Understanding musicals part 1

I was checking our archives today and rediscovered a great resource on musicals Gillyanne and I put together almost 16 years ago. Back in 2003 we were invited by Rhinegold Publishing to write a substantial piece for teenagers studying musicals in the UK. It’s over 6,000 words long, so I thought over the next few weeks I’d take individual sections of it, explore the ideas and exercises, and publish our additional notes & updates.

Musicals and Subject Matter

Prior to Showboat’s exploration of racial issues, musicals were high on the ‘feel-good factor’. This persisted into the early 1940s to some degree until Oklahoma! hit the scene, with its undertones of darkness in the character Judd (he kidnaps the heroine, Laurie, plans to rape her and eventually hangs himself). Many musicals post-Oklahoma are written around issues of conflict. Contemporary musicals are not afraid to explore difficult issues and these are balanced by comedy or satire, and (usually) some form of romantic interest. Here are some of the types of conflict tackled in musical theatre, with examples:

Racial issues:

  • Ragtime (black emancipation in 1900s America)
  • Parade (Jewish hatred in South Carolina)
  • West Side Story (racial tension between white and Hispanic Americans in the 50s)
  • Fiddler on the Roof (Jewish oppression)
  • Miss Saigon (mixed race relationships and children)
  • Showboat (mixed race relationships and segregation in America) 
  • The Sound of Music (Jewish oppression in Austria)
  • Cabaret (racial tension in Germany)

Gender/sexuality issues:

  • March of the Falsettos (bisexuality)
  • A Chorus Line (homosexuality)

Sex equality:

  • Ragtime (female emancipation in 1900s America)
  • Yentl (female education in Jewish society)

Dysfunctional relationships:

  • Tommy (sexual abuse)
  • Oliver! (child gangs)
  • Into the Woods (every character’s day-to-day relationships)


  • On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (reincarnation) 
  • The Witches of Eastwick (devil worship)

Living with serious illness:

  • Rent (AIDS)
  • March of the Falsettos (AIDS)

Mental health:

  • Lady in the Dark (psychotherapy)
  • Next To Normal (bipolar disorder, electroconvulsive therapy)


  • Follies (middle age revisiting the past)
  • A Little Night Music (extreme old age)
  • Gypsy (inability to accept ageing in self or children)


  • Les Misérables (French student uprising; harsh penal code)
  • Hair (American conscription)


  • Chicago (multiple)
  • Sweeney Todd (multiple, also deportation)
  • Assassins (political)
  • Blood Brothers (social background)

Social pressures:

  • Grease (boyfriends, clothes, image)
  • Hairspray (weight issues)
  • Carousel (respectability and crime)
  • Porgy and Bess (drug abuse)
  • A Chorus Line (plastic surgery)

What other musicals do you know that have challenging topics?


As musicals deal with contemporary issues, or timeless issues using contemporary means, they usually have a sell-by date, and revivals are often updated. This gives the composer, lyricist and book-writer an opportunity to improve on the original, usually by writing new plotlines or songs.

  1. Choose a classic book musical of the 50s, such as The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls or West Side Story. Discuss the issues that are highlighted in the musical. Are they relevant to the society of today
  2. If you were to put on a new production, what issues would you update and how would you achieve this?
  3. Creators of musical theatre are not averse to using challenging issues. What issues might be featured today in a new dramatic musical?


To find out more about how we teach Musical Theatre, watch our Mastering Musical Theatre masterclass in the Learning Lounge online