July 8, 2009KR BlogKR

The Musical as Irritant

Oh, those Jets!

Say the word “musical” in a mixed group of friends: what do you get back in response? When I tell people I’m writing one, I usually get either excited smiles or thinly veiled disgust… they’re one of those things that people either love passionately or hate with the fire of a thousand suns.

Depending on my audience, I sometimes try to soften negative response by saying I’m writing “a play with music” or a piece of “music theater”, but I always feel guilty when I do that. What I’m writing is a musical. Out of the blue, people break into song. By the time I’m done with it they might even dance. And I find it a little dumb that I’m embarrassed to admit it.

Intellectuals and downtown theater artists have put the genre through the ringer since the 60’s, seeing in it the antithesis of “real” theater; and to some degree, the genre has absolutely deserved it. In his fascinating study of the form called “The Musical as Drama”, Scott McMillin suggests that this is due to the vast commercial power of pop music. Book writers got lazy with the text from the get-go, as essentially they were writing vehicles for catchy, marketable tunes and easy-sell performers. Who gives a crap if the book is any good? Let’s get to the next song! Interestingly, somewhere along the way Broadway (/Disney) producers quit using contemporary pop to sell their shows, opting instead to hang onto “musical” music (for some reason) while turning to massive spectacle and stories transplanted root and branch from their kids’-movie sources to generate their behemoth profits. Same end, different means.

Although I vigorously hate the commercial impulse behind mega-musicals and the toll it takes on their quality as pieces of theater, I vigorously love the form. I love that there exists a kind of theater in which people suddenly and impossibly sing to music we all pretend is not there! I love that people suddenly just start dancing; they can’t seem to help it, they get so excited by the music, so swept up in the emotion of the moment! Something that NEVER happens in real life is now, onstage, suddenly happening! All in a single moment! How awesome is that?

And yet, this is the very locus of many musical haters’ disgust, once you probe beyond dislike of a particular show’s music, or the tendency of the form toward lazilly-written books. It’s the sudden shift from speaking to song that these haters just can’t get on board with: “It’s so– fake. Totally artificial. People don’t do that.”

What the hell? Since when was theater responsible for representing objective reality? And doesn’t every kind of theater play by its own rules? Look at comedy: The madcap situations, the over-the-top idiocy of the exaggerated characters, even the actors’ pausing for laughter before moving on to the next line, is nothing if not artificial– and yet I’ve never heard someone respond to the genre with the same disdain. “Oh, I HATE comedy! It’s so unrealistic!”

So what’s going on? Why does this unapologetic shift from dialogue to melody seem to offend people? I really don’t know. Because what’s evoking this charged is simply a set of conventions in a particular subgenre. Every type of theater has them; and interestingly, in scores of contemporary plays and ensemble works these days, you see similar, hyper-sudden mid-scene shifts from the realistic to the impossible or absurd — it’s all the rage– not to mention the gestural “dance breaks” (a la Siti Company) that occur in so much downtown theater. Why is that cutting-edge, while breaking into song is completely uncool?

Nature Theater of Oklahoma

When you step back a little, the conventions of theater in general, in which a group of people sit in the dark, all facing the same way, completely silent, and watch people make themselves laugh and shout and cry and pretend to be other people, are pretty weird. I mean, whatever else it is, theater is pretending; it’s fake. It is the nature of the form. It’s just that we’re so used to those conventions that they fade into invisibility. Why don’t those of the American musical? Aren’t we used to it by now?

For the next couple of weeks I’m going to seek out some opinions on why the musical is so irritating as a form to so many people. I will periodically report on what I find, as I work away on my own play with music.

I mean MUSICAL. I’m writing a MUSICAL, dammit. A musical.