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I've seen multiple works from Andrew Lloyd Webber referred to as "musicals" in some sources, and "rock operas" in others. For most people it seems the two terms are completely interchangeable.

Is there a clean definition and distinction between the two?

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This question appears to be off-topic because it is not directly about Music Practice and Performance. It is better suited for the Music Fan SE when it gets to beta: – Dom Jul 16 '14 at 19:06
@Dom: What is that for? We have tons like questions about terminology, genres, etc. This question is definitely not off topic. – Lee White Jul 16 '14 at 19:12
@LeeWhite I see a question that is way better fit for the Music Fan SE then this one since it is about identifying the differences between two styles of music. At this rate the Music Fan SE beta will come out in a few months and we will have to decide what goes on one site and what goes on the other. I like this question, I just think it fits better there. – Dom Jul 16 '14 at 20:03
Sure. So are you going to go through all those questions with 20+ upvotes and have them closed as off topic as well? Besides, if they're better for Music Fan SE, then just migrate them once Music Fan SE comes out. – Lee White Jul 16 '14 at 20:05
The key to me is that all rock operas end up with a fight against totalitarian oppression. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be. – Dave Jacoby Jul 16 '14 at 20:13

The key difference between a musical and an opera is that a musical contains spoken word. While a musical alternates singing with "regular" acting, an opera's story is completely conveyed through singing. Of course, an opera may have a few spoken lines here and there, and a musical may have a very high singing versus speaking ratio. You can already tell what I'm getting at: the line between opera and musical is sometimes fairly thin. And as usual when the distinction between two words is a little bit vague, these two words start being used interchangeably, and often not in a correct manner.

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Doesn't it have anything to do with style? I always guessed that more orchestral music and arias belong to operas and more "pop-music style" simpler vocals belong to musicals. Is the distinction really based only on singing/speaking ratio? – vsz Jul 16 '14 at 18:58
Musicals are often more accessible, which comes along with pop music indeed. But opera in itself says nothing about the music you can expect to hear. Pink Floyd's "The Wall", for instance, is a rock opera, but an opera nonetheless. Operas and musicals can come in any music genre. – Lee White Jul 16 '14 at 19:09
Never thought about it that way before, but it's an excellent explanation. Thanks! – Bradd Szonye Jul 16 '14 at 22:21
Agreed, operas and musicals can come in different styles. But 'rock opera' would suggest the music to be loosely in the genre of rock. I think this is an obvious part of the answer to the question: there are many pre-rock musicals and perhaps also some more contemporary that aren't happily labelled as rock music. Or is the question only about the difference between opera and musical as the answer above would suggest? – PeterBjuhr Jul 17 '14 at 8:04
In which case, we need to distinguish between "musical" and "rock musical," which should be easy: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers vs. Jersey Boys. :-) – Carl Witthoft Jul 17 '14 at 12:09

Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals are significantly different from 'golden age' musicals of the 40's and 50's. You call such pieces is rock opera, but this is probably not the most accurate term as it more often refers to a musical album with connecting narrative through the songs (and no element of staging). Thus, I prefer (and will be using) the term megamusical instead.

Here are the key differences between these different genres - opera, musicals, and megamusicals:


  • typically through-sung
  • typically not electronically amplified
  • typically part of the classical music tradition and singing style
  • typically performed in original language (at least in the USA)

Musical theater:

  • typically has substantial dialogue
  • typically electronically amplified
  • typically part of the popular music tradition and singing style
  • typically performed in language of audience


  • through-sung (like an opera in this respect with little to no spoken dialogue)
  • typically electronically amplified
  • typically part of the popular music tradition and singing style
  • typically performed in language of audience

In addition, megamusicals tend to also have the following characteristics that further differentiate them from other musicals:

  • sweeping/epic in scope and story
  • usually a historical subject or setting
  • typically very dramatic and comedy has a relatively smaller presence
  • complicated/expensive sets (often with a unique, novel feature like the chandelier in Phantom)
  • generally has a significant marketing aspect (recognizable logo, advertising, etc.)

In short, a megamusical is bigger than a musical in just about all respects. Shows like Jesus Christ Superstar (probably the first megamusical), Cats, Phantom, Les Mis, et al. are all part of the musical tradition, but got a little closer to opera as they became bigger and grander. Of course, there are exceptions as these categories are not rigid proscriptions but rather descriptions of common trends.

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