue  You’ from the Last Five Years. The story of this musical is told from two separate  points of view and is about a relationship. The story is told backwards from the POV  of Cathy and in chronological order through the eyes of Jamie. This is the closing  song of the musical and therefore we see both the beginning and the ending of their  relationship at the same time. The main melody is sung by Cathy, an upbeat  excitable one that is describing the exciting and overwhelming feeling you get at the  start of a relationship. The music includes soaring violines and upbeat and  simple piano, percussion and guitar. The counter melody is one of a sad nature, sung  by Jamie about the end of their relationship which uses a melancholy piano line and  melancholy strings on the violin and cello. The use of the counter melody highlights  the fact that this musical is about a relationship from the start to the inevitable end,  and how the characters both entered this relationship completely unaware of the  heartbreak in front of them

According to composers and script writers there is a list of the ‘Golden Rules’ for  writing musicals. Three of these rules are as follows: 

  • The ‘Kill Your Darlings’ rule: This rule states that every song in a musical has to serve a purpose, be it emotional or to move the plot along. If the song does not serve one of these purposes in the show it must be cut, no matter  how good it is. In 2008, Ben Brantley, the critic for the New York Times  described the perfect musical theatre song in his review for the Broadway  production of “Gypsy;” 

‘There is no separation at all between song and character, which is what  happens in those uncommon moments when musicals reach upward to  achieve their ideal reasons to be.’ 

  • Find ‘Song Posts’: Irving Berlin, who co-wrote the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” and composed the famous Christmas song “White Christmas” said that songs in musicals cannot be arbitrary under any circumstances. Each song  must have something to say or must have “emotional justification.” 
  • Do Not Repeat: The music in musicals must extend the dialogue for the audience. It cannot repeat any of the dialogue. Rouben Mamoulian, the original director for shows such as Oklahoma! and Porgy and Bess was  adamant that no song can repeat a single point made by the dialogue. The  song can only extend the dialogue in a way that spoken word cant.(8) 

In her video ‘Why We Sing In Musicals,’(9)Carrie Hope Fletcher, star of shows such as  Les Miserables, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Addams Family and War of the Worlds,  compares the use of songs in a musical to the use of magic in stories. Where the  words the character could say wont carry the weight of the emotions they need to  convey they turn to song. She uses the quote by Victor Hugo, author of Les  Miserables; 

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain  silent.”


(1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Wikipedia article “Musical Theatre.” (6) tvtropes.org. “Leitmotifs in Theatre” 

(7) BBC Bitesize, GCSE notes, “West Side Story.” (8)  Musicals101.com/write 

(9) Carrie Hope Fletcher, “Why do We Sing in Musicals?” 

Video Links: 

“Go Back Home”  


“Commencing in Chattanooga” (from 54 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyyRpEA3EGs 

“Hamilton” (from 2minutes and 19 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5VqyCQV1Tg 

“Spring Awakening” 


“Something Coming” 


“Goodbye Until Tomorrow/ I Could Never Rescue You” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfcpE0Tx4TU 

“One Day More” 


“The Confrontation” 


“Javerts Theme” 


Carrie Hope Fletcher 


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