Is it a musical, or a play with songs? And does it matter?

January 29th, 2018

Is THE BALLAD OF KLOOK AND VINETTE a musical, or a play with songs? And does it matter?

Playwright Ché Walker reflects on the difficulties of categorizing shows with music (or should that be musical shows?)

When I was nine years old, my father directed Guys and Dolls at the tiny Half Moon Theatre (where he was the Artistic Director), with a cast of seven, including Maggie Steed and Robin Hooper. I watched it every single night, and never got enough of it. I loved it. Everything I’ve worked on – even the ‘straight plays’ – has been a response to this perfect piece of writing.

Whether something is categorized as a ‘musical’ or ‘play with songs’ seems to be somewhat driven by the exigencies of marketing a show in the crowded city scene. Perhaps audiences arrive with different expectations if they buy a ticket for a musical. I certainly don’t think any of the shows I’ve worked on fit the mold of a cheerful night out you could take your grandmother to (unless your grandmother is Patti Smith.)

So what is a play with songs? What is a musical? Does it matter?

Perhaps the distinction between a ‘musical’ and ‘a play with songs’ comes down to the work that the songs are doing. Sometimes a song is in the service of the character’s rhetoric – they burst up out the scene because the stakes are so high and the situation has become so urgent that the character has no option but to launch into amplified sound with rhymes and a backing band.

Some other songs work as soliloquies; the characters’ private thoughts, shared with his/her new confidante, the audience. Other songs operate as a kind of Greek chorus, where we pause the action and reflect on what we’re watching and what we feel about it. It looks like all the shows I’ve worked on in the last five years use songs in all the ways described, so I’m still confused.

The Ballad of Klook and Vinette is mixture of drama, spoken word, and jazz. We’ve aimed to create a theatre piece that interweaves these elements seamlessly, like its one long movement of music.

Is it a play with songs? That’s what they tell me. Personally, I don’t have time to think about it. I’ve got a story to tell. A good one, I think, with maybe just a hint of Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown in it. I hope you come and see.