A (hilariously) brief history of musicals

May 4, 2023

A few decades ago, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa presented a production of Tommy, which featured, among other things, a pinball machine that caught fire and exploded fireworks, all while it zig-zagged across the stage with the lead actor holding on for dear life. In the context of the musical, this pyrotechnic display represented the mental anguish the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” was going through; it was also undeniably awesome.

I was in the audience for one of those shows, and while I had already seen Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables on the same stage, Tommy is the musical I remember best. Partly because of the fireworks, and partly because of the music – but mostly, how the energy of the show filled the auditorium, like you could taste it in the very molecules of the air.

Music has been a part of theatre since its inception in Ancient Greece, and it seemed a fitting topic for this blog post, since our first community musical in five years, Mamma Mia!, was staged at the Lester Centre from April 20-22. (The cast, crew, and band of the show are pictured above.) Musicals have also been part of the fabric of the community of Prince Rupert for many decades, going back to before the Lester Centre was even built.

Evolving out of pagan rituals in the fifth century B.C., Greek theatre essentially replaced the priest with actors speaking or singing independently of a chorus; and it also replaced the worshippers with an audience. The common link between ritual and theatre seems to be the chorus, which sometimes had as many as 50 people singing, providing context to the action, and sometimes commentary on what was going on.

Those Greek comedies and tragedies wouldn’t be recognized as the musicals we know and love today. Indeed, it’s a long road from Sophocles to Sweeney Todd, and it winds through Italian commedia del arte, French comedie en vaudeville, and German opera, to name a few mileposts. For English-speaking folk, the modern musical’s form was cast by two British gentlemen named W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, who together wrote 14 musicals between 1871 and 1896. They called them “comic operas,” but if you watch a staging of The Pirates of Penzance or H.M.S.Pinafore, they share many of the same characteristics with musicals like Hamilton, Cats, or, yes, Mamma Mia.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s main innovation was the integration of spoken word into the songs being sung for their actors. They would be talking about one thing or another and then, suddenly, they would break into song and start to sing and dance, all while a band struck up an accompanying melody and rhythm. And that continues to today.

In Prince Rupert, musical theatre was imported by American and Canadian soldiers during the Second World War, when performance halls were set up for soldiers. Over the years, Rupert became well-known for its musicals, and from the conversations I’ve had with people who have been involved with the performing arts scene, it seems the musicals started in the late-1970s and into the 1980s, performed at various venues around town. Popular favourites were Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof.

After the Lester Centre was built in 1987, the performing arts community had a home stage, and over the years we’ve taken advantage of that fact. In the 21stcentury, over 10 musicals have been brought to the stage by the Lester Centre, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Miserables, and Little Shop of Horrors. That’s not including the approximately 500 musicals that have been produced by the high school drama program in the past 20 years.

As long as there’s theatre in Rupert, there will be musicals to entertain the community. Heck, maybe one day we’ll light a pinball machine on fire.

~Chris Armstrong