Acting is acting.....right? Not really. When it comes to musical theater performances there are many special terms and phrases that have become like a slang or lingo. Here are a few of the most important ones:
Alternate: Someone who occasionally plays a role in a show in order to give the regular performer a rest. For example, a star might play a role six times a week, and her alternate plays the two matinees. Alternates are often retained for difficult parts. In the touring company of Falsettos that I saw some years ago, the part of Jason, the son, was played by two young boys who alternated performances over different evenings.
Belt, To: To sing out loudly, strongly, and clearly, so that one's voice is projected to the back of the balcony. Usually said of a woman. Ethel Merman was a belter. Liza Minelli is a belter. Gwen Verdon was not a belter.
Big Number: A song in which BIG emotions are expressed by a main character or two and the music SWELLS and sounds noble and thunderous--ideally. If not used sparingly, big numbers add a huge measure of pomposity to a musical. Unfortunately, the influence of Eurocrap has inserted way too many big numbers into the average modern musical. I saw The Scarlet Pimpernel, and it was loaded with big numbers where Percy or Marguerite or Chauvelin stood there and sang his/her emotions to the sky. At one point my dad whispered to me, "Oh, God, not another big number." Compare with Big Production Number.
Bio-Musical: A biography of a single individual in musical form, though the creative team usually plays fast and loose with the facts of the individual's life in order to raise the entertainment value of the biography. Typically, but not always, bio-musicals are about entertainment figures. Gypsy (Gypsy Rose Lee) was all fable from start to finish, while The Will Rogers Follies had a measure of truth to it (though I don't think his future wife spent any time on the Moon). Mack & Mabel was, according to Jerry Herman, wrecked partially because the ending was too far off the truth. Also, too much respect for the figure being musicalized can kill the show. For example, there was a flop musical about Jackie Robinson that was apparently way too worshipful to hold anyone's interest. The genre has fallen into some disfavor, but might be revived with the success of The Boy from Oz this fall. (I always thought Ulysses S. Grant would make a wonderful subject for a bio-musical, but maybe that's just me.)
Black Musical: A musical whose themes are of interest and significance to the experiences of black Americans. Such musicals frequently deal with racism. See "I AM A Man" for a reasonably comprehensive list of black musicals over the years.
Book: The actual story of a musical; the play part.
Book Musical: A musical with a story. Some musicals, usually revues, don't have any kind of a story. Others make the attempt to weld a story onto the songs (e.g., Five Guys Named Moe), but I don't think this type is considered a book musical either.
Button: The payoff moment in a song; the moment when the song is "buttoned up" and finished.
Cast Album: A recording of a stage production, usually a musical or revue (though sometimes you get cast albums of background/mood music, as with The Green Bird; recordings of straight plays; or dance music pressganged into service, as with Contact). Contrast with Soundtrack.
Chamber Musical: An intimate musical designed to play in front of a small audience in a small theatre, with just a few actors and musicians. Forever Plaidis a good example. Such musicals tend to die a quick death if blown up to Broadway scale; the intimacy goes out the window, and with it much of the charm of the show. Note that the reverse is not true; a small-cast Broadway-scale production (e.g., I Do! I Do!, I Love My Wife) could easily play as a chamber musical.
Charm Show: A show with nothing outstanding about it except that it's charming: no big musical numbers, no breakout performances, and a quiet plot.William Goldman considers My Fair Lady to be a charm show, but I think he's wrong. More obvious charm shows include I Do! I Do! and She Loves Me.
Chorus: The "little people" on the stage of a musical: the background singers and dancers (and occasional actors). See also Gypsy.
Company: All the people associated with a musical.
Concept Musical: A musical in which the idea or concept takes precedence over the plot; usually a nonlinear story, or one that incorporates several threads.A Chorus Line, Company, and Grand Hotel are all concept musicals. I have seen the term expanded, and used in slightly derogatory fashion, to refer to any gimmicky or weird musical.
Create a Role, To: To be the first person ever in a given role, such as Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd in that musical, or Madeline Kahn as Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century (even if she was quickly replaced by Judy Kaye). I have also seen this term used for people who created a role in the first touring company, or when a show moved to another theatre, or when it moved from off-Broadway to Broadway.
Cult Musical: Ethan Mordden, in Open a New Window, defines a cult musical as a flop musical, the recording of which "a small number of gay men continue to play." (Recordings played by a small number of plain old people he calls "fondly remembered.") I take mild exception to this definition, since the last time I checked I wasn't a gay man. (I'm checking now.... no, nope, still not one. My dad thought it was a silly definition as well.) I would substitute "a small number of hardcore aficionados."
Dance Captain: The rec.arts.theatre.musicals FAQ defines this role as "the person in charge of maintaining the show's choreography [who] often teach[es] choreography to new replacements and help[s] with understudy and cleanup rehearsals."
Dead Musical: A musical that was not recorded when it ran (usually, but not always, a flop musical) and is not likely to be recorded. The Vamp and practically everything created before Show Boat are probably history. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had no recording, but much of the music was incorporated into The White House Cantata, so it's sort of half-alive. Carrie is notorious enough that we may someday see a studio cast recording. And wonder of wonders, Breakfast at Tiffany's rose from the dead with a full studio cast recording.
Diva: A female star who is so much larger than life that she inspires devotion bordering on fanaticism. Broadway divas have included Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Betty Buckley. Some people consider Bernadette Peters to be the last genuine Broadway diva.
Dream Ballet: A ballet within a musical that expresses the hopes and dreams (or the actual dreams) of a character, often the ingenue. The classic dream ballet is Laurie's in Oklahoma! The impression that this ballet made was so striking that similar ballets were often incorporated into later musicals--and as a result, the dream ballet became a musical cliche. As a result, you hardly ever see them in more recent shows.
Eleven O'Clock Number: A song in which the main character has some kind of revelation or undergoes a major emotional moment that brings the musical to a climax. Often, but not always, the final song. Well-known eleven o'clock numbers include "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" from My Fair Lady, and "If He Walked Into My Life" from Mame. The term is a holdover from the days when all musicals started at 8:30 PM and had to have a climactic song around 11:00, because it was desirable to have audiences leave not long after 11:00.
Entr'Acte: The music played at the beginning of the second act of a musical, before the action resumes. Often just another version of the Overture or one of the songs in the show played by the orchestra in the pit, though occasionally it goes beyond that, as in the "Life Is Like a Train" number from On the Twentieth Century. The entr'acte of Cabaret has all the sleazy musicians from the Kit Kat Klub bunched together on the catwalk, playing a jazzy version of "Two Ladies" and jamming individually, which is outrageously cool!
Equity/Equity Card: Actor's Equity is the actor's union, and members have Equity cards. Equity helps ensure that actors are not subject to the kind of abuse that they used to receive regularly: delayed or lost paychecks, fired for no reason, etc. A production that uses non-Equity personnel is looking for trouble. Unfortunately, because Equity demands a certain pay scale for its members, many theatres are forced to book non-Equity shows because that's all they can afford.
Featured Performer: Not the star, but someone important enough to get their name separately mentioned in the credits: "And Rex Everhart" in 1776; "and special guest Elaine Stritch" in Drat! The Cat! People who replace role-originators in major productions are also considered featured performers, such as when Dorothy Loudon and George Hearn replaced Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd. The only replacement performer to ever be nominated for a Tony was Larry Kert, when he replaced Dean Jones in Company.
Flop Musical: A musical that failed to return its investment to its backers. Some flops are "holistic"--that is, they're bad and they lost money, like The Civil War or Into the Light. Some were good or even great shows (or at least had a good or great score) that were panned by the critics when they first emerged but whose OCRs are treasured today, like Mack & Mabel or Merrily We Roll Along. Some were great shows that had respectable runs but that lost money for some reason, such as Follies, which ran for a year but was so expensive to mount that it lost money. And some got all kinds of critical praise but just never caught fire with the public, like The Golden Apple.
Floperetta: A flop operetta. The term was coined by Ethan Mordden.
Floppo Number: A song that isn't just bad but that is hilariously awful or hideously inappropriate because of a lousy tune, stupid lyrics, a bad performance, idiotic staging, or a combination thereof. Legs Diamond is reputed to consist almost entirely of floppo numbers. I haven't heard a lot of floppo numbers myself, but I recently obtained So Long 174th Street, and "The Butler's Song," in which the distinguished butler tells a caller that his employer can't come to the phone right now because he's "humping" and "schtupping" various actresses, certainly qualifies. Carrie's "Kill the Pig" also qualifies.
Follow Spot: A spotlight that is continually trained on a performer as he/she moves around the stage.
Gypsy: A low-level performer, usually in the chorus, who pretty much spends her/his theatrical life in the chorus, moving from show to show. A Chorus Lineis the quintessential celebration of gypsies and, indeed, was populated by them; of the many performers in the original cast, only a couple, like Donna McKechnie, went on to any kind of stardom. By and large, gypsies lead "separate lives" from the more notable members of a company. Most stars keep walls between them and the gypsies in their shows. On the other hand, the late, great Gwen Verdon started out as a gypsy and never forgot her roots.
House: Technically, the theatre. More commonly, the audience, specifically the number of seats sold.
Ice: The money that a performer gets by surreptitiously scalping the complimentary seats given her/him. May be obsolete, but you might run into this term from time to time, especially in older books.
Ingenue: A young, pretty, vulnerable female lead or second lead. The aging process does ingenues in eventually, though Mary Martin managed to retain her ingenue status far longer than most. Some actresses never were ingenues even when they were young, like Carol Channing or Nancy Walker. Typical ingenue roles include Maria in West Side Story, Joanna in Sweeney Todd, and Magnolia in Show Boat.
Legitimate Stage, the: Where serious actors and actresses perform, as opposed to TV and movies, vaudeville and burlesque, concerts, commercials, etc. Based on the idea that acting live, on stage, in a play or musical or opera, is the highest and most respectable form of performing.
Libretto: The lyrics to a musical. Often includes some "connective tissue" that explains what happens between the songs. See also Book.
Musical: According to Britannica.com: "also called Musical Comedy, theatrical production that is characteristically sentimental and amusing in nature, with a simple but distinctive plot, and offering music, dancing, and dialogue." Obviously, this description was not written by someone who knows much beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein! For me, a musical is a production in which song, dialogue, and often dance combine to tell a story in such a manner that the show would be very different without one of these elements. For example, Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk would lose an essential ingredient if the dancing was stripped out of it. And the songs in Cabaret are sardonic reflections of the action and metaphorical statements about the characters.
Musical Play: A play with music added, but the music is not integral to the plot; remove it, and the play is still perfectly coherent. Alternately, a "serious" musical, according to Ethan Mordden. Under this definition, Cabaret would be a musical play, while Hello, Dolly would be a musical comedy.
Musical Theatre Geek: An orientation-neutral, if not very interesting, term for musical theatre fanatics. See also Show Queen.
OBC: Original Broadway Cast. Refers to the opening night Broadway cast of a musical.
OCR: Original Cast Recording. Refers to the recording of a musical by the opening night cast. Note that in some rare cases an opening night performer was unable to participate in the OCR, so his or her understudy sang on the recording, as did Rex Everhart on 1776 after Howard Da Silva had a heart attack.
Off-Broadway: Typically, the home of noncommercial (and historically nonprofit) theatre. Tends to be much more serious and arty than Broadway. Unexpectedly popular offerings, like Hair, sometimes find their way to Broadway "legitimacy." Assassins, on the other hand, which ran for two months off-Broadway, was the usual Sondheim flop that has since attracted a devoted following. Urinetown moved from off-Broadway to Broadway status with almost its entire cast intact and has become a hit. The Golden Apple did the same thing and tanked.
Off-Off-Broadway: Even more noncommercial, experimental, and arty theatre than Off-Broadway, and less disciplined overall.
OLC: Original London Cast.
Operetta: Britannica.com says: "musical-dramatic production similar in structure to an opera but characteristically having a romantically sentimental plot interspersed with songs, orchestral music, and rather elaborate dancing...." To label a Broadway musical an operetta is to deride it for being old-fashioned, corny, and slow-moving. Sigmund Romberg was probably the most noted composer of operettas, including The Desert Song. One reason a lot of people loathe ALW's musicals (aside from the banal music) is that they veer into operetta territory. Shows like Sweeney Todd and Porgy and Bess are considered opera, not operetta.
Overture: A song used to open a musical; it almost always consists of a medley of good bits from the other songs in the show. Some musicals don't have overtures, and a few overtures incorporate bits of cut songs into themselves (e.g., the more recent versions of the overture to Follies). One of the many musical jokes in Urinetown is that the overture has nothing to do with any of the other songs in the show.
NBC: New Broadway Cast. Refers to the recording of a revived musical by the revival cast.
Patter Song: A song that's more spoken than sung. The most famous examples of patter songs are those sung by Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Some of Richard Burton's numbers in Camelot are also considered patter songs.
Production Number/Big Production Number: An elaborately staged song, usually with dancing and flashy costumes and lots of people involved. The "Be Our Guest" number from Beauty and the Beast is a production number par excellence.
Reprise: A repetition of a song sung earlier in a musical. In Annie, "Tomorrow" is reprised twice. In Mack & Mabel, "I Won't Send Roses" is sung by Robert Preston and then, with different lyrics, by Bernadette Peters; Peters's version is considered a reprise. Although some shows just reprise a song because it's a hit song, a reprise done intelligently can change the meaning of the lyrics. For example, in Nine, "Not Since Chaplin" is first sung by adoring fans as a straightforward way to praise film director Guido Contini's importance. Much later, with his world collapsing around him, Contini bitterly reprises the opening words of the song, turning them into irony.
Revue: A show that consists of disparate musical numbers, either by many different composers (e.g., Hey, Mr. Producer!) or by one individual or team (e.g., Louis Jordan, Five Guys Named Moe; Kander and Ebb, And the World Goes Round). What separates a revue from a plain old concert is the staging; the songs are performed rather than merely sung. Sometimes there might be a thematic thread running through some or all of the songs, but there is no overarching storyline.
Rock Musical: A musical that uses rock music rather than "Broadway" music. Rock music is generally not suited to the musical form because the beat tends to overpower the singing and because most rock composers don't understand a damn thing about creating Broadway musicals. However, there are a few good ones out there, like Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors.
Second Couple: The secondary couple in a musical; usually the comic relief relationship that leaves the romantic posturing (and songs) to the leads. Notable second couples include Ado Annie and Ali Hakim in Oklahoma, Ellie and Frank in Show Boat, and Carrie and Enoch in Carousel. One second couple that reverses the comic-romantic relationship with the leads is Anthony and Johanna in Sweeney Todd. The second couple in Subways Are for Sleeping is far more interesting than the lead couple, which likely contributed to that show's tanking.
Show Queen/Musical Theatre Queen: A gay man whose life revolves around musical theatre. My kind of guy! I don't know if there's an equivalent term for a straight female musical fanatic (i.e., me) or any other flavor of musical aficionado. BTW, chase the stereotype from your mind: while all show queens are gay men, not all gay men are show queens. Oh, and there's a difference of opinion in the gay community as to whether this appelation is to be borne proudly or shunned, so I suggest not using it to describe someone unless he uses it to describe himself.
Showstopper: A musical number, a song or a dance or both, that creates such excitement in an audience that the show has to pause because people keep cheering and applauding. Famous showstoppers include Gwen Verdon's apache dance in Can-Can, "Get Me to the Church On Time" from My Fair Lady, and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls. And "Mirror Mirror," which I saw in Follies in 2001, brought down the house.
Soundtrack: Refers only to movie and television scores, not cast albums. Unfortunately, many record stores lump the two genres into the same category and shelve them together, which makes it a huge pain to riffle through the section looking for musicals. Note that a recording of a musical presented live on TV would be considered a cast album, but a recording of a musical transferred to the big screen would be a soundtrack. Thus, the movie versions of Chicago and Oklahoma! are soundtracks, but the Julie Andrews version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, Sondheim's Evening Primrose, and Cole Porter's last musical Aladdin are cast albums.
Standby: An understudy who does not have a role in a show but can step into one or more roles should the opportunity arise. Being a standby can be lucrative and relaxing, but it can also be frustrating and unfulfilling--and nerve-wracking, if a standby unexpectedly has to go on!
Star Turn: The chance for the star of the musical to do the thing that she/he does best. For example, when I saw Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees, he spent 15 minutes doing a Jerry Lewis schtick (rather than a Mr. Applegate schtick) during the song "Those Were the Good Old Days." Carol Channing coming down the staircase in Hello, Dolly is the classic star turn, and "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy.... well. The British equivalent to this term appears to be "Point Number."
Stock Company/Stock: A regular set of players attached to a repertory theatre, such as the Denver Center Theater Company. Although individual members may become better known than others, and well-known performers will join stock companies for particular productions, there are almost never superstars in a stock company. Usually shortened to just "stock." Stock is the lifeblood of many actors, since there are so few parts in major productions.
Stunt Star: A famous person, or one with a large following in a particular medium, cast in a role (usually as a replacement) in order to boost interest in a long-running production, regardless of whether that person is appropriate for the role. Usually a stunt star is NOT appropriate. For example, currently (8/7/03) Melanie Griffith is playing Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway, though it's patently clear that she's neither a singer nor a dancer (and apparently not that great a stage actress either). And why would any normal human being cast any member of a boy band in any musical for any other reason?
Summer Stock: Stock productions mounted in the summer. Sort of a catch phrase for regional theatre.
Sung-Through (also Sung-Thru, Through-Sung, or Thru-Sung): A musical where all the dialogue is sung. This can be incredibly annoying if the actual songs are not clearly distinguishable from the musical dialogue--it's hard to tell when the "dialogue" stops and the "song" begins. Miss Saigon made me and my parents crazy because big chunks of the show sounded like long, meandering, pointless, boring songs with no high points to break through the monotony. On the other hand, The Golden Apple (or at least the half they preserved on CD) is one of the few sung-through shows I've ever heard that did it right.
Swing: According to knowledgable reader Rafael Dueno, "A swing is the understudy of the chorus. You know how chorus members understudy the smaller parts and the people in the smaller parts understudy the leads? Swings are people who know the chorus numbers perfectly, so they can equally replace an absent chorus member at the front of the line to the right as well as one at the back to the left. Sometimes chorus members don't all do the exact same dances at the same time; sometimes they are split in half and each side mirrors the other. Ask a regular chorus member to simply switch over, and they're bound to mess up, for they have already perfected doing it from one side. Swings are capable of doing either side, for they have learned both sections well." A swing is often the dance captain.
Succes d'estime: The critics loved it, the audiences hated it. Another synonym for this is "Stephen Sondheim," unfortunately.
Take-Home Tune: A very memorable, "hummable" tune that audiences remember well after they've left the theatre. Classic writers of take-home tunes include Richard Rodgers, Jerry Herman, and Cy Coleman.
Titles, male and female: This may be an out-of-date term, but some musicals used to have "male" or "female" titles that indicated whether the show's emphasis was on a man or a woman. My Fair Lady is a male title that emphasizes the primacy of the role of Henry Higgins, whereas Hello, Dolly! and Mameare obviously female titles. I wouldn't begin to know what gender titles like Applause, 1776, and On the Twentieth Century are assumed to be, if any.
Torch Song: A sentimental love song, usually one lamenting unrequited love. Typically (but not always) sung by women. Sondheim's classic torch song is "Losing My Mind" from Follies. Other torch songs include "As Long As He Needs Me" from Oliver! and "On My Own" from Les Miserables.
Touring Company: The hardy souls who take a show on the road to less fortunate towns like Denver. Though sometimes touring companies can be composed largely of newcomers, minor TV actors, or dinner-theatre veterans (the tour of West Side Story a couple of years ago was largely made up of rank beginners), they can also host big names, and they can also be better than the original Broadway company (as was said of the Guys and Dolls troupe). I've seen Chita Rivera, Lorna Luft, Len Cariou, Jerry Lewis, and other luminaries trod the boards at the Temple Buell Theater. The touring company of Paradeconsisted mostly of the original Broadway performers, and the composer himself conducted the orchestra.
Triple Threat: Someone who can sing, dance, and act. The combination is rarer than you'd expect, especially these days when actors and actresses gravitate toward Hollywood rather than Broadway. Classic triple threats include Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera; more modern triple threats would be Karen Ziemba and Donna McKechnie.
Tryout Hell: The chaotic and usually bumpy/traumatic/stressful period when a musical is being cast, shaped, and rehearsed--historically, on the road, before the show was due in New York, though these days productions don't travel much (if at all) before opening on Broadway, as it's way too expensive. Anyway, tryout hell is so awful that it inspired Arthur Laurent's famous quote, "If Hitler is alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical." [Oops! Serves me right for relying on some anonymous CD booklet. The actual author of that quote is Larry Gelbart, which is correctly noted in Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum.]
Tunestack: The song list, specifically the order in which the songs are sung.
Understudy: Someone who has a small role in a show and also can cover for one or more other (usually larger) roles.
Vamp: In terms of people, a seductress. In terms of music, a short introductory segment, a teaser, that's often repeated several times before a solo or between verses.
Wanting Song: A song that expresses a longing for something, such as love or excitement or simple respect. Usually, but not always, sung by the heroine.Oliver! has at least three Wanting Songs: "Food, Glorious Food," "As Long as He Needs Me," and "Where Is Love." "Someone is Waiting" from Company is an example of a Wanting Song sung by the leading man. "Lion Tamer" from The Magic Show has the heroine wishing that she was a lion tamer so "I would be special too."
West End, the: London's counterpart to Broadway.
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Broadway Terms--funny definitions.
Broadway University glossary--legal terms for Broadway producers.
Contemporary Theatre and Drama in the U.S. (since 1980)--for theatrical movements and concepts (e.g., "Agitprop").
Glossary of Broadway Musical and Cabaret Terms translated into standard musical language--a humorous take on such terms; a kind of "Broadway to Jazz" translation (e.g., Stephen Sondheim is roughly equivalent to Benny Goodman).
Glossary of Genres--theatrical genres, that is.
Glossary of Technical Theatre Terms--an enormous British glossary.
Music Publishing Glossary--defines legal terms in the fields of music publishing and recording.
NBC 4 & The Broadway Series Online Education Program Glossary--for very general theatrical terms (e.g., "Audition").
The Stage Jargon Glossary--for stage technicians' terms and jargon.
Techie Terms--humorous ones.
Theatre Terms at ELAC Theatrepedia--general theatrical terms.