Musical theatre has long been a part of theatre; its origins can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Nonetheless, musicals, and Broadway, are very different from the traditional theatre. Whereas traditional theatre requires acting alone, for the most part, the musical theatre requires actors and actresses to take part in dance and song. The music and the lyrics, or the score, play a key role in the portrayal of a musical, as they were the aspect that mattered the most during the early days of the musical. In contrast, the dialogue, story, and sometimes lyrics, other important aspects of musicals, are often referred to as the book. Both play key roles in the production of a musical.
Along with the dance and song, the actual actors within the musical were vital. It was often possible, though, that the actors and actresses were not originally actors, but singers, dancers, or comedians. The so-called “triple threats,” or people who can act, sing, and dance, are more sought after for musical roles, especially on Broadway, as it is simpler and more efficient to have trained personnel performing.
The musical theatre and Broadway is a different type of theatre with its own merits and difficulties. But despite differences, it is closely related to the traditional theatre in that it has grown and changed over time and it still benefits from various acting methods and techniques.
Below is a playlist of a few songs in musicals today.
One of the major genres of modern day theater was Vaudeville. Throughout the period from the 1880s to 1930s, Vaudeville was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America. It was made up of a variety of performers, from the simplicity of the comedians and singers, to the circus-like acts of animal trainers and acrobats.
Originally, the variety shows, that eventually became Vaudeville, had a very salacious sense of humor, thus it was deemed inappropriate for women and children to attend such shows. It wasn’t until Tony Pastor created a cleaner, more family-friendly act in 1881, that women and children were allowed to attend.
Two key people in Vaudeville are Benjamin Franklin Keith, sometimes referred to as the “father” of American Vaudeville, and Edward F. Albee, Keith’s assistant. He continued and profited from the “cleaner” Vaudeville acts, which he enforced strictly. Two men, C. Samuel and L. Samuel spoke of one of Mr. Keith’s warnings, which said, “If you are in doubt as to the character of your act consult the local manager before you go on stage, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacreligious or even suggestive you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in authority.” In addition, B.F. Keith established the policy of continuous performance, in which the scheduled acts would appear two to three times in a twelve-hour period.
The vaudeville bill consisted of a variety of acts, though usually around eight per show, that ranged from circus type acts to dancing. One such vaudeville singer, was Judy Garland, the youngest of the singing Grumm sisters. Virtually anything entertaining and innocuous could be performed, thus the large variety of acts.
Though it was a very popular genre of acting and shows, Vaudeville eventually lost the interest of its audience and came to its end in the 1830s. The impact vaudeville had on American theatre was grand, though, as many famous people cam about from it and aspects, such as the physical comedy of vaudeville, were integrated into other forms of American entertainment.
Constantin Stanislavsky was the man responsible for the Stanislavsky System, a method of acting that is still commonly used and greatly influenced American theatre through its practice and practitioners, such as Lee Strasberg. Born in Moscow in 1863, he was an actor, director, and co-founder in the Moscow Art Theatre. His method, the Stanislavsky System, consisted of the affective memory method and the method of physical actions. Through affective memory, Stanislavsky focused on the emotional aspect of acting from one’s experience. To portray the proper emotion, he felt that one should reach into themselves and find a memory in which they felt that certain emotion. For example, if an actor was to play a character with deep sadness, the actor had to find a moment in his life in which he was truly depressed, and he should draw from that emotion. In relation, through the method of physical actions, Stanislavsky taught that an actor’s movements and actions had to aid in the portrayal of emotion.
Stanislavsky’s system was created to allow the actor to become one with his or her own character and to result in a more genuine performance. This system, which greatly influenced Lee Strasberg, inadvertently became the spark towards the creation of the style of method acting. Click to watch a video of an excercise following Stanislavasky's methods.
Another innovative actor- director in modern theatre is Lee Strasberg. Lee Strasberg was one of the most influential men in theatre thus far. Born in Ukraine on November 17, 1901 as Israel Strasberg, he immigrated to America in 1909 and began acting at a young age. He had a variety of achievements, such as being a founding member of the Group Theatre in 1931, working as the artistic director of the Actors Studio, and founding his own Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in 1969, which is currently being continued by his son David. He also taught an abundance of America’s top actors today and in the past, including James Dean, Robert de Niro, Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and Al Pacino.
Of Strasberg’s achievements, his most influential was the development of method acting, which in some ways is similar to Stanislavsky’s. This technique was first made popular through the works of the Group Theatre. Method acting includes techniques such as affective memory, like Stanislavsky, and sense memory, in which the actor is supposed to relive the sensation or experience through their five senses. It is often thought that there is one Method, but there is not single Method that can be or is taught. The main idea though, once again, is to create a very genuine portrayal of a character or scene in which the emotions and actions are as real as possible, rather than thought out. The goal is become the character.
The final main types of acting techniques are presentational and representational acting. Presentational acting describes the relationship between the audience and the actor. In this type of acting, the actor somehow acknowledges the presence of the audience, either through by talking to them directly or using looks or actions to show the acknowledgment. In contrast, representational acting is the technique in which the actor ignores the audience is more completely immersed in the play and the story. The audience, therefore is purely an audience witnessing the events and plotline, rather than taking par in it somehow.
Here are two websites that provide other tips and techniques that will help you develop as an actor or actress:
When describing an actor, it is interchangeably male or female, but the term “actress” refers only to women. As one would see, the prominence of women in the world of theatre was miniscule; women disguised themselves and were not given the same liberties as men. It was not uncommon for women to play the roles of men—the role of Peter Pan, for example, is one that tends to be played by a female. In modern times, though, women gained more respectability and importance as actresses than before. Cheryl Crawford, for example, was the founder of both the Group Theatre and Actors Studio. As one can see, based off of actresses today, theatre and acting has evolved to be more accepting of women and embrace them. With this distinction between female and male actresses came change and more opportunities for women to pursue careers that before, may have been deemed unacceptable and against propriety.
An important form of acting that came about was acting in an ensemble cast. An ensemble cast is a cast whose main performers have nearly equal roles and importance within the production. Today, ensemble casts have become common in not only theatre, but in television as well.
One of the first acting groups to focus on the idea of an ensemble cast was the Group Theatre. The Group Theater was a group created primarily by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg in 1931. It was created on the basis of focusing on acting as an ensemble, rather than a single individual. In addition to the three founding members, twenty-eight actors were recruited to the ensemble. This group was influenced greatly by Stanislavsky’s System, popularized method acting, and had the vision of producing plays that represented American life at the time.
The Group presented plays that had political and social relevance to the time period—their plays 1931 and Success Story contained anti-capitalist views. Despite their success, the group began to collapse less than a decade later. Due to financial problems and conflicts regarding method acting, the group began to fall apart. This collapse continued as various members relocated to Hollywood to pursue other acting opportunities. Eventually Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg resigned as well. After a decade together, the Group Theatre was disbanded in 1941.
Though the group only lasted a short amount of time, they had a great influence on American theatre and many the Group’s members went on to become prominent figures in theatre, especially the few who came together to form and lead the Actors Studio. The Group Theatre was a great innovation towards an ensemble cast and modern acting groups.
The Actors Studio, as stated previously, was created by various members of the Group Theatre and was established in New York in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis, who, also for a time, the Head of the Acting and Directing Departments at the Yale School of Drama—a school that teaches a variety of techniques and methods, such as method acting. Actors Studio is an organization that was set up to be a place where actors could go and work together between jobs so as to develop their craft further. Lee Strasberg once remarked that no matter what position any actor is in, “there is one thing [actors] can rely on & that is the 11 o’clock on Tuesday and Friday mornings come rain, shine, snow, or what have you there is a session in the Actors Studio. And the fact that actors can count on that, they know that that exist, can help them get through.” Lee Strasberg became the Studio’s artistic director in 1951.
The Studio continues today in New York and in West Hollywood, CA. The members continue the tradition of Actors Studio being a place for actors and have flourished since its creation.
The Tony Awards are one of the most prominent and well-known forms of recognition for theatre and musical actors and actresses. It was created by the American Theatre Wing, and was named for Antoinette Perry, the recently deceased leader of the organization, as well as an actress, director, and producer. The first Tony Awards were held on April 6, 1947 in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York. There were originally eleven Tonys given and eight special awards. It was first televised in 1978 by CBS and has continued that way since.
This award show remains a big part of theatre today, as it affects actors and actresses by rewarding those with good performances. Though it is no longer the simple dinner and entertainment it was in 1947, the Tony Awards continue to hold importance in today’s societies and have kept their tradition of honoring actors. Search and find who has won a Tony Award.
Throughout history, acting and the actors have altered and adapted. We have seen the transition from acting being a way to honor the gods in Ancient Greece, to acting being a part of our recreation, arts, and enjoyment. Acting has grown and changed through its various styles and techniques, as well; many techniques have been abandoned, others have been adapted, and some are still in the continuous process of creation. Actors, too, have experienced change. Being an actor is not a lowly thing, such as in the Elizabethan times, or a profession restricted to men. Acting it is a profession that is reveredand women are equal to men. Throughout history, acting and actors have played their roles in society and in life, and they will continue to for many years.