Shakespeare and Musical Theatre

At first glance, some might see no real relation between performing Shakespeare and a musical. But look again. I’m not talking about songs that Shakespeare wrote in to many of his plays, but the style of writing and acting. First a little disclaimer: lots of people don’t like musical theatre because it is hokey and unrealistic and lame. It is if you see bad musical theatre! Any good theatre production will let you suspend your disbelief and become engrossed in the stories and character. The community and high school musical theatre productions can’t really count. The instruction is often “smile,” and that’s about it. Super cheesy mediocre theatre is not what I’m talking about.

My best example of the similarities between Shakespeare and Musicals is the average Shakespearean soliloquy and a traditional solo song. Both pieces are delivered to the audience as a glimpse into the character’s thoughts and feeling at that very moment in time. The soliloquy (most often) and the song are in verse, have rhythm, meter. Both are definitely not true to real life; they are heightened language at an heightened emotional part in the characters journey and needs to be shared.

I’ve often heard said in musical theatre classes, “when the emotion is too great to speak: sing.” The same is often true in Shakespeare, except that the character will rattle off a monologue instead of a song. But the verse structure is very similar to that of a song. There is meter and rhythm, but the pitches and tempos are up to you.

The training for performing in either can be similar too. Being able to speak the words with distinction and give them meaning is essential. If you sing a song and have a pretty voice put put no emotion in it, no one will care. A great actor with a not so great voice will usually get away with it, but a horrible actor with a not so horrible voice gets boring real fast. The words need to have meaning because theatre is an auditory experience primarily. The author has created the story with words (and maybe music) and need to be given meaning. If an actor in Shakespeare can put “emotion” into their voice but not connect with the words, their performance will fall flat too.

Unfortunately today a lot of musical theatre, even at a professional level, does not put a lot of emphasis on acting the songs. As long as you’re a great dancer and have a decent voice – you’re in. But the BEST musical theatre performers are actors first who know how to use the words. What good is a play when the story that is written is not being told well?