July 30, 2009KR BlogKR

The Musical as Irritant, Part III

For the past few weeks I’ve been blogging of musicals. Why they elicit such deep love and such ardent hate. Why their conventions are so irritating to so many. Why they’ve become such a stingily compartmentalized form, a “type” of theater that is so easily envisioned as plastic, faux, frothy, despite more and more fascinating contemporary hybrids. I’ve received many great responses from lovers and haters, and have been posting them here, in hopes of illuminating the weirdness of their legacy.

Let us close this discussion with words from Adrien-Alice Hansel, literary manager for the esteemed Actors’ Theater of Louisville; a musical-theater hater who wishes to remain anonymous; and my mother. Enjoy, and again, feel free to weigh into the conversation.

Everybody Cut Footloose


I think part of this whole complicated subject centers on the relationship between pleasure and intellectual credibility. Am I coolly ironic, deconstructing the image, its meaning, its cultural context and whatever visceral response I may or may not be having? Ok, minus some of that visceral stuff. But the pleasure of musicals–the pleasure of most music–is totally visceral and subject to suspicion (c.f. FOOTLOOSE, DIRTY DANCING, every other generationally aligned-story in which Those Crazy Kids and Their Music represent the life/sexual force.) I mean, am I getting hot at “76 Trombones”? That’s a little personal, as questions go. But even comedies can hide their desire for your pleasure a little more coolly than a musical (Noel Coward’s got class. Oscar Wilde’s got class. And, let’s be honest, if the music is a tonal enough, hard enough to enjoy, it might have a little class). But a musical? Forget about it. There’s no way to stay detached and not think it’s totally silly. It’s a mechanism for pleasure–familiar plot, hummable tunes, everybody dancing in sync pleasure. And until we flush the anti-intellectualism from our culture that WAY too many intellectually inclined folks have internalized as How To Be Taken Seriously In Response, it’s never going to be respectable to want to go to the theater to have a great time.


Now I’m all for breaking into song for no reason in real life, but not as a vehicle of literal communication. In the musical it usually is just that–the characters are literally singing something that the audience needs to know. It is almost always idiotic. It feels forced. No, more than FEELS forced, it IS forced. You can just imagine a writer coming up with a little ditty and then trying to fit all the pertinent information into the frame of the song.

Now I know that you know that I loved the comedy The Hangover. There is an initial deception–the slipping of the roofies–but that is BRILLIANT because NO ONE is in on the joke–not the audience, not the vicitms, not even the perpetrator. And the way in which they tell the story, where the worst has already happened, is more mystery that happens to be hilarious. This works. There is logic to it. They could have sung a random song and it would have been fine. But it would not have been fine to sing a song that went, “It is getting close to the wedding, what should we do? We’ve lost our friend, and our dignity, too. Oh why oh why did things go so wrong? Oh why oh why are we singing this song?”


I do not know why I so loved the old musicals but lots of people did – especially young girls I think. I think the stories were so full fo hope and joy that the music just added to the feeling. I am thinking of Oklahoma, Pajama Game, Guys and Dolls and even Carousel which was not very happy. They were so simple and uncomplicated. And then the actors were also so popular and kind of golden. Maybe it is just that we as a society are no longer so trusting and naive. For example, I have been listening to all the encomiums about Walter Cronkite and thinking that we fell for him so hard and there is no one today (except maybe Obama) that can inspire that kind of feeling.

Thanks to all who sent comments; and long live the musical.