WARNING: This is an opinion-based post. One of the most common questions I receive from students and colleagues is, “can you please help me find a contemporary musical theatre song to sing?” It seems like a simple enough question, right? The problem is, ‘contemporary musical theatre’ is one of those frustratingly ambiguous terms that can mean 100 different things to 100 different people. Here are some of the many definitions I’ve heard from individuals over the years…
- Any musical theatre song written from the late 1960s to the present that is meant to be sung with amplification.
To me, it seems a little odd to label nearly 50 years of musical theatre songs ‘contemporary’, but I understand the logic. Body-miking performers really started to take off on Broadway in the 1960s, and there was a shift in vocalism, instrumentation, and other factors as a result (some songwriters also began to adopt pop and rock influences around this time). Generally, I just find this definition a bit too vague to be practical in most cases. Too much has changed over the past five-six decades.
- A sub-style of musical theatre music that is influenced by both traditional musical theatre styles and popular/commercial music styles.
This definition seems pretty good, but it’s still a bit wide-reaching. What years are we talking about? For example, 1970s pop-influenced musical theatre songs often sound quite different from 1990s pop-influenced musical theatre songs. There are differences in vocalism, instrumentation/orchestrations, acting, and more. To further complicate things, many of the European-invasion musicals from the 1980s combine elements of classical music, traditional musical theatre music, AND pop/rock music. A show like Les Misérables is essentially a sweeping, sung-through ‘pop-opera’.
- A pop-influenced, sub-style of musical theatre music that began in 1995 with Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World.
Giving JRB a lot of credit with this definition, but he has been an influential figure in the development of musical theatre over the past couple decades. Many young musical theatre songwriters today cite him as a major inspiration. More so than Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, etc., though?
- Any musical theatre song written by ‘New Musical Theatre’ songwriters like Kerrigan & Lowdermilk, Joe Iconis, Adam Gwon, etc.
This is an interesting definition, and it’s used fairly commonly. This group of songwriters is sometimes referred to as the ‘YouTube Generation’. Before YouTube, most theatre fans outside of NYC only knew about musical theatre songwriters with Broadway and/or Off-Broadway credits. Thanks to YouTube and sites like newmusicaltheatre.com and contemporarymusicaltheatre.com, musical theatre songwriters of all backgrounds and experience levels have been able to get their music out to the masses (which is great).
My main point with all this: if/when using the term ‘contemporary musical theatre’, make sure to clarify what you actually mean. The definitions above are just a few of the many out there. It is a devilishly vague term, and I sometimes wonder if we might be better off without it completely. However, that’s just me.