The world is a stage. And the stage is changing.

A Q&A with grad student Michael Kennedy

We go to the theater not just to escape, but also to see our reflection. Michael Kennedy’s work explores the ties between musical theater and the world around us. A PhD candidate in musicology, Kennedy was selected as a 2017-18 Graduate School 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 musicals, the relationship between politics and theater, Broadway’s legal issues, and his next act after graduation. 

Have you always been interested in musical theater?

KENNEDY: Musical theater and film are the two 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. I recall being the only kid in my kindergarten class who cited “Singin’ in the Rain” as my favorite movie.

As I grew older, my love for film expanded beyond musicals. And when I was old enough to see live musicals, I instantly became infatuated with the theater’s immediacy, its energetic atmosphere, and its collaboration among artists. 

I became engrossed with the business of musicals when I was 12 and saw my first Broadway show in New York.

Since high school, I have performed extensively as a musician and conductor, both for symphony orchestras and for musical theater. So my dissertation naturally reveals my greatest artistic interests and how they intersect—musical theater, orchestral scoring, and the business of orchestras and performing musicians. 

Of all the plays and songs you have studied, do you have a favorite?

KENNEDY: 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, from traditional musicals to arty concept musicals to revivals to rock and hip-hop musicals, and beyond. 

Tell us more about your dissertation.

KENNEDY: My dissertation examines how Broadway’s orchestral sound has undergone considerable change since the late 1960s. I use comparative score studies 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 post-modern era of musical theater.

You’ve written about societal shifts in the perception of government, and how that is portrayed in theater and music. Do you expect to continue focusing on this subject?

KENNEDY: Yes. Some of my previous work has dealt with this issue as well. In my master’s thesis, 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.

My PhD dissertation involves the politics of unionism, labor negotiations and public relations 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. 

Musicals have always both reflected and informed societal perspectives and cultural norms, and they will continue to do so.

Michael Kennedy

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

KENNEDY: Musicals have always both reflected and informed societal perspectives and cultural norms, and they will continue to do so. This is what especially fascinates me when researching musical theater as well as film music. It’s worth noting that musical theater is an American-born genre and much about this art form’s development echoes our national identity.

Why did you choose to focus on Hair and Hamilton in your dissertation?

KENNEDY: 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 by establishing a rock aesthetic and amplified sound, along with various elements of American counter-culture. And Hamilton (2015) provides an excellent endpoint because it 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 tell the story of America. 

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

KENNEDY: I have been extremely interested in how legal issues have influenced Broadway’s orchestral sound during recent decades. Broadway orchestras consist of members from the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 and this union negotiates collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with the Broadway League of Producers and Theatres.

These CBAs concern musicians’ wages, working conditions, the minimum number of musicians hired, 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 is that the majority of people whom I have interviewed—orchestrators, music directors, contractors, musicians, producers—have acknowledge that there are opposing forces within the Broadway industry: commercial and artistic. But they also agree that it is actually of great benefit for Broadway. They form a synergy that propels Broadway musicals toward success, both commercially and artistically.

What are your plans for the future?

KENNEDY: I will finish and defend my dissertation next summer. And after earning my PhD, I hope to become a professor of musicology at a university or college and, of course, continue to contribute scholarship to my field of study.

I also would like to continue having a performing outlet, by music directing and conducting for musical theater productions and orchestras. 

Make an impact

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