Printer Friendly - Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory


Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by darquegk 2013-02-04 16:02:26


One of my frequent collaborators and I had a fascinating discussion over the weekend at a gala for a local philanthropist, linking musical theatre with zeitgeist theory.

In the simplest terms, zeitgeist, "Spirit of the Time," can be interpreted as the cohesive whole of a "way in a place in time." The culture as it was in that moment. Wikipedia defines it more technically as "the intellectual fashion or school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time." Art can function in two ways in connection with the zeitgeist: good art fits into the zeitgeist of the time, being "successful" because of either being "good" or "right for the time/trendy/of its time;" great art has such an impact that it CREATES or influences the zeitgeist, rather than being created or influenced solely by the zeitgeist.

According to our table discussion, the last time musical theatre had had an impact on the zeitgeist itself in a huge way was "Hair" in the late Sixties and early Seventies, which, though influenced by the tropes and themes of the hippie era, rock music and Vietnam protest, actually served to codify most of those tropes definitively, creating one of the biggest pictures of that era in popular culture, and yielding "Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In" as perhaps the definitive "hippie song" in pop culture.

The basic question of our argument came around to this: has the theatre impacted the zeitgeist since? What will it take to make theatre that DOES again? Two people on the table argued that "Rent" had impacted the zeitgeist of its time, but the rest of us countered that it influenced Broadway in the past two decades, and had relatively little impact on popular culture or "the spirit of the era."

What are your thoughts on all this? Chime in, discuss, take it in whatever direction you want. I'm curious how a more philosophical strain of discussion will play on this open forum.

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by newintown 2013-02-04 16:17:52


I'd say no, because lyrics have become increasingly less theatrical in popular music. Musical theatre at its best is generally theatrical in a narrative way (telling a story with characters), rather than being a concert of tenuously connected songs (with, of course, exceptions).

I don't think, though, that Hair "codified" anything, but was a reflection of a kind of song-writing that had been developing for many years prior. I would say that if there is an ultimate hippie song, it's probably "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," written early in 1967 (Hair's first, less-famous, iteration happened in October that year).

But it's an interesting theory. The problem in it may be that there is never merely one zeitgeist going on at any given moment, although it makes it easier for us to discuss the past if we believe otherwise.

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by SonofRobbieJ 2013-02-04 16:26:50


I would argue that it's popular music that affects the zeitgeist. For a long time, the world of musical theatre and the world of popular music were concurrent. Beginning in the late 50's (perhaps earlier), the two began to diverge.

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by Mister Matt 2013-02-04 16:58:55


It can be very subjective, especially how you interpret the zeitgeist of a particular time. When I think of musical theatre in the 90s, I always think of Rent first. For me, it definitely contributed to the zeitgeist because of its unexpected popularity, its immediate relevance, and its influence in American musical theatre. BUT it was a uniquely American phenomenon that didn't have the same impact internationally.

Whether Hair contributed to the zeitgeist or was a product of the zeitgeist is sort of a chicken/egg question.

Art can function in two ways in connection with the zeitgeist: good art fits into the zeitgeist of the time, being "successful" because of either being "good" or "right for the time/trendy/of its time;" great art has such an impact that it CREATES or influences the zeitgeist, rather than being created or influenced solely by the zeitgeist.

Or there is the combination of the two. I believe there is an argument to be made that the overwhelming popularity of a show that is so rooted in its reflection of the current time can be indicative of influencing the zeitgeist, especially at a time when Broadway musicals and popular music were no longer integrated.

I would say that if there is an ultimate hippie song, it's probably "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),"

That was my thought as well.

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by Kad 2013-02-04 17:05:03


I'd argue that Hair premiered right after the peak of the hippie culture, and ended up only being a symbol/defining work in retrospect.

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by tazber 2013-02-04 17:11:59


I would posit that A Chorus Line was an incredibly influential show that falls into the category of creating zeitgeist.
Its confessional tone, lack of a conventional narrative, and deeply complex characters expanded the idea of what a musical could be.




Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by broadwaydevil 2013-02-04 17:12:25


I'd argue that Hair premiered right after the peak of the hippie culture, and ended up only being a symbol/defining work in retrospect.

Agreed. As another poster said, popular music is what affects the zeitgeist. Musical theatre hasn't been popular music for 60 years. As a result, all musical theatre since then is a product of the zeitgeist. The only reason Hair seems like it affected the zeitgest was because it was so long ago and few around today were old enough when it premiered to really tell you it came long after popular music, movies, etc. said the same thing. In 40 years, my guess is Rent will be looked at the same as Hair for the same reason.

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by GavestonPS 2013-02-04 18:27:37


I was 17 when my high school "Broadway trip" included a visit to HAIR. It had been running off and on-Broadway for over 3 years. It was exciting to my classmates because it seemed that popular music was returning to the theater, not because there was anything about the score they hadn't heard before. (Myself, I preferred COMPANY and FOLLIES.) So I'm agreeing it mostly reflected the zeitgeist, although with, by my count, at least five hit singles it made some small contribution to creating the culture of the time.

A CHORUS LINE certainly seems to typify the confessional tone of the so-called "Me Decade", but wasn't that zeitgeitst firmly in place by 1975? I think something as quaint as the Loud Family on PBS actually had broader influence.

I know RENT was very important to people of a certain age in the 1990s, but I don't think it was much more than a pleasant evening to most of us ten or more years older.

ANGELS IN AMERICA is the only theater event that I can remember mattering to the culture at large since the 1960s. Tony Kushner's sudden welcome on the editorial pages of all major magazines and newspapers was evidence. It was with ANGELS that we as a culture finally acknowledged the impact of AIDS; in my opinion, RENT followed (and there's no shame in that).

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by GavestonPS 2013-02-05 19:39:25


I'm bumping this thread not because my post is important, but because I'm interested in what others think. Yes, of course, defining the zeitgeist is a tricky business: in retrospect, who influenced their eras more than Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud? But the latter two weren't even widely read in their own times.

At the very least, I expect some of the Rentinistas to go after my assertion that ANGELS was more influential on the culture at large...

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by darquegk 2013-02-05 20:21:57


After a day or two of thought on the subject, I have a new thought to share. Perhaps the reason musical theatre is no longer a major part of the zeitgeist of the late 2000s-early 2010s is that the tropes of musical theatre have been dispersed into other media.

Mid-2000s, Chicago brought back the movie musical once per year era. High School Musical 1-3 made "mostly musical comedy-drama" a valid TV form after "Viva Laughlin" and "Cop Rock" nearly killed the form entirely. "Eli Stone," "Pushing Daisies," "South Park" and "Family Guy" became famous for including musical numbers, some serious and some satirical. Award show musical numbers became a bigger deal.

The musical theatre, however, with its demands of "a single time, a single place, a moment that cannot be recreated" without video or rare bootlegs, perhaps seems out of touch to the "making memories" feeling of the current era, where every experience shared can be revisited or recreated infinitely via media.

Musical Theory and Zeitgeist Theory
Posted by GavestonPS 2013-02-05 21:20:39


I don't think there's any question about it, darquegk. Good points.

35 years ago Manny Azenburg (General Manager for A CHORUS LINE, at the time) told me that musical theater was going the way of opera and would become an esoteric art form aimed at a niche audience. I was shocked into silence.

It hasn't happened as quickly as Manny may have thought at the time, but he was basically right. Electronic forms predominate in the contemporary era and, barring a major shutdown of power grids everywhere, will continue to do so. Gone are the days when movie stars turned down multi-million dollar paydays because "Broadway" was so much more prestigious. (Though I'm glad to see that film and TV stars do seem to continue to value the live stage.)

But I think you're right, Darque: the American musical is very much a part of American cultural memory and audiences recognize its forms and tropes, even when they are used in jest.

But as a writer, I don't kid myself that I am going to change the zeitgeist with a stage musical. I think more in terms of people like you and I who continue to value the form and I write for us.