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Home » Organizing » Today’s Theatre: Diversity in Form and Function

Today’s Theatre: Diversity in Form and Function


michael-manleyby Michael Manley, AFM Director Touring/Theatre/Booking Division and Assistant to the President

Welcome to the 2016 International Musician Touring and Theatre issue. With New York City’s theatre scene already heavily covered in the press, this annual issue looks at what’s happening outside Broadway. This year we focus on the groundbreaking musical Hamilton as it debuts in Chicago, and examine the future of musical theatre, theatre music, and theatre musicians.

The two words that I feel best describe the changes I’ve noticed in musical theatre are curiosity and diversity. Composers and performers are curious about different musical genres, styles, and eras, and performing artists are diverse in their skill set—even reaching beyond musical performance to other performing arts disciplines.

But curiosity and diversity are not the hallmarks of traditional instrumental music study, which involves focused specialization on narrow goals. “You play the trombone? Great—are you a jazz or classical player? You can’t be both.” That was the chorus of our teachers for generations. And we zeroed in on singular definitions: we identified as an orchestral clarinetist, a lead show trumpet player, a baroque cellist.

While this focus is necessary to achieve the highest level of technical mastery, it is not always sufficient to succeed in the musical theatre world of today. Musicians are being asked to play more instruments, be fluent in an array of musical styles, and adapt to ever-evolving technology. In some cases, they are even being asked to—very literally—take the stage, blurring the line between actor and musician. These “actor-musicians” possess an array of skills that has them playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, and acting, often all at once. You can check out some of our talented AFM actor-musicians touring with Cabaret or Into the Woods this coming season, and in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway.

If there is one show that represents the revolutionary change in American musicals, it is Hamilton. A musical melting-pot that freely draws on rap, hip-hop, rock, R&B, and even classical music, it requires the talented musicians of the Broadway and Chicago productions to not only understand all these styles, but have a passion for and mastery of them.

No one better exemplifies this spirit of curiosity and diversity than Hamilton Orchestrator and Musical Supervisor Alex Lacamoire, who I had a chance to interview as he launched the show’s second production in Chicago. In the Upbeat section, we also cover the view “from the pit” with Chicago Hamilton musicians and Music Director Colin Welford of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL). Veteran actor-musician Katrina Yaukey of Local 802 (New York City) shares her unique career path and story, as she debuts Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway.

In the world of musical theatre, “or” is being replaced by “and” when it comes to musicians. For our trombonist torn between classical and jazz, “You can’t be both” has given way to “You need to be both.” And even this may only be the first step on the curious, diverse learning path—incorporating an array of musical styles and skills both inside and outside of music—which are needed to succeed as a musical theatre musician in 2016 and beyond.

Join the conversation online, through our “AFM on the Road” Facebook group.

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