(Relaxnews) - Will the musicals of the last decade, such as Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!, Hairspray, Rent and Spring Awakening, be as popular in 25 to 50 years, the way that revivals of Porgy and Bess or the perennial 42nd Street still appeal to us?
The so-called golden era of Broadway musicals during the 1940s and ‘50s imagines a time when everything was Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Gershwins, as if everything on stage was stellar.
"We forget, there were some real turkeys," William Wesbrooks, program director of New York University's Musical Theater Department, told Relaxnews. The professor attributes some of the disenchantment with today's musicals to nostalgia. "People miss the age of those songwriters, but there is some beautiful songwriting right now."
One must look back with some perspective, Wesbrooks suggests, to see if today's musicals, like this season's Tony winners Once and Newsies, will stand the test of time. Though he does sing the praises of Peter and the Starcatchers, which wasn't a musical but features lots of music.
"The entertainment value of musicals is what people are drawn to," suggests Wesbrooks. Even Les Misérables is an entertaining evening, despite the seriousness, revolution and death, because we leave the theater with a positive feeling about the experience.
Wesbrooks attributes the power of musical theater to its language. "With musicals, there's a logical nature of communication. It moves from prose to meter as it becomes more dramatic, and then moves into rhyme." He analyzes the structure, noting that Shakespeare used the same technique.
In musicals, as language heightens, the characters express their desires -- "I want you to believe me, understand me or marry me -- or whatever the quest is," explains Wesbrooks. It naturally moves into song and the audience responds instinctively. On the other hand, in opera, characters sometimes sing before it's dramatically justified, he feels.
When declaring love, which he estimates is 60 or 70 percent of the time in a musical, moving into song is an expression of passion and it feels right. Audiences respond viscerally to what rings true, even with lots of spectacle.
As a previous performer, writer and director, Wesbrooks has been immersed in the form; primarily teaching acting to singers today, he focuses on what's true to characters, and inherent in the drama. It's timeless and applies to classic and contemporary musicals -- from My Fair Lady and West Side Story to Evita and Follies.
"You need a character who wants something enough to sing about it," he says. Good storytelling isn't a formula. "The best musicals can be a fulfilling journey on several different levels -- entertainment-wise and its humanity," says Wesbrooks. "Passionate ideas live more fully in song; love is expressed most beautifully in song."