Spectacle of Musical Theatre essay

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Technology in Musicals

Musical theatre has existed in some form for centuries. Theatre is an art form that allows many emotions to be expressed through acting and music. While talented performers are most responsible for being characters to life and performing the music contained in the production, musical theatre also relies on other factors to guarantee the success of a musical. These factors are inclusive of ambience (i.e. The way that theatre is designed), production quality and technology. The latter of these factors has become increasingly vital to theatre production since the opening of The Savoy theatre in 1881. Indeed, technology has forever changed every facet of life. Whilst, musical theatre productions are still steeped in many types of traditions, there are many changes that have occurred in theatre productions as a result of technology. The purpose of this discussion is to examine the historic use of technology in theatres and the modern uses of technology in theatre. The research will focus on several facets of technology in musical theatre production beginning with Richard D'Oyly Carte's use of electricity to power the Savoy and the impact of radio and television on Carte's. The research will also examine the utilization of theatre spectacle and how it influenced the use of technology in musical theatre. The investigation will also examine Florenz Ziegfeld's production of Show Boat and why this particular musical was so groundbreaking. The research will also seek to expose the manner in which advertisement and the sale of tickets is influenced by technology. The discussion will also focus on the use of technology in more recent productions and how these uses have evolved over time. The final aspect of the discussion will focus on the manner in which technology has influenced the overall success of musical theatre.

Chapter I Historical Context

For the purposes of this discussion it is important to explore the historical context of the use of technology in musical theatre. It is important to note that musical theatre has existed in some form for ages all over the world and it has evolved into the musical theatre that we have come accustomed to today. Although there are some differences in the manner in which musical theatre is produced and the themes that are presented depending on the region of the world, there are some aspects of musical theatre that are the same regardless of the part of the world the production is taking place.

As it pertains to the historic use of technology in the realm of theatre Richard D'Oyly Carte (1844-1901) is a prime example of an individual who defied convention to develop a theatre with the available technologies of the time. Carte is responsible for building the Savoy theatre which opened in October of 1881. The theatre was actually built in London on the site of the old Savoy Palace. The Savoy theatre was an important creation because it provided a platform for the works of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Eventually the theatre was known as the Savoy operas.

The building of The Savoy was important to the history of technology in theatre because it was the first theatre that was run completely on electricity. On the eve of the opening of the Savoy an announcement for the theatre's opening appeared in The New York Times. The paper describes the theatre as "large and commodious" with seating for 1,292 patrons. As it pertains to the technology The Times also explains that

"It is worthy of notice that an attempt will be made here for the first time in London to light a theatre entirely by electricity. The system used is that of the "incandescent lamp," invented by Mr. J.W. Swan, and worked by an engine of Messrs. Siemens, Brothers, and Co. About 1,200 lights are used, and the power to generate a sufficient current for these is obtained from large steam-engines, giving about 120-horse power, placed on some open land near the theatre. The new light is not only used in the audience part of the theatre, but on the stage for foot-lights, side and top-lights, & c., and (not of the least importance for the comfort of the performers) in the dressing rooms -- in fact, in every part of the house. This is the first time that it has been attempted to light any public building entirely by electricity ("The Savoy theatre")."

The Times goes on to explains that the use of electricity in the theatre was an experiment that may have ended in failure or success. The article also explained that "It is not possible, until the application of the accumulator or secondary battery -- the reserve store of electric power -- becomes practicable, to guarantee absolutely against any breakdown of the electric light. To provide against such a contingency gas is laid on throughout the building, and the "pilot" light of the central sunburner will be always kept alight, so that in case of accident the theatre can be flooded with gaslight in a few seconds ("The Savoy theatre")."

Carte's experiment at The Savoy had a lasting impact on the manner in which modern theatre functions. Carte forever transformed what theatre goers see, feel and experience during various types of productions. Carte was able to utilize electricity in a manner that has changed the theatre experience forever.

During Carte's lifetime both the radio and eventually television were introduced to society and had significant impacts on musical theatre and entertainment in general. For instance radio was instrumental in the development of live shows and narratives and families often gathered around the radio to listen to popular broadcast. Radio exposed the fact that people enjoyed listening to scripted narratives. In addition the advent of the television added another dimension to the scripted narrative because people could both see and hear the shows. Musical theatre was influenced by the popularity of radio and television at the time. The popularity of these two mediums influenced the types of technologies eventually used in musical theatre. Carte's introduction of electricity eventually allowed for the widespread use of microphones and forever altered the manner in which lighting was used to create ambience or emphasize the mood of a scene or an act.

In addition to the use of electricity in theatres, the utilization of stage spectacle also became important. Spectacle has long been a component of theatre; however a clear definition of spectacle remains elusive. According to Kershaw (2003) "Spectacle seems always aimed to produce excessive reactions -- the WOW! Factor -- and at its most effective it touches highly sensitive spots in the changing nature of the human psyche by dealing directly with extremities of power: gods, monarchy, regicide, war, terrorism, catastrophe, apocalypse now (593)." Kershaw also defines spectacle as a type of cultural performance. He also asserts that the key paradox of spectacle is that it addresses the human in inhuman ways. Furthermore, spectacle "multiplies power through excessive waste; it plays on the visceral mainly through the visual; it can attract and repel in the same instant (Kershaw, 2003)."

Technology has become essential in the display of spectacle because of the types of effects that can be produced through technology which exploits lighting, scenery and sound to create a certain mood or evoke certain emotions.

As it pertains specifically to spectacle and the use of technology, musicals such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera changed the manner in which spectacle is depicted on stage. Adlaf (2004) explains that throughout the seventies and eighties the producers of many musicals added more spectacle to their productions. There was a great deal of criticism levelled against the addition of spectacle because some critics believed that many productions were becoming saturated with spectacle and the real narratives were being lost (Rosenberg and Harburg 141). Adlaf (2004) further explains that

"This desire for more spectacle was perhaps a reaction to the film industry and its related increase in special effects (Hattori). Whatever the reason this desire for increased spectacle eventually led to an increase in the use of technology on Broadway. This increase in technology encompassed all of the areas of production -- including primarily: scenery, lighting, and sound. Robert McDonald, business manager for Local One -- the union of stage technicians in New York City, stated that: "on the stage itself, many of the units which were pushed by hand are now handled by electric winches. So that one man can control nine, ten winches all by himself sitting at one console (Adlaf )."

The change that theatre experienced as it pertained to spectacle occurred as a result of the increase in the amount of technology made available to Broadway productions. The newer technology was inclusive of computerized control equipment. Although this equipment had been available for a while it did not become prevalent in theatre until the seventies and eighties. One of the reasons that this technology was not brought into Broadway productions sooner involved the pressure from unions which feared that utilizing the new technology would…[continue]

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