Thoughts on Musicals

I don’t totally understand why I am drawn to musicals. But there is no question about it: I have the bug.

Part of its allure I think is that musicals deliver stories. Operas deliver singers. With operas stories are often secondary. The point of opera seems to me to usually be to showcase outstanding operatic voices. Occasionally we get wonderful soloists who can act convincingly as well as sing. But mostly when we see operas we have to substitute our imagination for acting. It’s the glorious power of voice or voices doing some difficult duets or arias that gets our goose bumps. But for the most part acting in operas leaves a lot to be desired and consequently many operas seem cartoonish.

Of course there are plenty of fluffy musicals where acting doesn’t matter in the least. But story almost always matters in musicals. Indeed musicals are often tuned and retuned to make for a compelling night of theater. The songs are designed to provide emotional impact to the part of the story being staged. Song and story must be intricately woven together for most musicals to succeed. If each does not support the other, the typical result is a flop.

Operas are usually staged for a couple weeks. Musicals, at least when first released, are designed to entertain us for months or years. Musicals are designed to attract wider audiences. To stay on Broadway for years a show needs to have a story with widespread appeal and catchy music. Consequently in musicals you are likely to hear many more repetitions on a theme than you will in opera. You should leave a musical with a few songs in your head. It’s quite possible to leave an opera with only the glorious remembrances of the voices, but being unable to recall any of the actual music.

In a musical it doesn’t matter too much whether the Jean Valjean of the moment has a good voice or a terrific voice. Terrific voices are always preferred but it is more important to be able to act convincingly than to have a stellar voice. In musicals the singing accentuates the emotional impact of the underlying story. That certainly can be true in opera and is in the best operas. However in operas the story doesn’t matter as much. Typically in operas a half dozen ideas are performed over and over again in different variations. Tragedy and the emotional turmoils of loves found and lost are often the common threads. In opera the overpowering voices tend to make subtlety difficult or impossible.

For millions of musical lovers a compelling story plus good music equals a satisfying night at the theater. In general the better the creators are at handling both aspects the more likely the musical will succeed. For example Les Miserables has a deeply satisfying story. What could be more satisfying that a variation of the Christ died on the Cross meme? However it would have been just another musical had not the music, lyrics and glorious, glorious orchestration been so compelling. While full of repetitious themes, the repetition is not overbearing. Bringing it together of course is the quality of the acting, directing and staging. The qualities of the voices in the role are really just the frosting on the cake.

Just as modern movies substitute computer-generated imagery for scenery, many modern musicals fall into the false belief that impressive sets and staging are also needed for a musical to succeed. Falling chandeliers and helicopters dropping from above stage give a certain flash in the pan, but don’t always succeed if the story is also not deeply engaging.

Making successful musicals though is a tricky business. There is a fine line between ideas that work and those that flop. When musicals flop it is usually because the story does not have broad enough appeal. The talent that gave us Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, for example, learned to take existing artistic works with compelling stories and wrap music around them. But they failed with Martin Guerre. The story was simply not compelling enough. The story of a man unable to consummate an arranged marriage simply does not engage us.

Some musicals have songs that are so wonderful you would think they would be enough to carry the plot through. Chess (1984) is such a musical. Brought to us by some of the same folks from Abba it is a wonderful mixture of a traditional and rock musical songs. But a story about chess champions is just not engaging. The timing didn’t work either. It came out just as the Cold War was ending. The Cold War was yesterday’s new. For any musical snob though Chess is one to buy and listen to over and over again. It’s too bad it failed on Broadway. (Some suggested if they had kept the London version it would have done well in America, since it did fine overseas.)

Musicals are a very long topic that I will have to revisit. But I would like to highlight three of my favorite musicals and encourage you to see them if they come by. Most musical aficionados have see Les Miserables. It’s my favorite musical. I have seen it three times. After nearly twenty years though even the touring companies can’t quite keep up its primal energy. But anyone who claims to like musicals must see it: it sets a standard I’m not sure any other modern musical has quite matched.

Ragtime is probably no longer on tour, but may be available in local productions. I hope it gets revived, even though it is fairly new as musicals go. How it lost the Tony to The Lion King is beyond me because it had all the elements that should have won it best musical except for the flashiness of The Lion King. With a good story you shouldn’t need flashiness.

If I had to pick a musical for best music I would pick a sleeper, the 1991 production of The Secret Garden. I have yet to see it staged and until I do I cannot give it an honest assessment. But I am looking forward to it since it is staged regularly. Most musicals rely on a lot of repetition, but it is nearly absent from The Secret Garden. With one or two exceptions each song is stellar and memorable.

Although I am sure I will get a lot of grief, I think Andrew Lloyd Weber’s post Evita musicals should be avoided. In particular I found both Phantom of the Opera and Cats grating. It’s okay to have a lovely theme, but it doesn’t have to be pounded into our heads ad naseum, as happens in Phantom of the Opera. Twenty years on Broadway suggests that I must be wrong, but to me it’s a perfect example of a musical high on infectious but extremely repetitious music but empty of content. I found the Phantom loathsome, and I found Christine both shallow and annoying. In short it is a musical full of stereotypes and special effects. Rather than being satisfying it fizzes like soda. My advice: just say no.

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