What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 4.

Ep4. – Writers who get in the way

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

The above is usually attributed to Frank Capra, but I suspect it was a pretty common sentiment in 1930s Hollywood; in any case, Capra could get very messagey when it suited him. Every writer succumbs once in a while, usually in the younger years, because the people, dammit, the people need to hear the truth.

It happens a lot in musicals. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the lure of a populist art form, with lots of educated, middle-class people sitting still and listening, lulled, sleepy, ready for indoctrination. That, and writers who, because the musical theatre is such a closed little world, truly believe we are the first to notice that people should be a bit nicer to each other.

It’s not necessarily bad to get all messagey, but there are accepted ways of going about it. Here they are.

Tell a kid

This is easy. Sometimes the kid is part of the storyline, as in Falsettos; when characters need to unburden, and make some of the evening’s points clear, they tell the kid, Jason, in the spirit of educating him. Jason, of course, wiser than his years, can usually be counted on to say something pert, and teach the grownups a little something about themselves.

Sometimes the kid is the hero’s younger self (see Nine, The Boy From Oz), so he’s useful for early scenes of optimism, and that all-important “What happened to you, man? What happened to our dreams?” scene, later.

If the main character is already a kid (Annie), give them a dog. Oliver! is an impressive exception to the rule.

Tell a dead person

These are usually parents or wives and they’re great fun, because your main character, alone onstage, is still addressing someone without breaking the fourth wall. Examples include the lovely ‘Mamma, Mamma’ from The Most Happy Fella, and Sweeney’s part in ‘Johanna (Quartet)’, from Sweeney Todd. Also Jesus, addressing God (OK, not technically dead, but still up in the sky), in ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar.

You can also bring a ghost onstage, and have them tell the characters Great Truths, as dead Billy Bigelow does in Carousel, and glowing white dead Fantine does in Les Miserables.

Put a Hat On a Supporting Character

The characters are discussing the Message of the Play, and wishing they could tell the People Who Need to Hear, who Aren’t Listening. So they slap a hat on one of their own and – hey presto! – he becomes Officer Krupke. Number ensues.

Dream Sequence!

These are helpful, if dated. You can show How Things Could Be (West Side Story), How Things Might Turn Out (Oklahoma!), How Things Used To Be (Follies, On a Clear Day), and – most messagey of all – How Things Truly Are Beneath The Surface (Follies again, and Lady in the Dark). In fact, Follies used dream sequences so well, it probably put the last nail in their collective coffin.

Have the chorus do it

Probably the least effective technique, but Brecht is usually cited as a precedent, and the chorus come downstage, point fingers and list all the faults we will nevertheless take home intact. Examples include “Bui Doi”, from Miss Saigon, the end of Sweeney Todd (the stage version), and far too much of Rent.

It’s when these tehniques are not employed that everything can go horribly wrong. Tim Rice really got it right in Superstar: Judas sings to Jesus when he wants to make his points. By the time of Evita, Che and Eva are bantering with each other about the way couples use each other (even though Che has no love interest); then, in the first version of Chess, The Russian and Florence sit and analyse their own scene to one another, while quoting Cole Porter. Awful.

I love Into The Woods, but I don’t need the witch (hot version) telling me at evening’s end how I should be careful the things I say, children will listen. I know, I get it, I was listening myself for the last two hours, and it’s a bit late if I wasn’t.

When my 20 min draft of The Happy Medium appeared at OzMade musicals in 2007, the audience filled in little feed-back slips, most of which, I’m happy to say, were really encouraging. But writers only remember the criticism: one person observed, accurately, that the show was preaching to the choir, and would probably never become a big, thumping, mainstream success. Guess what another wrote?  Well, there’s a song in the show called ‘Put it Back’, in which our hero is upbraided by two Brits for making changes to his performance in a Brit show; then our heroine is patronised by two Americans for improving the blocking of a scene in an American show. “Put it back, put it back, put it back,” they all sing, and this one feed-back slip read:

Where’s the message?

Maybe I should get a ghost to sing it.

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2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Too Many Musicals. Episode 4.

  1. Sweeney’s part in Johanna (quartet) … IS to Johanna. She’s not dead. She’s just temporarily in a mental institution at the moment, and not actually around. It might fit better into “tell a child”…

    Although on a side note, Johanna could possibly be going back to the self-same mental institution, since she does seem to have a genetic predospisition (both parents having gone loony) and has a couple of world-sized traumatic deaths to deal with by the end of the show. And she’s shot a bloke.

    • simbo, you do me the honour of reading my post thoroughly, and you point out an error, and you are absolutely right: it should go under “tell a child”.

      I also agree about Johanna’s mental health prospects. Perhaps Antony should have taken the Beggar Woman up on her offer when he had the chance.

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