From "Hair" to "Hamilton": Q&A with Michael Kennedy

We go to the theater not just to escape our own lives, but to see part of ourselves reflected on the stage. Michael Kennedy's work explores the ties between musical theater and the world around us. A PhD candidate in musicology, Kennedy was recently selected as a 2017-18 Dean's Fellow. His dissertation, "(Re-)Orchestrating the Music: Broadway's Postmodern Sound from 'Hair' to 'Hamilton,'" examines how Broadway's orchestral sound has undergone considerable change since the late 1960s.

Here, he discusses his favorite era of musicals, the relationship between politics and theater, Broadway's legal issues, and his next act after graduation.

Have you always been interested in musicals?

Musical theater and film are the two artistic genres that I am most passionate about, and I have been fond of both since as early as I can remember, around the age of 4. This fondness started via film musicals, which my mom showed us on family movie nights. I recall being the only kid in my kindergarten and grade school classes who cited "Singin' in the Rain" as his favorite movie.

As I grew older, my love of cinema expanded to include all genres. And when I was old enough to go to see musicals (whether at community theaters where my mom performed, or to see touring professional productions), I instantly became infatuated with musical theater's live performativity, energetic atmosphere, and close collaboration among artists.

My first live theater experience was seeing The Nutcracker ballet when I was 4, which doesn't count as the genre of "musical theater," but certainly shares these same qualities. I became engrossed with the business of musicals when I was 12 years old and saw my first Broadway show in New York.

Since I was in high school, I have performed extensively as an orchestral musician and conductor, both for symphony orchestras and for musical theater. Thus, my dissertation serves as an intersection of some of my greatest artistic interests, including live musical theater, orchestral scoring, and the business of orchestras and performing musicians.

Of all the plays and songs you have studied so far, which has been your favorite?

This is a very difficult—almost impossible—question to answer. I love all of my dissertation case studies for different reasons. In fact, what I love most about my dissertation is its diversity of topics and the variety of styles that it covers (such as traditional musicals, arty concept musicals, revivals, rock musicals, R&B musicals, hip-hop musicals, pastiche musicals, megamusicals, etc.).

My dissertation examines how Broadway's orchestral sound has undergone considerable change since the late 1960s, during the postmodern era. I use comparative score studies of musicals while integrating research on socio-economics, technological advancements, and trade unionism to reveal the effects of artistic and business practices on Broadway's musical pluralism. And it is this plurality of styles that makes me especially enjoy this era of musical theater.

You have written about societal shifts in the perception of government, and how that is portrayed in theatre and music. In our current political climate, do you expect to continue focusing on this subject?

Yes, some of my previous work has dealt with this issue. In my master's thesis, which represents my most substantial work to date, I studied how the musical "Chicago" grew in popularity from its original production (1975) to its smash-hit revival (1996) and subsequent Oscar-winning film adaptation (2002) has paralleled American society's changing attitudes towards crime, deviance, and celebrity worship—from reactionary conservatism of the 1970s to narcissistic consumerism of the 1990s and beyond.

I have also recently submitted essays concerning political usage of music to the journal American Music and to Trax on the Trail, an interdisciplinary online database and journal that assesses how campaign music informs political identities. Even my dissertation involves the politics of unionism, labor negotiations and public relation campaigns, as these topics greatly influence the dispositions of Broadway orchestras. And with our current tense political climate, I do expect this to remain a relevant issue and something that I will continue to study.

What role do you see musicals playing in our society's future?

Musicals have always both reflected and informed societal perspectives and cultural zeitgeists, and they will continue to do so in the future. This is what especially fascinates me when researching musical theater as well as film music. Moreover, musical theater is an American-born genre (in contrast to operas, operettas, ballets, etc.), and much about this art form's development echoes themes of discovering our national identity. Matters of identity and interdisciplinarity are essential to my scholarship, as I aim to effectively discuss theater in both musical and socio-cultural contexts.

Why did you choose to study "Hair and Hamilton" for your dissertation?

Hair and Hamilton serve as my dissertation's chronological bookends, but they are not the only two shows that I am studying. To illustrate my dissertation's diverse topics, I utilize several case studies of musicals that represent seminal examples of Broadway orchestrations since 1968.

Hair (1968) served as a significant turning point towards this postmodern age of musical theater by foregrounding the rock aesthetic and amplified sound, along with various elements of American counter-culture. And Hamilton (2015) provides an excellent endpoint to my study because it has quickly become a hugely successful and transcendent musical that incorporates many of my topics—the integration of high art and popular music styles, technological advancements in instrumentation, and the notion of orchestral sound informing a complex narrative, which utilizes racial and cultural diversities to historicize America.

In between these pillars, my case studies also include the musicals "Company" (1970), "The Wiz" (1975), "Sunday in the Park with George" (1984), "Miss Saigon" (1991), "Beauty and the Beast" (1994), "Parade" (1998), "The Producers" (2001), "The Drowsy Chaperone" (2006) and "The Scottsboro Boys" (2010). My dissertation categorizes these case studies by aesthetic, technological, economic, and/or cultural topics.

What aspect of your dissertation work has interested you the most?

I have been extremely interested in the great extent that legal issues have influenced Broadway's orchestral sound during recent decades. Broadway orchestras consist of members from the American Federation of Musicians Local 802. This union negotiates collective bargaining agreements with the Broadway League of Producers and Theatres.

These CBAs concern musicians' wages, working conditions, the minimum number of musicians hired for each theater, uses of electronic synthesizers, etc. Certain economic and legal factors affect each of my case studies deeply in some way, and I am fascinated with how the different orchestrators of these shows developed their own idiosyncratic styles within these various constraints.

Perhaps what has surprised me the most during my research is that the majority of people whom I have interviewed (including orchestrators, music directors, music contractors, playing musicians, producers, etc.) acknowledge that there are opposing forces within the Broadway industry—those who have more commercial interests and those who have artistic interests—but they also agree that it is actually of great benefit for Broadway to have these opposing forces. They form a synergy that propel Broadway musicals as both an artform as well as a successful industry.

Are you currently working on anything outside of your dissertation?

Any projects that I have going on right now are related in some way to my dissertation. At the upcoming meeting of the Society for American Music (in Montreal from March 22-26), I will present a paper that discusses the 2003 Broadway musicians' strike and the looming threat of producers implementing "virtual orchestras," or systems that play pre-recorded tracks to supplant live ensembles.

This coming May, I will extract my case studies of Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Miss Saigon, and Hamilton from my dissertation and combine them as an essay on the integration of acoustic and electronic music on postmodern Broadway. I will contribute this essay to the forthcoming Routledge Companion to the Post-1970 American Musical, edited by Jessica Sternfeld and Elizabeth Wollman.

What are your plans for the future?

I am planning to finish and defend my dissertation by the summer of 2018. Upon earning my PhD in musicology, I shall continue to contribute scholarship on the fields on musical theater, film music, and music in politics. I hope to become a professor of musicology at a university or college.

I also would like to continue to have a performing outlet by music directing and conducting for musical theater productions and orchestras, which I have done at the collegiate, community, and regional professional levels for the past fifteen years.

Written by Dakota Wright, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office