What’s the Difference between a Musical and a Play?

Hey there! Welcome to this Mometrix video on musicals.

Before we discuss the technicalities of a musical, let’s clear up some confusion. Oftentimes, people get confused about the difference between a musical and a play.

Well, the answer is, a musical is a play. The difference? A play is not a musical. Confused? Don’t be. In a very general sense, a musical tells a story with song and even dancing, while a play typically sticks to spoken dialogue. However, a musical has a play within it, because of the scripted dialogue.

Now, I know this can get a little confusing, because some plays can get really crazy and venture out into musical territory; which, isn’t super helpful when you are trying to draw a clear fundamental difference between a play and a musical.

So what I will try to do is give you some helpful information that is unique to defining a musical.

I will talk about three things in this video. First I will give you a crash course in the history of a musical, then I will discuss theatre musicals, book musicals, and lastly, I will be discussing, briefly, how it compares with opera.

First, the history. Music has actually been around since ancient times and has been used for the purpose of dramatic display. However, modern Western musical theatre came about in the 19th century. The orthodox structure of a musical was established by Gilbert and Sullivan in Britain, and Harrigan and Hart in America.

The librettist W. S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan were a Victorian-era duo who collaborated on fourteen different musicals.

Edward Harrigan was an actor, singer, dancer, playwright, lyricist, and theater producer. Tony Hart helped in the success with his charm and incredible voice. Together, they formed one of the most celebrated musicals in the 19th century.

Now that you know a little bit about this history, let’s talk about the two major types of musicals.

Musical Theatre

Musical theatre is a showcase for talent with a concentration on storytelling through music. This is generally the avenue taken when you want to showcase incredible vocal talent, instrumental talent, and even things like acting, and dancing. The plot and the emotion of the musical are all communicated through the words, music, movement, and the technical features of the performance. There is not a set length for a musical. It can vary from a quick one-act to quite a few acts, and hours and hours in length. Generally, musicals are one and a half to three hours in length, with two acts (the first typically being longer than the second), and with a short intermission.

Book Musicals

Now, book musicals are very similar in structure to a theatre musical. The main difference is the concentration on a strong storyline, rather than really strong talent. Don’t get me wrong, there is really great talent in book musicals, often time even better, but the focus is on the story and the drama of the events taking place.

Musical vs. Opera

Now, the last thing that I want to talk about is how musicals compare to opera. The reason this is so important to distinguish is because they are so similar. However, there are a few differences. For instance musicals, most of the time, have a greater focus on spoken dialogue, acting, and dancing. This can get tricky, because there are actually a few musicals with no accompanied dialogue, and some operas’ that do have spoken dialogue. But, generally speaking, musical performers are first actors, then singers; and opera performers are first singers, then actors.

I know it’s difficult studying topics that you have to speak about in generalities because of the overlap, so I hope this video was helpful! See you next time!


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by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: February 18, 2022