Introduction | Soundtracks & Theatre

This section encompasses styles that were, at least initially, designed to work in tandem with other forms of expression, deepening or enhancing their impact. The scores of musical theatre are woven into stories played out by the characters on stage. A film soundtrack is composed to interlock with the action on a cinema screen, while cabaret songs work in harmony with the theatrical components of a cabaret performance.

Of course, the above styles may be appreciated in solely musical terms, and recordings of works by the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Ennio Morricone and Marlene Dietrich have sold well in their own right. But to gain a true understanding of musical theatre, film music and cabaret, we need to appreciate their roles as pieces in a creative jigsaw.

Although they work within different constraints, the artists in this section are every bit as skilled as those of ‘pure’ musical genres. Indeed, the composers who presided over the golden age of musical theatre (the 1920s to the late-1950s) were among the twentieth century’s most gifted musicians. Following Jerome Kern, who pioneered the use of music to explore the themes of a production, George Gershwin (Of Thee I Sing), Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun) and others combined traditional European melodies with the sounds of African-America to breathe new vibrancy into the musical. Oscar Hammerstein, working at the same time, developed numbers that were geared towards the dramatic functions of the show. Carousel, one of Hammerstein’s many collaborations with Richard Rodgers, moved towards the synergy of score and speech that characterized musicals in the second half of the twentieth century. Stephen Sondheim introduced melodic themes that were fragmented over an entire show, and the baton then passed over the Atlantic to Andrew Lloyd Webber (Sunset Boulevard), whose productions borrowed tricks of style and staging from rock music.

The 1930s witnessed the golden age of the movie soundtrack, and many of its leading lights were, like their counterparts in musical theatre, European émigrés. Men such as the Austrian-born Max Steiner introduced operatic leitmotifs that tied specific melodies to individual characters. In the 1940s the hugely influential modernist Bernard Herrmann took the latter process one step further in his score for Citizen Kane, tailoring music to fit particular scenes and emotions. He was followed in the 1960s by John Williams, the soundtrack’s most popular exponent, and Ennio Morricone, its most prolific. Vangelis’s work for Chariots Of Fire ushered in a wave of electronic scores in the 1980s, and one of the biggest recent influences has been the riotous music of Bollywood, clearly recognizable in films such as Moulin Rouge (2001).

A more intimate and subversive spirit of cross-fertilization prevailed during the birth of cabaret in late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century Paris. Venues such as Le Chat Noir provided liberating countercultural forums, where formidable actor/musicians such as Yvette Guilbert performed a heady mixture...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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