This distinction is becoming clearer in my mind when solving musical theater and opera problems. I ask myself, is the solution dramatic or musical?
When I’m faced with a phrasing problem, is the answer dramatic or musical? When I’m faced with a problem of motivating a movement onstage, is that a dramatic or musical problem? When I’m singing out of tune, or my rhythm isn’t right, is that a dramatic or a musical problem?
I think the answers to those are easy, but let’s make it harder. How do I make this phrase more impactful to the audience? With a dramatic or a musical choice? When I’m singing with a group, and we in concert must create an atmosphere, is that a dramatic or musical problem? When the scene isn’t quite working, are stronger dramatic or musical choices required?
Dramatic choices come from our humanity. They come from our emotional core. They are the primal scream. They are the first love. They are the wound that gnaws. They are our charms.
Musical choices are abstract. They exist within the aspects of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, dynamics). What exactly they represent is still unclear, and yet they can move us. They require mechanical precision to create an abstract and musical result.
Everything musical theater exists within a tug of war between these two poles, and different pieces and characters will be balanced differently. Mama Rose? Balanced towards dramatic. Madama Butterfly? Balanced towards musical.
Even in recital, you have dramatic and musical choice. Ignore either at your peril.
Ask yourself when stuck creatively if the next step requires bolder dramatic or musical choices, and then make them.