Have you heard about the Google books Ngram Viewer? Google says that "When you enter phrases into the Google books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books (e.g., "British English", "English Fiction", "French") over the selected years." There's a particularly awesome TED video about it here if you want to know more. Pretty cool, huh? Well the problem is that the phrase "musical theatre" is dying out – people are writing about musicals less and less.
Seriously, check this out:
Now consider the term 'musical' alongside 'musical theatre' (the trend is visible in both the UK and US spellings of the word 'theatre'):
There's a few obvious leaps in the use of the term 'musicals' – the Golden Era of the 1950s, Sondheim's rule from the '60s-'80s, and then the rise of the mega musical from 1980 to the middle of the '90s. Clearly people prefer to write about 'musicals' much more than the dusty old 'musical theatre' but there's still that same, median drop in the use of both terms since the mid-1990s (some would say this is possibly due to RENT).
This is, obviously, distressing. Even the term 'Broadway' is falling:
on August 1, 2005 in an Opera News article called "The Great Gray Way," Michael John LaChiusa declared "The American Musical is dead." Why? Due to what he calls 'faux-musicals:'
"Faux-musicals are just that — faux… In no way do these… shows aspire to be the next West Side Story or Sunday in the Park with George. There's not even an attempt to deliver an old-fashioned, knock-'em-dead, lodge-like-bullet-hook number à la Jerry Herman. All sense of invention and craft is abandoned in favor of delivering what the audience thinks a musical should deliver. Everyone involved, from the usher to the stage manager to the producer to the landlord to the critic, is satisfied. There is no challenge, no confrontation, no art — and everyone sighs with relief.
"There's plenty of theatricality to be found in a faux-musical, but no theater. It's a theme-park ride copied from an original and authentic ride — a cloned version of the Tea Cup Ride at Disneyland. It looks like a musical. It sounds like a musical. But it's synthetic. The only organic feature to be found is in the performances of its original stars — Nathan Lane in The Producers, Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray. Once their replacements take over, the shows reveal
themselves for what they are: machines. Instead of choreography, there is dancing. Instead of crafted songwriting, there is tune-positioning. Faux-musicals are mechanical; they have to be. For expectations to be met, there can be
no room for risk, derring-do or innovation. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Women, Brooklyn — all are faux-musicals."
La Chiusa may have hit the last nail in the coffin right on the head at exactly the same time as the use of the term 'musicals' in contemporary literature started to fall. Even with the arrival of the first discipline-specific academic journal (Studies in Musical Theatre in 2007) and an increasing scholarly interest in the industry, are we already walking a tragic path? If people are talking about it less, is the musical theatre as a genre actually doomed?
There are a number of obvious global changes that are possible candidates for this fall in interest – unstable economies, the rise of the internet, Facebook, YouTube, and, as we're all well aware, increasing tickets costs at the box office. In no way am I trying to say that Facebook is the sole reason for the decline in musical theatre discussion but, when compared, it's not unreasonable to consider that the rise of internet culture may be a contributing factor.
I can only hope that this is a sign of the times and not of our industry. The Google books Ngram Viewer catalogues physical texts and, nowadays, anyone can get 'published' in eBooks, blogs, forums, and a plethora of other online forms of discussion that Google is not currently cataloguing (well, not in the Ngram Viewer, anyway). The internet will never replace live performance but the discussion of musical theatre is clearly diminishing. Or maybe it's not. Maybe it's just moved.