Where words fail, music speaks - Hans Christian Anderson

Have you ever seen a Broadway musical? In person or otherwise? If you have, then you are familiar with extravagant sets and high-quality music and dance. This is of course all brought to life by some powerful performances of the artists on stage and those behind the scenes who work on the technical aspects to enhance the experiences of musicals. The story of a concept musical is brought to life by all these things combined- the cast, chorus, technicians, producer, director, and the music, of course. 

Indian concept musicals aren't as popular as their American counterparts. The original idea of any musical- concept musicals or otherwise is essentially American in nature and is still new in many other parts of the world. So, if you are in India, and are looking up "concept musicals near me" you maybe a tad bit disappointed. Nevertheless, concept musicals are a thing to reckon with and for a film-lover or theatre-lover, it is definitely an area of interest.

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What are Concept Musicals?

Curtain
Concept musicals emphasize the theme rather than the plot of the story | Source:dreamstime.com

Any musical or theatre production whose story or plot and score are focused on conveying a theme or message as against narrating a plot, is called a concept musical. It is the last component that makes it different from other types of musical.

There is a debate around which is the first concept musical and the two contenders are Allegro and Love Life. Both were released in the 1940's and went on to win many hearts. But it was the decade of the 1960's when this form of musical steadily began to flourish. And this maybe attributed to concept musicals like Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, and Hair. 

In understanding what are concept musicals, one name needs special mention- that of Stephen SondheimHe was really the man who made this genre of musicals famous with the release of Company in 1970. It was during his era that concept musicals became commercial. Sharing the limelight and credit with Stephen Sondheim were two other important people- Bob Fosse and Harold Prince. The former was a director cum choreographer, while the latter was mainly a producer of Broadway musicals.

The modern era of concept musicals are marked by prominent releases like Avenue Q and Assassins. Among the best concept musicals ever made, two popular names come to the fore:

  1. Fiddler on the Roof.
  2. Sweeney Todd.

Concept musicals are a lot like mega musicals, an idea popularized by the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Cats. You can also find resemblance of concept musicals with plotless revue musicals

The Evolution of Concept Musicals India

Theatre drama
There are many superstars who started their acting career in theatre | Source: Youth Ki Awaaz

The theatrical scholarship was not even familiar with the idea of concept musicals until the late 1970's. Indian concept musicals were still an alien idea. If you go by what historians of drama and literature have to say, you will not find any link between the terms concept and musical until the year 1968. There was an article in The New York Times by theatre critique Martin Gottfried who reviewed the famed Zorba by director Harold Prince. He was the first one to point out that conception rather than the idea of book was taking center stage here. Similar observations were made about Follies by Stephen Sondheim. Gottfried observed that rather than the plot, the musical and its varied components of music, lyrics, dance, movement and dialogues, were intricately brought together by an underlying theme.

Definition of Concept Musicals

Although there is general agreement that a concept musical emphasize more on style, message and a theme rather than the plot itself, there is, however, divided opinion on its definition. You will always find a cohesion or linearity in a concept musical, which is not true of some of the other musical genres. One way to define concept musicals is by emphasizing this- the focus on theme rather than the plot. You can even say that a concept musical approaches the show or production in a holistic way with the use of an underlying theme than trying to join the dots to build a plot.

Some have attempted to define concept musicals by their structural characteristics:

  • Staging techniques.
  • Punctuated songs without a standard flow.
  • Element of self-reflection for the different characters.
  • Commentary on the theme as part of the acting.
  • Attention to visual presentation.
  • Expressive and imagistic form of stage musical.
  • An underlying sense of aesthetic totality.

The History of Concept Musicals India

Arabic tv Shows can be found online
Indian concept musicals in the early days were often adaptations of stories from The Arabian Nights.

The history of theatre in India dates back to the 2nd century B.C. when Sanskrit was the most popular medium of communication. In fact, it is Sanskrit theatre and literature that is hailed as the first representation or the first form of Indian dramatics. Sanskrit being the language of the elite and the religious, it is what was used to reproduce and tell the tales of Indian fervor. If you have read or heard about Natya Shastra, you would be familiar with the the art of systematic theatre and drama, as was adopted in early Indian theatre.

Sanskrit theatre and musicals remained the most popular form of entertainment till the late 17th century, which is when it was replaced by Indian Classical Dance Drama or the modern day musicals. Ancient Indian theatre had left a huge mark by then and heavily influenced the now modern musicals, which were initially influenced by religious ritualism. You will find the effects of the original form of Indian theatre on its tradition, culture and artistry. And its artistic glory still hasn't faded away with time.

Modern Indian concept musicals focused on upholding the changing political scenario in India in the pre and post-independence era. During the British rule, Indian theatre had come in direct contact with western influence and this is why you see so many musicals made on the lines of popular Broadway productions. Over time, Indian theatre has adapted and evolved to represent more relevant and relatable themes through concept musicals India. 

Must-Watch Indian Concept Musicals

A drawing of the comedy and tragedy theatre masks. You'll likely learn more about these masks as you learn how to act.
Indian theatre is constantly evolving and ever-changing.

We must all do theatre, to find out who we are, and to discover who we could become - Augusto Boal

If you are a theatre enthusiast and religiously follow the latest releases on Broadway, then here is a specially crafted list for you to treasure:

Krishnan's Dairy

This concept musicals revolves around the world of Krishnan, a Malayali immigrant living in New Zealand and explores the many facets of his relationship with his wife, Zeena. Jacob Ranjan delivers a stellar performance as both the immigrant and the wife, using just a mask. He is also the co-writer of the play along with Justin Lewis. It was released under the banner of The Indian Ink, a leading production house, and had the audience gripped with thrills and rib-tickling humor.

Death of A Salesman

Did you ever imagine than an Indian play could be about the death of the American dream? If not, then here is a reality check for you. This musical has been performed a total of 742 times on Broadway!! Yes, it is that popular. Its core theme are man's struggles with anxiety and ambitions and explores the realms of dreams and failures.

Tughlaq

Written by Girish Karnad, this play is a theatrical representation of the legendary Sultan of Delhi. You will be blown away by this concept musical that gives a different angle to the history of Tughlaq, a king who has always been resonated with eccentricity and whimsical decision-making. The play shows Tughlaq as a dreamer with the hope of uniting Hindus and Muslims, and his struggle to do so, which finally lead to the downfall of his empire.

Theatre in India has always been an integral part of its culture. It has had significant contributions to enriching and adding to the heritage of this diverse country. And musicals remain a vivid attempt at upholding just that.

Find out about other types of musicals here- rock, jukebox, etc.

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Pragnajyoti

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