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When I was 12 years old and first listened to the original cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, I came to a sudden and clear realisation: the world has a way of casting certain groups of people into certain roles, and people have a tendency to just play our their assigned roles. The expectations that society sets for a person are often inevitably the expectations they meet.

That's not a particularly profound idea, but it's not something I'd really considered before. And when any piece of art can make a 12-year-old question what forces might lead a particular person down a particular path, and teach its audience a little something about empathy, it's probably doing something right.
As one of the world's most popular art forms, you can only imagine how many people around the world have come to realise something about themselves or the world around them thanks to a musical.

Yet musicals often get a raw deal in "serious" arts circles. In the last few days, I've heard two Australian arts commentators be dismissive of the entire art form – that it doesn't "matter" or that it does no more than engage its audience emotionally with showtunes to distract from its inherent hollowness.
Musicals are seen as fluff – entertainment using colour, sound, lights and movement to give the lowest common denominator audience a fun but forgettable "great night out". And musicals do that very, very well.

But musicals can also challenge, inspire, move and anger their audience as well as any art form can. Look at the way Rodgers and Hammerstein challenged their audience (particularly in the deep south of America) to reconsider their attitudes towards race in You've Got To Be Carefully Taught in South Pacific. When the musical toured to Georgia in the 1950s, the song was outlawed. One legislator wrote that: "a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life."

Or look at how Rent portrayed a community in the wake of the AIDS crisis struggling to hold together with love and refusing to fracture. Or the razor-sharp wit and intellect Sondheim used to dissect our difficult relationship with our creations – both artistic creations and children – in Sunday in the Park With George (and honestly, the act one finale of that musical is the only thing that has ever made me wonder if there could be a higher power at work in this world). All three of these musicals picked up the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

More recently, and closer to home, director Dean Bryant's reimagined Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co crystalised a single, unexpectedly political point for its audience: that a deep-seated class structure still operates in our society to hold people back. The production was still broadly entertaining, and through that entertainment it quietly engaged its audience in a deeper conversation about oppression.

And hopefully James Millar and Peter Rutherford's A Little Touch of Chaos will also receive a full production at some point in the near future. When I saw a student production of the work at the Victorian College of the Arts, it struck me as the most sensitive and astute portrayal of mental health difficulties and family dysfunction I've ever seen in a musical. Even with its flaws, it reflects the messiness of real life in an extraordinarily cathartic way.
Many would argue that these "serious" musicals are the exception, not the rule, but even the flashiest, most shamelessly entertaining musicals can do more than distract you with bright lights, helicopters and chandeliers and exploit your emotions.

I don't necessarily consider The Phantom of the Opera one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre, but it's certainly an excellent piece of entertainment, and it does several things very well. Perhaps most impressively, it gives the Phantom, a desperately lonely character, a musical language that conveys the duality of his sadness and fury in a way that words alone never could. The music is the key to understanding how and why these competing personality traits can exist within the one person. And the emotional experience of hearing that score is what opens up an audience to the ideas it explores and allows them to empathise with a person who, at the beginning of the show, is portrayed as a ruthless monster.

That a musical of this scale is able to speak in a language that can be easily understood by a broad diversity of people shouldn't be discounted. As far as any work of art can go to making the world a more empathetic, compassionate place (and that's unlikely to be as far as most of us would hope) The Phantom of the Opera probably isn't doing too badly.

I love daring, bold, genuinely radical theatre that aggressively shakes up its audience and forces you to consider the world in a way that can be massively uncomfortable and difficult (and there's no reason why musicals can't do all of these things). I love finding these works in tiny 30-seat venues, and I love that the people behind them will ruthlessly pursue their artistic goals, even if their work will only ever be seen by 100 people. Those artists are the true innovators and the bedrock of the arts, and should be consistently supported in those endeavours. And those are often the artists who dismiss musicals as meaningless.

But, arguably, a musical that is seen by tens of millions of people and subtly but clearly makes the obvious point that "people often become the monster society casts them as" matters more than a work making incisive, political points to a small audience.

If you're looking for the recent musicals which really "matter", the first place you'd start would be at Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home. The musical is the first on Broadway to feature a lesbian protagonist and deals with sexuality, broken families and suicide.
But to say that only works with such a serious subject and approach "matter" is reductive.

You don't need to look too far to find a musical that has something to say. Just because it sings its message and then wraps it up with sequins and ends with a kick-line doesn't mean it can't engage your mind as well as your heart. Musicals matter. They always have, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.