There are people I know, the identity of whom is not important here, who hate musicals.
Now, as they do in fact have beating hearts in their chests this surprises me somewhat. Stage musicals! What’s not to like? Do you also hate light and joy?
There’s a magical atmosphere about them, the same enchantment experienced in plays where the story unfolds before your eyes, in the same room as you in real time, as if you’ve been whisked away to its world. Musicals have that magic but with added pizzazz and flair. Going to see a musical is like going on a small holiday to a fabulous fantasy world.
One of these guys also remarks that expressing storyline and emotion through song takes the integrity away from it. I argue in opposition; I say song is an excellent way to tell a story and express the inner thoughts of characters, and musical motifs and theme tunes can add extra depth, foreshadowing and symbolism that you simply can’t get across in say, a book or graphic novel.
A song is an incredible tool, as rising voices and swelling notes convey emotion like nothing else can and resonate with an entire audience. Sad songs, angry songs, envious songs, love songs, ensemble numbers that add exposition and explanation on the setting, introduce characters and important plot twists… music creates an atmosphere that can’t be beaten. And later, you can sing along and feel even more connected to the characters and story you’ve come to love.
Another thing that makes the musical experience immensely fun is that a lot of them don’t take themselves too seriously (with obvious exceptions like Les Misérables… really, it’s all in the title) and exist purely to entertain. Viewer disbelief is willingly suspended as we accept that, as it’s playing out right in the same room as us, what we see isn’t real, and so musicals (and many plays, for that matter) play out with tongue often in cheek. Chicago, one of the longest running musicals on Broadway, opens with this:
Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery —all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.
And so it does, with very dark themes if you pause to consider them, and a cast full of self-concerned conniving assholes that kill people and manipulate the media and the justice system for their own gain—yet it is carried off on sequin-smattered dance routines and jazz show tunes, the atmosphere of the show being upbeat, spunky and comedic.
And at the climax, the court case is resolved by Billy Flynn, the silver-tongued lawyer defending the two vaudevillian murderesses (my lord that’s a mouthful), declaring that “Not everything is as it seems!” and tearing the clothes off a soprano character who turns out to be a man in drag. Does that make any sense in terms of a believable legal system? Or a believable world? No, of course it doesn’t, but it’s hilarious and melodramatic, as was the intention. (It may also be another bolt in the musical’s theme, which is the ridiculousness and corrupt nature of the media and court system, but maybe I’m reading too much into it)
A lot of musicals seem to deal with dark themes interwoven with upbeat attitude—look at some of the central themes of the most well-known and longest running shows: the lead-up to the death of Christ, the twisted perception of good and evil in a fantasy world, racism and segregation, tormented orphans in England, tormented orphans in America (orphans are clearly the best heroes), a deformed and vengeful musical genius… on it goes.
Perhaps the success of stage musicals lies in the fact that they can carry these themes and backdrops off with flair and humour, reassuring the audience that yes, it’s all ridiculous, and it’s going to be okay. Since Ancient Greece theatre has dared to laugh in the face of turmoil and encourage their audience to do the same, even if only for a night.
And film versions attempt to recreate this atmosphere, with varying degrees of success. Musical movies are often sink or swim, and I think that this is due largely to the director and company’s ability to capture that sensation of the magic of the theatre. We expect the fantastical on screen, but when it appears on stage it takes our breath away.
Plus, the tunes are catchy.