The Contemporary American Musical
How the new musical MINORS and modern musical theater use contemporary sounds to tell timeless stories
Onstage at Lantern Theater Company now through June 30, 2019, Minors is a world premiere musical by Kittson O’Neill and Robert Kaplowitz and inspired by the “kids for cash” scandal. This intimate American roots rock drama gives voice to families ripped apart by a culture that sees them as commodities rather than individuals. Like all good musicals across the decades, Minors uses music to tell emotional stories and access feelings that speech alone cannot reach. And like many musicals of the current era, it does so by using contemporary stylings and sounds rather than traditional Broadway balladeering alone.
Contemporary musical theater uses a broad spectrum of genre and sound to unlock the emotional sweep of their stories. Some contemporary composers have taken the torch from Broadway legends to produce essentially traditional scores with modern inflections. Some go further, using a popular artist’s catalog of songs as the score for a biographical or original story. And some, like Hamilton — a particular giant of contemporary musical theater — mine a specific modern genre to tell a classic story. Minors is a little bit of all of these: a modern musical theater score, grounded in rock and blues, with inspiration from such artists as Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, and Joni Mitchell.
Many contemporary musicals bear striking resemblance to the classics that came before. Recent hits like Dear Evan Hanson, Waitress, and The Book of Mormon, among many others, put their own modern, often pop-influenced, spin on the traditional musical formula, mixing soaring ballads with stirring group numbers. Minors does this too, with solos, duets, and electrifying group numbers that push the story forward and sound the depths of each character. The tools of musical theater are well used in all of these shows; Minors employs them with a sound that is less traditional and more overtly contemporary.
Every generation of musical theater has at least one genre-shaking show that expertly takes the sounds of the day and adapts them to the form to tell an urgent, vital story. For the 1990s, that musical was Rent. Jonathan Larson blended rock, pop, electronica, and R&B to tell the story of young artists living and working in New York City, based on an opera over a century old. Its energy and vitality made it a huge hit, and spawned two decades of rock musicals that use contemporary music to their jobs. Minors may not sound like Rent, but it too borrows from rock and other music of today to tell its contemporary story.
While modern stories can use modern music, so too can historically based plays use today’s sounds to connect the eras. No conversation about contemporary musical theater would be complete without Hamilton. The story of Alexander Hamilton, his fellow founding fathers, and the early days of the United States is told through the rhythms of hip hop, rap, and R&B. The story is over 200 years old, but the medium is insistently contemporary, helping its audience access the urgency of the moment and the real human emotions behind it. While Minors is a very different piece, it too uses modern musical styles to unlock its story of both present and past — one that takes place today, but that carries with it echoes of the mining heyday of over 100 years ago.
It’s not just original music that can serve as a window to the play’s story and a time machine. To that end, Bruce Springsteen’s recent Broadway run of Springsteen on Broadway found the singer-songwriter using his catalog of music in a hybrid of concert and one-man-show to evoke moments from his life, both growing up in working class New Jersey and ascending to rock star heights. Minors manages a similar trick: using the sounds and rhythms of folk, rock, and blues to bring to life characters and images from a specific place and time, and make them feel universal. The characters of Minors are largely working class, stitching together a life as best they can with not enough money, help, or institutional support in a part of the country that has been ravaged and left behind. The driving sounds of the rock-inflected music tell us much about their hardscrabble souls.
Contemporary musical theater is expansive enough to cover a lot of stylistic and emotional ground. Stories of war, mental health, high school, government, myth, and the working class are all on Broadway stages right now, using a wide variety of musical influence and storytelling to reach their audiences. Minors carries on that tradition, using vibrant and modern sounds to sing us a story that reaches across time and space, one that is both specific to its setting and familiar to us all.