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I had a lot of fun asking the previous questions about musical theater, and even more fun getting answers, so I thought I'd ask another to see what comes up. Here goes:

Book musicals (musicals that tell a story, as opposed to a revue-type show) come in all "flavors" and can take place anywhere in the world at any time--including that no-time/no-place we'll call "limbo." The questions are: Do the writers of shows convey the time/place of the story being told? If so, how? If not, why, and how do they handle it?

Just to start things off: "Pippin" takes place in the time of Charlemagne. Does the music?


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I'd say it is done predominantly through costumes/clothes of that time/era, language/grammar used (using words commonly spoken at the same time being careful to "not" use words that would not have been spoken at that time, style of dance, and overall feel/mood/tone of the times. Sometimes they can use the injection of a well-known historical event to weave into the story as well. I think those who write for another time must acquaint themselves or almost study those times to get the full flavor unless of course they have lived through it themselves.

Last edited by Lynn Orloff; 07/31/07 09:24 AM.

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You're right about costumes and, even more importantly, about the use of language/grammar/vocabulary of the time and place. Costumes are important, but not always necessary, to convey the time/place. Case in point: "Godspell" has actors in basically modern dress (denim, etc.), or at least clothing of the late '60s flower children.

Language is, as I said, even more important, but it's not always obviously how. Take "Fiddler on the Roof." It takes place in Russia, specifically in the Jewish =shetyl= of Anatevka. What would be the most common language heard in such a place? Certainly not English! It would most likely be Yiddish, with Russian and Hebrew heard only as necessary. Yet we understand this when we hear dialogue and lyrics in English throughout the show. There are only a few instances of Russian and Hebrew throughout; the rest is understood by us (the audience) as being a sort of simultaneous translation from Yiddish into English.

What I find even more interesting is how time and place are conveyed in musical terms, or even if they are. Rodgers and Hammerstein would handle it one way ("South Pacific" and "The King and I" are two examples), Sondheim another ("Pacific Overtures" and "Sweeney Todd"), and so on. Remember my question about "Pippin"? So, how did Schwarz handle it?

Last edited by Steven L. Rosenhaus; 08/01/07 01:10 AM.

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"Do the writers of shows convey the time/place of the story being told? If so, how? If not, why, and how do they handle it?"

Good question, I never even bothered to think about that but i'll try my best with my own work (remember, I'm not a writer...)

When I wrote the Tavern, I used a 'Storyteller' as narrarator, this way I could use time without care, going back and forth from one time period to the next - present to past and back to the present which was the stories (being told by the ST)future... this also allowed multiple storylines (overall) to be used such as the basic premise of the (what I like to call) 'Outside' story (the beginning and end of the play up to the ST's telling of his story to the others and when he's done, sortof like the 'bread' of the story sandwich...) and the ST's story he tells to the others (the 'inside' story or PB & J of the 'sandwich' where anything can now happen anywhere and to anybody irregardless of a timeline...).

What I think the neat thing was is that both stories are really the same story overall. I just sorta started telling it in the middle, went back in time (and went back in time further) came back to the back in time section (all the while bouncing back [forward?] at times to the 'present' as the 'Outside' storyline/dialog required, then back to the past until the story was over and we go 'back' to the present and end the 'outside' story and the play.

I suppose another funny thing is the Tavernkeeper is in on it all the time but never says anything and plays along with the Storyteller... oops... gave it away...

As we got wonderful comments and lots of applause, I am assuming the set & dialog did well (somewhat of medieval in it's delivery without being too much, nor did I try and make it modern). The costumes were simple and didn't detract/distract the audience - you knew who the characters were by what they did/said.

I hope that helps...
btw, the complete video production is now 2-200 meg wmv files downloadable on my site, I'd urge you to read the script first as i didn't direct the play so some dialog/directions you'll see were not approved by me and, I believe, really ruined those moments...
oh well,... what can you do?


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Hi Steve,

A common device in musicals that instantly comes to mind is the tribute song in the musical that glorifies (or at least describes)a particular location: think - Bali Hai (South Pacific), Buenos Aires (Evita), even Oh What a Beautiful Morning (Oklahoma) etc etc

Another example I can think of is, in the King and I ,the introduction to the locale is done by presenting the story through the eyes of Anna, a stranger to Siam. We discover the society along with her and her son.

Then there's always the narration style book that just tells you where you are...lol

Oh...and your comment about setting a show in limbo...well I actually saw a workshop of one this summer!!! It was all about the Catholic church eliminating limbo as an after death option. Needless to say, it was kind of a weak premise for a whole musical, but the big 'show stopper' number was called "In Limbo"...lol


Last edited by Christine Mascott; 09/06/07 08:52 AM.

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Hi Christine,

Your examples are good ones. I was thinking in more general terms--which I supposed I should have said in the first place. Basically, the composer can write music that has no direct connection to the time or place (think "Pippin," which takes place in the time of Charlemagne but uses 1970 pop-rock), or is a pastiche of the music of that time and place (the show within the show in "The Drowsey Chaperone"), or uses something in between--what I call "flavoring"--to varying degrees, as in the Rodgers and Hammerstein examples you gave.

My favorite "missed" attempt is "Phantom of the Opera," in which ALW does a credible job of mimicing operas that would have been popular at the time/place of the story, AND writes some decent "real life" music. The "missed" part is the Phantom's own music--almost all cheesey 1980s disco.

There's the use of quotation, which must be done with caution. Sondheim, of all people, makes a mistake in "Assassins" in "How I Saved Teddy Roosevelt" (I might be slightly off about the title). This number relies on two Sousa marches, and while he does interesting things with them, they're too present for us to ignore and then compare with Sondheim's "own style."

Then there's the use of what I'll call analagous music, music that gives us a sense of the time and place without our having to actually hear or even know the real music of that time/place. An example is "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which takes place in ancient Rome. The music is vaudeville/burlesque all the way though, which make sense. The show is a bedroom farce much like early burlesque, we don't know what Ancient Roman music sounded like, and so on.

Anyway, them's my thoughts.


Steven Rosenhaus
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