Audiences know the stories of their favorite musicals. Often, as in the case of productions like “Jagged Little Pill” that tap into popular tunes, they know the songs from the radio. But in “ExtraOrdinary,” a cabaret-style retrospective at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), they not only hear songs previously performed on the Cambridge stage — in productions like “Pippin,” “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” and “Waitress” — they hear the performers’ own stories too.
The show, under the direction of Diane Paulus and with music directed by Lance Horne, celebrates and revisits the 10 years of musicals and music theater that Paulus has shepherded through the Harvard institution.
“I’ve always been passionate about the power of musical theater because I feel it can reach audiences in a way that builds bridges,” said Paulus, the A.R.T.’s Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director.
She distinguishes between classic musicals and “music theater,” in which tunes are added or integrated into a play. Both, as well as opera, have found a place at the A.R.T. under her direction, “expanding the boundaries of theater, which is our mission, through newly reimagined productions of classic musicals and creating conditions for new musicals.”
Of course, what exactly music or musical theater is can be up for debate, a subject that cast members discuss and sing about in this production. “Shakespeare is music,” Paulus said, suggesting that all theater may be regarded as musical. “We’re talking about live sound,” she said, “rhythm and vibration.”
She explicitly rejects the idea that musicals are less serious than straight dramas. “Musicals can be serious entertainment,” she said. “If you look at the history of musical theater, if you look at some of the early book musicals like ‘Oklahoma,’ these are dealing with really intense topics.” In addition, “The musical is a signature American art form. And we are the American Repertory Theater.”
While this production brings back the songs that audiences may remember through the years, it adds a fresh element: the seven performers (plus guests) explaining why these pieces touched them, or how they came to a particular production.