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Why a Musical? (Thoughts on Chapter 2)

March 16, 2012

No, it’s not a line from a Marx Brothers movie. It’s a reasonable question for anyone writing in the genre. What can a musical give us that a drama or comedy can’t? On the surface there is no difference; great theater is great theater. But music heightens and enhances the emotions the show and the actors seek to evoke in the audience. It’s why Allen Cohen and I agreed from the start on a fundamental premise in Chapter 2, that “the essence of musical theater is the representation of human emotions onstage, and the evocation of emotions in the audience, through the union of drama and music” (page 16).

It’s not enough, we wrote, to have the desire to write a show and to have an idea. That idea has to be able to work as a musical. Adding music into the equation should enhance a story but it could just as easily kill it, not only if the music and lyrics aren’t good enough, but also if the idea isn’t. Does the story, in other words, “sing”?

This leads to the inevitable question of what makes a story (or concept) suitable for a musical. There are no hard and fast rules. A musical whose main character is a serial killer who assists in the cannibalization of his victims as fodder (so to speak) for a musical would be unlikely, right? Yet, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is considered to be one of Stephen Sondheim’s best shows. Okay then, how about a show that is sure to be a big hit because it was a hit movie and before that a very popular book, like say, Carrie? Ummm, not so much. (The first attempt at producing the show was by all accounts a disaster. The latest incarnation repairs much of the damage but apparently not enough. We’ll see.) So, just how do you determine what could work?

If you examine the most successfully written shows (as opposed to just the most commercially successful ones), one thing you’ll find that most have in common is that they have lead characters with whom we can, at least on some level, empathize. Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is, on one hand, a cardboard cut-out of a character; but as we observe and get to know him we learn to understand — and feel — his need to be free and his willingness to do just about anything toward fulfilling that end.

It’s also why every attempt so far to create a good musical based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and every other vampire-centric musical) has ultimately failed. Vampires, certainly Stoker’s, are pure malevolence with no redeeming aspects whatsoever. Dracula in particular is an unnatural force of Nature, one who leaves the story unchanged from his first entrance. There is no reason to care for him, to empathize with him, or certainly to root for him. He starts and ends unrepentantly as a vampire. He can not “grow” as a character.

Now contrast Dracula with the aforementioned Sweeney Todd. Sweeney is a deranged serial killer who, with the instigation and assistance of Mrs. Lovett, turns his victims into meat pies. On paper he’s as bad as Dracula. But. We get to learn his story and how he wound up this way and back in London, and we watch as he becomes completely unhinged. Despite the fact that any one of us would run away as fast as we could if we saw him a block away, calling 911 as we did, we still wind up feeling something for him. He may not be a tragic hero in the traditional sense, but he comes close. (Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler really play with our minds in this show; we wind up rooting for Sweeney and determining the Judge to be the villain. Ah, the magic of theater, able to show us the many gray areas in life.)

So-called “jukebox musicals” (I prefer “cover musicals” for shows that use pre-existing, usually pop, songs with a story contrived around them) have a particularly hard time of being successful because of the need for empathetic lead characters and a solid story line. When the main reason for a show is to showcase pre-existing songs and isn’t a revue, that show had better have a great story to tell and strong (that is, empathetic) characters. Without both, such musicals are just concerts with scenery and costumes — sort of like the use of Stonehenge in the movie This is Spinal Tap. (Revues can have their own problems, but that’s a topic for another time.)

As I write this I can only think of three jukebox/cover musicals that work: Mamma Mia!Jersey Boys, and Moving Out. Each uses a unique solution to the problem (Mamma Mia! uses a traditional story format; Jersey Boys tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Season itself with their songs commenting on the action as it happens; and Moving Out acknowledges the nature of Billy Joel’s wonderful songs by having them performed concert-style above the telling of a story on the main stage, in dance), but they all have strong characters for whom we can, and do, care.

We creators of musical theater can, do, and indeed need to find the emotional core in, or extrapolate the emotional core from, the stories we tell and the lead characters we present. Lerner and Loewe figured this when they turned George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmallion into the musical My Fair Lady. The play is not any sort of a love story (but the film version, scripted by Shaw himself, hints at it). Perhaps Lerner and Loewe took their cue from the film, but they did find it and utilize it effectively. The emotional core can be found in anything from fairy tales to great novels, but whether it “sings” or not is up to us.

©2012 Steven L. Rosenhaus

One Comment
  1. Hello Steven! Good, coherent, approachable article. I liked it. Bravo!

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