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The Dickensian mega-musical

By Marc Napolitano


Though music plays a significant role within Charles Dickens’s novels — as various characters’ personalities are defined by their fondness for song — music has also proven a central element of the larger legacy surrounding Dickens’s works. From the Victorian period onward, music has been used as a medium for the adaptation of Dickens’s texts. Paul Schlicke recounts that numerous composers in the nineteenth century wrote instrumental movements and parlor songs based on Dickens’s novels and characters, and James T. Lightwood includes a catalog of these songs in the appendix to his text, Charles Dickens and Music. Such tunes include “The Pickwick Quadrille” by Fred Ravellin, the “Barnaby Rudge Tarantelle” and the “Little Dorrit Serenade,” both by Clementine Ward, “The Nicholas Nickleby Quadrille and Nickleby Gallop” by Sydney Vernon, and countless waltzes, ballads, and comic songs based on the characters of Little Nell and Dolly Varden. This proliferation of Dickensian songs is a testament to the author’s unprecedented popularity. It is also a testament to certain qualities in the characters themselves which seem to transcend traditional discourse and elevate these individuals to a more melodious medium of expression.

Whereas nineteenth-century musical variations on Dickens took the form of individual songs or movements based on various Dickensian characters, twentieth- and twenty-first century adaptations have often taken the form of stage and film musicals. Though this format diverges from the ballads of the nineteenth century, the emphasis on the passionate traits of Dickens’s characters remains the same. Emotional catharsis is a central element of musical theatre. In the opening pages to his book on the history of the American musical, Scott Miller states that “the extreme, unapologetic emotionalism of musical theatre offers audiences a much needed release. Only in musical theatre can those big emotions be adequately expressed.” This idea of unreserved emotional catharsis likewise seems fundamental to Dickens’ prose style; The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens mentions that “Dickens was famous—later notorious—for his willingness to play on readers’ heartstrings.” Dickens was not simply trying to manipulate his audience, however. He too invested himself emotionally in the tribulations of his characters, most notoriously in the case of Little Nell, whose death left her creator devastated. Though Aldous Huxley attacked Dickens’ writings as a primary example of what he called “vulgarity” in literature, the very qualities that Huxley and others decry as excessive are the same qualities that make Dickens so suitable for musical adaptation.

The basic principles behind the cathartic presentation of large emotions through song in musical theatre is similar to the catharses that Dickens creates in his novels through his emotionally unrestrained prose style, save of course for the obvious fact that musicals utilize melodies and lyrics instead of narration and dialogue. It is emotion that dictates the use and placement of music in a musical, for songs are most effective if they occur at emotional highpoints: audience members would not believe that the hills were alive with the sound of music if Maria were merely talking about the scenery, nor would they understand the centrality of tradition to the people of Anatevka if the townspeople used speech to describe this critical facet of their daily lives. Dickens’s appropriateness as a source for musical adaptation becomes all the more apparent when one considers just how many emotional peaks can be found in a single Dickens novel. Whereas the process of “spotting” opportunities for songs is difficult if the story being told is one that lacks emotional resonance, Dickens’s works seem to automatically lend themselves to such a process. The emotional climaxes in Dickens are so overt to begin with that having the characters shift from speaking to singing in a musical adaptation of a Dickens novel feels almost natural: the justification for the song is evident to the librettist from the passion that the author has incorporated into his narrative.

Each of the following Dickensian novels has been adapted into a musical at least once: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. While the sheer abundance of Dickensian musicals is striking, the variety of these adaptations is even more striking. Novels by Dickens have served as the inspiration for many different types of musicals, and several Dickensian musical adaptations reflect various trends in musical theatre during specific periods in the history of the genre: Oliver!, a book show, was written during the golden age of the Broadway musical; Smike, a pop musical adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, was written in the wake of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s early “rock musicals,” such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; and the highly experimental Drood was written in the innovative era of the concept musical. The realization that Dickensian source material could be employed in such a wide variety of ways by such a wide variety of writers is again indicative of the author’s adaptability, and, moreover, his suitability, for the musical genre.

Perhaps the most appropriate musical format for a Dickensian novel is the English mega-musical, as defined and perfected by Lloyd Webber and his European counterparts. The connections between the Dickensian musical and the mega-musical run deep given the centrality of Oliver! to the emergence of the postwar British musical. Oliver!’s influence on the mega-musical movement would extend beyond the advent of Lloyd Webber, particularly given Oliver!’s status as a personal favorite of mega-musical impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Oliver! even helped to serve as the inspiration for one of the most successful mega-musicals ever produced; Mackintosh once related that when composer Alain Boublil went to see a revival of Oliver! in 1977, “he said that as he watched the Artful Dodger sing ‘Consider Yourself,’ the character of Gavroche from Les Miz suddenly just jumped into his head.”  Ironically, just as musical adaptations shaped the trajectory of the popular perception of Dickens by underscoring his boisterous emotionalism, Dickens himself has shaped the trajectory of British musical theater.

Marc Napolitano is Assistant Professor of English at the United States Military Academy, West Point, NY. He attained his Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2009. He has published articles on musical and operatic adaptations of Dickens in journals such as Dickens Studies Annual, Studies in Musical Theatre, and Neo-Victorian Studies. English: The Journal of the English Association has enabled free access for a limited time to Napolitano’s article, “Singing Christmas Carols: The Dickensian Musical Vs. The Dickensian Mega-Musical”.

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2 Responses to “The Dickensian mega-musical”
  1. Sean says:

    Tis article opened my eyes to just how muich Dickens lends himself to musicals. Clearly the characters deserve to be celebrated in song, but the value of the emotional expression of music to complement the already vivid emotional ties we have to Dickens’ stories was something I had not previously considered. I enjoyed thispost and look forward to reading the whole article.

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