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Chat about history of musical theater

November 8, 2007

This chat has already taken place. Read the transcript below.

Paul Laird

This year marks three important anniversaries - the 50th anniversary of Kansas University's Murphy Hall, and the 50th anniversary of the musicals "The Music Man" and "West Side Story." As part of those anniversaries, KU is hosting a symposium on the history of musical theater, which runs Friday and Saturday. Chat with organizer Paul Laird, a professor of musicology, about the symposium and the evolution of musical theater.

Moderator:

Hi, everybody. Thanks for logging in today. Paul Laird, who is helping to organize the "Musical Theatre in 1957" conference this weekend is here to answer your questions. I'm Terry Rombeck, a features reporter at the Journal-World, and I'll be your moderator today.

Paul Laird:

This is Paul Laird, Professor of Musicology at KU, and one of the hosts of the symposium. Let's chat about musical theatre, the symposium, and related topics.

Moderator:

First off, please give us an overview of what's going on this weekend.

Paul Laird:

As part of the celebration of Murphy Hall's 50th birthday, we are celebrating Broadway from 1957. It is the year that The Music Man and West Side Story both opened on Broadway. We have about fifteen speakers coming from around the country, including KU alumni for papers, master classes, and concerts.

Moderator:

University Theatre is putting on "The Music Man" this weekend, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In what basic ways would a production be similar or different today than it would have been in 1957?

Paul Laird:

A show as famous as The Music man has certain traditions that must be part of any production--they are just too well known to ignore. Still, any director reinterprets a show to an extant, and KU director John Staniunas has a wonderful imagination and great way of updating shows as well in some details, such as visual look. I hope people will come and see our version. I've heard great things about it!

crosswalker:

When did the earliest forms of musical theater first appear? How did they differ from the splashy Broadway productions of today?

Paul Laird:

Musical thetaer of course can be traced back to ancient Greece, but the traditions that are most important in the development of American musical theater as we know it today came in the 19th century: operetta, burlesque, spectacles, vaudeville, the minstrel show and others. Shortly after 1900 what we might consider the modern era of the American musical was in existence. The biggest difference we would note today would be in our use of technology and sound systems, the introduction of which probably changed the theater more than any other influence.

ChristyLittle:

What did Hollywood productions do for popularity of musicals in America? Has that translated into a greater interest in theater?

Paul Laird:

The Hollywood versions of musicals are of course always better know by the general public than the stage versions. There is no question that Hollywood helps make the musical theater more popular, but one must remember that they are completely different genres. Consider, for example, how close-ups change the way we perceive the actors. I think film versions cause more interest, but also misunderstandings, because Hollywood directors always make huge changes from the stage versions.

crosswalker:

Do you think it's appropriate to continue to perform musicals such as "The King and I" and others that incorporate obvious racial and ethnic stereotypes? Should we understand them as artifacts, if you will, that reflect the times in which they were written, just as we might treat literature and other arts from the past?

Paul Laird:

I think that we have to treat musicals from the past as artifacts from the past, just like an opera, a film from the 1930s, or a dated novel or play. I believe that audiences can learn much from such productions. They probably are not for everyone--many Asians today might be offended by "The King and I," for example--but what such a show can tell us about attitudes from the past is invaluable, and the fact remains that it is a brilliant example of its type.

Moderator:

Do you think there are more or fewer opportunities for university graduates now in the world of musical theater than there were 50 years ago?

Paul Laird:

The world of musical theatre has never been an easy one for people in the field. Like all of the arts, it is extremely competitive, and you have to be very good, and lucky! Still, I think there are actually more opportunities today. The fact remains that th genre is extremely popular, and programs at universities are actually growin to meet the apparent demand.

Moderator:

Where can people learn more about the symposium if they're interested?

Paul Laird:

There is a full program posted at the following URL on the KU web site:
http://arts.ku.edu/~sfa/murphy/broadway.shtml

The symposium is free and open to the public. Registration is not necessary!

Moderator:

That does it for today's chat. Thanks, Paul, for chatting with us. Good luck with the symposium!

Paul Laird:

My pleasure! Come to the symposium and "The Music Man," and see musicals often!

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