Musical theatre and stage productions seem to be suffering in the wake of television and film. Chelsea Gillenwater, a junior studying English and Communication, argues that the elements that people loved in musical theatre can still be found in a number of famous TV shows, especially children’s animation.

Chelsea was inspired to pursue this research topic after taking an Honors Colloquium with Dr. Michael Saffle, a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture, called “Musical Comedy Then and Now.” After the class, Dr. Saffle suggested a research topic involving music in popular animated television shows. She began by looking at the history of the relationship between music and animation and how it has evolved from classic cartoons, like Looney Tunes, to modern shows. She also researched the existing literature to provide a theoretical background for what she was looking for.

Part of her research consisted of watching a large amount of animated television to see how it integrated music into the storytelling. Chelsea admits that Phineas and Ferb is one of her favorite shows, and she loved doing this particular research project “because it didn’t feel like work.”

more animated shows have begun embracing a more theatrical form of storytelling

Historically, musical numbers served mostly as parodies of existing musical genres and adopted theatrical tropes mainly for the sake of satirizing popular culture. While theatrical animation quickly established its own musical conventions, short-form programming charted a different course, focusing on musical parody instead of adopting the familiar ballads and showstoppers of musical theatre. Looney Tunes began premiering in theatres but eventually made the successful transition into broadcast television in the 1950s.

In recent years, more and more animated shows have begun embracing a more theatrical form of storytelling by including nuanced songs with real, emotional resonance. This new trend coincides with an upswing in shows with strong, emotional cores and good-hearted characters, which are perfectly suited for musical theatre. Music in animation changes along with the evolution of animated content, and cartoons may slowly be moving from satirical to sincere forms of storytelling, opening up new avenues for musical influence.

In her research, Chelsea explores musical animation shows, such as Phineas and Ferb and Adventure Time, and how they use music to enhance their entertainment value. Phineas and Ferb, a Disney Channel cartoon aimed at both children and adult audiences, features an original song in every episode and consciously draws upon long-established musical traditions and genres. Phineas and Ferb perhaps best exemplifies the marriage between inventive, sophisticated humor and a steady emotional core.

Adventure Time also uses musical cues for moments of intense character development. Chelsea was surprised by the nuanced musicality of these shows because she was expecting simplified music that just accompanied the children’s story instead of adding to the overall understanding of the show. The music that is written for both Phineas and Ferb and Adventure Time fits the humor and style of the shows—suitable for children, but also entertaining for adults.

Although musicals can often feel jarring for modern audiences, animation already overcomes the initial suspension of disbelief with its hand-drawn or computer-generated characters. Pinpointing other possible ties between animation, television, and musical tropes could give us some indication as to how and why musicals are making the move to the small screen—and what that means for the future of musical theatre.