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Monday, May 9, 2016

Page to Stage: Transforming Stories


In the storied relationship between books and Broadway, musical theatre finds new ways to bring literature to life.  ♦ 
If you’re an ardent reader of books, you already know the power of storytelling. A good story has the power to inspire, heal, and even fundamentally change an audience’s views. Books can put us on the edge of our seats or have us spilling tears on their pages. But what if I told you there’s a storytelling medium that can make books even more magical?
    Musical theatre is a storytelling medium that has the power to bring books to life. What exactly makes musical theatre such a powerful storytelling medium, you ask?

1. It’s Performed Live
Musical theatre is such a unique storytelling medium because it’s a live story. When you go to see a show, stories unfold before your eyes in a way that the written word alone can’t replicate. Books rely on readers to imagine stories in their heads. But in musical theatre, characters jump out of books to perform stories in a live, intimate, and audience-involved setting. In other words, books can come to life on a stage.
    Live theatre is very engaging, and it can enhance readers’ knowledge and appreciation of literature too. According to a study conducted at the University of Arkansas, “live theatre can even lead to enhanced knowledge of plots, increased vocabulary, greater tolerance, and improved ability to read the emotions of others.”

2. It Incorporates Music
Although many people scoff at the idea of stories being told through song and dance, music can intensify a story and make it even more powerful and persuasive. Music is a universal language that can set tones, invite the audience to empathize with characters, and advance plotlines significantly. Sometimes, songs are more effective than words alone when trying to communicate the way a character feels. Since music can evoke emotional responses, it’s a great tool to use when trying to drive a theme home too. Plus, it’s entertaining!
    In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, for example, there are significant musical contrasts between the songs that the Phantom and Raoul sing which illustrate the different types of love that they hold for Christine.
    The Phantom’s songs are very dark and powerful, and this reflects the obsessive love he has for Christine:


Raoul’s songs, on the other hand, are warmer and more delicate, reflecting the healthier type of love he has for her:


3. It Uses Stage Effects
Another way musical theatre brings books and stories to life is through the use of creative stage effects which immerse an audience into the world of the story and create the illusion that you're inside of it through directly engaging sometimes all of the audience's senses.
     Imagine, for example, the firefight at the barricades of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables coming to life twenty feet in front of you: red lights flash, you can smell the smoke of gunpowder, and everyone holds their breath as Gavroche is shot in front of the barricade (and right in front of the audience).


Or, imagine experiencing the magical abilities described in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins coming to life on stage through creative effects. Characters fly on cables, household items levitate, and statues come to life in a piece that was originally just words on a page.


4. It’s Fast-Paced
In order to tell a story in two or three hours, everything in the plot of a musical has to happen very quickly. This is, admittedly, a both a strength and a weakness: the fast pace of musical theatre is exciting and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, but it also squeezes the narrative of a story. When a book becomes a musical, the narrative of the story is adapted at the expense of subtle details that readers might love. Every storytelling medium has faults and this is one of the biggest faults of musical theatre that book purists lament. However, the benefit is a unique compression of story by using all means available to tell it—sights, sounds, staging—so that two hundred pages can be transformed into a full two-hour experience.
    An excellent example of this kind of story compression is the current hit-Broadway musical Hamilton; what started as an 832-page biography by Ron Chernow ended up as a two-and-a-half hour hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. By utilizing a unique and popular musical genre, a lengthy biography became a fast-paced, exciting experience. As a result of Miranda’s genius adaptation, both the musical and the book are now immensely popular, more people are learning about U.S. history, and the Treasury Department decided to keep Hamilton on the 10-dollar bill.


5. You Can Become Part of the Story
Part of the magic of musical theatre is that anyone can become a part of their favorite books and stories. There are tons of classic and modern books that have stage adaptations, and most cities have a community theatre that regularly holds auditions for shows written after books. Is Pride & Prejudice your favorite classic? Audition to be an Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy! Do you love The Wizard of Oz? Audition to be in the chorus of Wicked! Even attending a performance of musical theater feels like a participatory, intimate experience . . . imagine the thrill and rush of actually participating and, in that way, being a part of the story being brought to life.

Whether you want to get into the action or wish to go strictly an observer, there’s a place for you at the theatre. Musical theatre builds community involvement through storytelling, which is something that both theatre geeks and bookworms can appreciate. So the next time you want to experience a fantastic story, consider looking for your favorite book on a marquee as well as on the shelf!
  • About the Author
    Trevor Jones is a junior English: Professional Writing and Strategic Communication double major at Miami University. In his free time, he enjoys playing intramural soccer and “geeking out” over musical theatre.

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