The origin, development and aesthetics of the intimate musical, and Fees (Festival) as an Afrikaans example

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This article explores the origin, development and aesthetic principles of the intimate musical. The authors begin with an exploration of the context of musical production in South Africa and, through a close reading of an interview with producer Pieter Toerien, the article provides an overview of the contemporary challenges facing musical theatre producers. The first section focuses especially on the financial and artistic and aesthetic requirements of megamusicals – a popular form of theatrical entertainment both internationally and in South Africa. Toerien’s overview of the financial realities facing producers goes on to highlight the difficulties facing producers and practitioners of this form. The article then briefly explores an alternative aesthetic model called the “bonsai musical”, but finds that a new intimate form could be explored that corresponds to the financial realities facing contemporary producers and practitioners. This is especially critical for theatre makers in South Africa who frequently have to create work within a festival context with limited technical and financial resources. A historical overview of the development of the intimate musical is then presented.

The article continues with an overview of the early development of the intimate form between 1919 and 1959. The Greenwich Village follies is presented as an early intimate response to the popular and large-scale Ziegfeld follies. The authors then consider Marc Blitzstein’s The cradle will rock (1937) and the events that unwittingly transformed a “traditional” musical into an intimate performance, with Brechtian techniques that would later become staples of the intimate form. The article then examines the musicals of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, arguing that their collaborative efforts of the late 1950s and during the 1960s developed and refined the possibilities of the intimate musical. The examples presented include The fantasticks (1960), 110 in the shade (1963) and I do! I do! (1966). These musicals significantly explored and developed the aesthetic principles of metatheatricality, the so-called emotional microscope, limited casting, and the inventive limitation of dramatic setting.

The authors then consider the aesthetic contributions of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company (1970). Here the principles of fragmentation are considered as critical components of the intimate musical. The notion introspection as a dramatic device is also explored as a method to evoke a feeling of intimacy in performance. The article then considers the contributions of the 2006 production of Company by director Patrick Doyle and the potential use of actor-musicians as both a narrative tool and a cost-saving method. Lastly, the authors unpack the aesthetic contributions of William Finn’s Falsetto trilogy: In trousers (1978), March of the falsettos (1980) and Falsettoland (1990). By using these productions as case studies, principles such as fragmentation and introspection are combined with a consideration of the narrative potential of family (or domestic) drama in order to propose that this dramatic structure lends itself especially well to the intimate musical.

Through cumulative analysis of the historical and aesthetic development of the intimate musical, a preliminary model is proposed in which the aesthetic principles of the intimate musical are categorised and placed in relation to one another under the headings of contentform and production. This model is then applied to a new intimate musical titled Fees (Festival), for which the book and lyrics were written by André Gerber, one of the authors of this article, and the music composed by David Wolfswinkel. This analysis begins with a short introduction regarding the development of the production, followed by an outline of certain critical contextual factors, including the layout and intimate nature of the performance venue.

The article then shifts its focus to the first heading of the model, content, and considers the various ways in which Fees explored intimacy in content. The narrative of the book – a family drama with five characters – is explored, with specific analytical focus on the way in which the musical deconstructs and problematises the white Afrikaans Christian family unit. Other narrative aspects typical of the intimate musical, such as the concentrated narrative, introspection and personal narratives, are also analysed. The article then explores the second heading of the model, form, including a reading of Fees’s use of metatheatricality, limited yet agile use of narrative space, and fragmentation. After that the article considers the third heading of the model, production, with a critical reading of the 2016 production in the 40-seat DramaLab in Stellenbosch and how the physical aspects of the production informed the perception of intimacy. The authors conclude this section with a reading of the political nature of Afrikaans theatre, and briefly consider audience reception in relation to the content, form and production of Fees. The authors conclude that the intimate musical is a viable model for musical production in the financially constrained Afrikaans theatre industry, but that further research and practical work can be done in order to expand on the initial model presented in this article.

The researchers used mixed methods of research and exploration, combining traditional literary reviews for the historical part of the article with arts-based research methods used in the creation of Fees. From the historical research the aesthetic principles of the intimate musical were identified and applied in the practical explorations, showing how research affects arts processes, and vice versa. The iterative web of questions, research, arts practice and reflection that form a critical part of the performance as research methods, implies multiple voices in the documentation and reflection on the theatrical work that was presented as part of the research itself.

The artist-researcher acts as a subjective participant in the process of creation, but as a researcher also attempts to act as a more objective, critical observer of the process and work in the process of reflecting on the work of art itself. Complete objectivity from a researcher is not possible under these circumstances, but the inclusion of a more critical, objective voice is an indication of where the researchers acted in a more analytical way in order to test and create theory or models. The theory is not derived only from the literary and historical overview of the subject; it is also tested and refined through the process of artistic enquiry – in this particular case the creation of an intimate musical in the South African context. In the creation process of a theatre piece, the voices of, among others, the director, the designers, the performers, and even later the audience are present. Although this article is written in a singular voice, the convention is that all these voices echo in the reflection on the process and product.

Keywords: André Gerber; bonsai musical; David Wolfswinkel; family drama; Fees, Festival; intimate musical; musical; South African theatre

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die oorsprong, ontwikkeling en estetika van die intieme musiekspel, en Fees as ’n Afrikaanse voorbeeld

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