Intertextuality in MUSICAL THEATRE

Last night, I was lucky enough to see the opening night of Miss Atomic Bomb. It was absolutely amazing and can be summed up in four words: sequins, sheep and Simon Lipkin. As decorum dictates, I won’t be posting a review of it until Press Night. But one thing struck me about it which inspired this feature: intertextuality, particularly in musical theatre.

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Source: St James Theatre

For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s one show giving a wink or reference to another show. It may be subtle, embedded in the choreography or composition of the piece. Or it may be-thrown-in-your-face-and-rubbed-in-it-until-you-get-what-they’re-trying-to-do. Like Something Rotten.

Recent examples in musical theatre are harder to find in terms of explicit references or lines. ‘What’s Up, Duloc?’ from Shrek the Musical has a nod to Wicked‘s ‘Defying Gravity’.

Okay…less a nod, more a loud shout out!

Hamilton contains homages to the genre which inspired it, all of which can be helpfully found at Slate. Thank you, Slate! But perhaps the best example of this is Something Rotten, a musical not only littered with homages to Shakespeare (some a tad…over-egged) but half of Broadway’s biggest hits.

‘A Musical’ is arguably the most intertextual song in the history of musical theatre, with ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ a very close second. Les Mis, Avenue Q, Annie, the list goes on and on and on and on. See even I do the whole inter textual thing! It’s almost dizzying, as the musical and Shakespeare references come thick and fast throughout. In ‘Make An Omlette’, you find your brain jumping between Shakespeare and Cats and Dream Girls and back to Shakespare. It’s dizzying!

Which is part of why I liked Miss Atomic Bomb. Giving the odd intertextual nod here and there, it doesn’t detract from the musical’s own songs and their merits. At one point I found myself going, ‘Oh that sounds a little Wicked‘, a nod which leads to another cheeky wink in the second half. Likewise the bank manager’s last number nods heavily at another classic musical. I won’t spoil that one. But about six people in our row were laughing their heads off. One a bit too much. That might have been me.

I’m all for intertextuality. When done as a little wink or nod, it’s a nice acknowledgement of the history which came before it. When shoved in your face, yes it’s less subtle but it guarantees a laugh or two. And isn’t that why we go and see a Musical, A Musical, because there’s nothing as amazing as a musical!

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