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"Hmm. What assurance would we have that everyone else would also break into song and do the same thing?"
A musical is any presentation in which a major part of the exposition and/or action comes through the medium of song (and often, but not necessarily, dance as well). This sounds simple, but it has so many permutations that it is a loaded term for most people. For example, if you were to say that the only real difference between an opera and a musical is in what theaters they're showing it in, expect vehement protests — and yet, trying to come up with definitions that will perfectly separate one from the other is just about impossible.
By far the most common perception of a musical is properly termed "musical theater", in which a play is performed with several songs interspersed at major plot points in the story. In the United States, these are most often associated with Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, and can be either original material or adapted from any number of sources (though adaptations are far more common than original musicals; see All Musicals Are Adaptations).
A distinction is made between "book musicals", in which songs are interspersed between chunks of spoken dialogue and action (the spoken dialogue being referred to as the "book"), and musicals that are "sung through" like an Opera, i.e. every word is sung from curtain-up to curtain-down. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Guys and Dolls are examples of book musicals; Cats and Les Misérables are sung through. Each variety has its advantages and disadvantages: with a sung through musical, there's the danger of having too much utterly mundane dialogue set to music in a way that draws the audience's attention to the blatant artificiality of the concept; with a book musical, the transitions from musical scenes to spoken dialogue and vice versa can be awkward and forced if they're not handled carefully.
- First, theatre is typically more forgiving of grand, melodramatic gestures, such as... well, bursting into song at highly emotional moments... that just look silly on film. Directors often deal with this by adding in some sort of frame story to justify all the singing (as in Chicago, where the songs are envisioned as taking place inside Roxie's head; the song "Class" had to be cut because there was no way to make it fit that scheme); alternatively, they can just go with the inherent high camp of the genre and hope they get away with it.
- Second, films have bigger budgets than stage plays and often need to have "big names" to make sure of having an audience to justify the budget — but most Hollywood-standard "big names" can't carry a tune in a bucket. There was a time when the standard solution was to hire a real singer to dub over the "name" (as, for instance, with Natalie Wood being dubbed by Marni Nixon in West Side Story — Nixon also dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), but this has fallen out of favour — with the result that many "musical" films are distinctly unmusical. (See Camelot or The Phantom of the Opera... actually, don't.) The alternative solution of hiring popular singers to play the roles brings with it the possibility that they can't act, which can be equally painful to watch.
There's also the problem that film and theater are very different media (as are television and film) and there are important differences that don't always translate well:
- Film can zoom in and pan out to control the audience's focus. Theatre controls this with dialogue and blocking (how actors and props are positioned). No less a luminary than Stephen Sondheim has said that one reason why it's hard to adapt a stage musical to film is that in film a close-up can tell you everything that a song can — so why bother with the song?
- Film is image driven, where theater is dialogue driven. Film can have little or no dialogue and tell the story with pictures; theater can have very little physical movement and tell the story with verbal images.
- Theater can be effective with very sparse or abstract sets, movies demand detailed and authentic backgrounds.
However, film and theater have one thing in common: you get 90 minutes of butt time, and if you run longer than that, you'd BETTER be good.
The movie/musical adaptation cycle goes both ways, with many Broadway musicals nowadays being based on films — the reasoning being that if it's already been a success in one medium, it's less of a risk — and the musical versions of the films then being adapted and returning to celluloid again (e.g. The Producers, Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors).
There's also a new trend of the Jukebox Musical; adapting a musical play or film from the existing catalog of a musical artist, when the songs therein might not have anything to do with each other. Mamma Mia adapted from ABBA, Movin' Out adapted from Billy Joel, and Across the Universe adapted from The Beatles are just a few examples. Moulin Rouge, which didn't stick to one artist but repurposed a few decades of pop music, was the likely trend-setter here. Of course, this technique goes back a ways--Singin in The Rain reused older songs--and prolific composers would often take songs from their less-successful shows and reuse them in new productions. (For example, Gilbert and Sullivan took the song "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" from their early failure Thespis and dropped it in The Pirates of Penzance.)
Since far more people can see a Hollywood film than a Broadway musical (even one that runs for years), films adapting stage musicals are especially prone to Adaptation Displacement. It is very rare in the West for live-action musical films to be original, rather than adaptations.
Arguably, any non-fantasy musical could be considered an example of Magic Realism.
For a list of tropes related to Musical Drama and Songs you get to sing, see Musical Number Index.
- Note that this is not actually true of Opera to begin with; some of Mozart's most celebrated operas have spoken dialogue, for example (like The Magic Flute).