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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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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
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    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
  • 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
  • There are plenty of operatic forms that contain spoken words. Carmen is a prominent example. – user207421 Jun 11 '16 at 6:15
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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:

Opera:

  • 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

Megamusical:

  • 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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