Commentary: Musicals have great impact on popular culture and media

Hamilton musical cast
Photo courtesy of Dan Wooller

“West Side Story,” “…Tick, Tick Boom!” and even “Bo Burnham’s Inside” have all found places on the list of “musicals” that have risen to popularity. One could even consider Disney’s “Encanto” to be on that list. 

Here at Boise State, we had our own “musical” experience with Hamilton’s historic three-week run and a special student-only performance in December. 

Many musicals and music bits have found their way onto many social media pages with trending TikTok sounds. These movies and shows have been nominated or won Grammy and Academy Awards, and the musicals that some are based on have won Tony awards. 

A Boise State music professor, a Boise State student, and the music director for the “And Peggy” cast of Hamilton, all shared opinions on the importance and impact of musicals on popular culture, even if their form may be unfamiliar. 

“Musical theater is its own niche style. And so whether you have … the hip hop of Hamilton or you have something that’s mostly pop-based, that’s all the Disney shows. [All] of it is written around the musical theater tradition,” said Lily Ling, Hamilton music director. “It is ‘musical-theaterized.’”

Hamilton musical cast
[The Broadway cast of Hamilton.]
Photo courtesy of Dan Wooller

Because musical theater has its own unique style, those who have not been exposed may find it strange. Dr. Jeffery Seppala, assistant professor and director of musical theater at Boise State, told of research he read about this. 

“The experiences that you’ve had make you much more likely to think something is enjoyable in the future,” Seppala said, “Just like kids trying other food … if you have sushi when you’re young, you’re much more likely to enjoy it later on. If your friends say it’s great, then you’ll go.”

However, musicals have become more accessible with the advent of social media and TikTok especially. 

“With social media, we have so many new ways to experience these. Hamilton, to my knowledge, took the most advantage of this social media movement for advertising a musical. And so it created so much ‘buzz’ as it was popular because it was unique and different,” Seppala said. 

“Hamilton” also showed how hip-hop and rap can be universal to any type of media and audience.

“It’s transformative. ‘Rent’ was the last [musical] that truly transformed the theater industry, and Hamilton in-and-of-itself also is [that way]. Everything about it. It’s telling a story in a different way,” Ling said. 

Musicals show how the isolated and the underestimated can be extraordinary, as it did when “Rent” featured individuals struggling with HIV or how a disgraced prince can become a leader like Simba in “The Lion King.” 

“I think similar to a song, [a musical] allows the performer to take the audience to a place that is beyond the emotions you can use with just speech … you can allow the audience to see deeper feelings, deeper emotions, experiences that these people are going through,” Seppala said. 

Michelle Montanus, a sophomore theater major, shared how the collective experience of a theater production allows for connections between people.

“When you look at it from an abstract point of view, these are just people pretending to be other people dancing around on a stage and thousands of people come to watch. It’s art. Art in any form is just a celebration,” Montanus said. 

There is something about the musical aspect of shows like “Bo Burnham’s Inside” and “Encanto” that creates a more collective experience from one singular piece of media. When people use these sounds to make TikToks or other media, they are contributing and celebrating that collective experience.

“If I had a thesis of it all, [it] is like collectivism versus individualism … the thing I love about theater is that it is the more collaborative art form,” Ling said. “It is not only the performance part of it. You have lighting. You have costumes. You have hair. You have the technical elements … It has so many layers. It’s when all of it comes together, that you feel the harmony.”

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