The Theatre of Music: Live Performance & Theatricality

Like my taste in many things, my music taste could be considered diverse and certainly eclectic. I doubt, for example, that many other people have seen both Muse and Take That perform live.  Probably even fewer would admit to it.  But although they may be at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, there is one thing that these two bands share: theatricality.

Playing a gig is not a simple matter of just standing on stage with a guitar (or equivalent instrument) and churning out a stream of your biggest hits. The bands that sell out stadiums and massive arenas like the O2 usually have something else to add, an extra cherry on top that makes their concerts a vastly superior experience to listening to their albums and entices fans to hand over sometimes obscene amounts of cash to see them.

For my ticket to see Muse at Wembley Stadium on Saturday I paid what some might consider an obscene amount of money (£50 in case you’re interested). I’ve had a conversation with one friend who refuses to part with more than £20 to see a band live and thinks that paying anything above that is criminal. Well, it is a bit steep, I’ll admit that. But when you consider that a top price ticket to a West End show can cost upwards of £70 it doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, especially when you get a visual and aural spectacular of the kind that Muse delivered on Saturday night.

There have been many reviews of the concert that probably convey the experience of the show far more eloquently than I can, so I’ll keep concise on the detail. Imagine dazzling light shows, equally dazzling costumes, breathtaking performances and a liberal smattering of special effects. With the Doctor Who-esque intro to ‘Uprising’ and giant silver UFO complete with dangling alien, all that was needed was to get David Tennant up on stage (I’d also settle for Matt Smith, but I have an especial soft spot for the tenth Doctor) and it would be nothing short of perfection.

But what has all this got to do with theatre, you may ask. It’s a bit of a digression but I do have a point – promise! As I jumped up and down in the crowd whilst a spaceship constructed of something bearing a remarkable resemblance to tin foil floated above us, I got thinking about how we define theatre and where we draw the line between theatre and other genres of performance. Well, perhaps this thought didn’t pop into my mind exactly at the moment I was belting out the lyrics to ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, but it was an idea that struck me last weekend.

I was also interested to see Rick Pearson writing about ‘the kind of theatre we’ve come to expect from Muse’ in his review for the Evening Standard, acknowledging the theatrical element of Muse’s performances. To me it seems that there is an overlap between all the different performing arts, often making it difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. Looking back to my last post, think for example of Jerry Springer, a musical that incorporates operatic elements and calls itself an opera. Or think of Queen in 1975 uniting opera and pop music in Bohemian Rhapsody. The lines dividing musical and performance genres have always been blurred.

There are many signs to suggest that indeed theatre and music have never been closer. Concert productions are getting more and more theatrical, there is a growing epidemic of jukebox musicals in Broadway and the West End and music videos themselves are often a form of mini theatre. One needs only to look at Lady Gaga to see that theatre can be an integral element of popular music. In my opinion this is no bad thing; performance should be multi-faceted. I also don’t subscribe to the absolute division between theatre and opera as high culture and popular music as low culture. In my mind there’s good and there’s bad and each piece of entertainment should be judged on its own individual merit.

So where does theatre end? I’m still not sure that I can answer that question. Can anybody really define absolutely what theatre is? So much of life is in its own way theatre; in the oft quoted words of Shakespeare, ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players’. And on Saturday night, Muse deservedly owned that stage.

One Response to “The Theatre of Music: Live Performance & Theatricality”
  1. El says:

    Muse and Take That aren’t that distant relatives in the music spectrum. And if you want to look at music performance and theatricality perhaps you should check out Parliament Funkadelic, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, The Residents, Sun Ra, David Byrne (Talking Heads), The Tubes, Klaus Nomi, Kate Bush, Screaming Lord Sutch – music performers who have taken their experiments in theatricality a lot further then Muse or Lady Gaga. When written about these performances usually seem to fall under the umbrella name of ‘performance art’ or ‘live art’. I agree that it’s a very blurry line between theatre and music performance. Probably because we invented that line and it perhaps should not/ does not really exist.

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