What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 1.

Ep1. Subjectitis

This is the moment, usually in Act Two, when it’s too soon to reach the story’s climax, and too late to introduce any characters or plot points.  So the characters are left sitting around, and the writers decide to elaborate on the themes of the evening.  In truly dreadful shows, they preach, but more often they indulge in subjectitis.

Many, many Australian musicals do this, but it seems cruel to point out any show in particular (really, things are tough enough), so I’ll improvise a typical example:

Madge and Amy are on the verandah, fanning themselves.  Chips enters and puts down his swag.

Madge: Hot, isn’t it Chips?

Chips: Aw, I don’t worry about that, Madge.  I got nothin’ to do until after dinner.

Amy: Me neither.

She sings. 

Amy:  What do you call it when the day is half over?

Your chores are done and you’re rollin’ in clover,

Every little swaggy and every strappin’ drover

Knows what time it is

The time that he can call his …

 

Madge and Chips join in the chorus.

 

All:  That’s afternoon, afternoon,

you’re happily too tired for

laughternoon.

Afternoon, afternoon,

Everybody from a cow to a

calfternoon

looks forward to the afternoon,

On his own behalfternoon …

Why It’s Wrong

  1. Nothing is happening. 
  2. Because nothing is happening, this number will have a protracted dance break in the middle.  Probably involving rakes.
  3. The plot is still – oh, so very still – but the writers have not used specific imagery.  No trains, no X-rays, goldfish or bay leaves, just bland, bland generalities.  This is particularly bad in plots involving love.  The heroine should be singing about eyebrows, missed phone calls and weekends in Bermagui, but instead she sings about love, love, feelings and relationships. 
  4. Without the benefits of something happening and specific imagery, the lyricist has been given free reign to indulge in all the little punning rhymes he wasn’t allowed to use anywhere else: ‘laughternoon’, ‘behalfternoon’.  When lyricists do this, husbands in the audience look at their watches.  I’ve seen it happen.

When It’s Allowed

  1. Never.  Make the plot move or shut up.
  2. Alright, if you must have an attack of subjectitis, at least add to it a bona fide star performance.  Now, I mean a star here, a star for the general public, not just for show queens, a line-around-the-block-ohmigod-it’s-her-touch-me-I’m-dreaming star.  The hot guy who plays the son?  Not enough.
  3. You know “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story?  How Maria sings about how pretty she feels, and how she’s in love?  That might seem like subjectitis, but the audience knows that the guy she loves just stuck her brother in the guts with a knife.  That’s some serious dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony and subtext are the only cures for subjectitis.
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