How to Avoid Writing a ‘Commodity Musical’

Terry Teachout has written this incisive article about what he calls the ‘commodity musical’. Crucially, he doesn’t take issue with merely adapting movies into musicals, but instead targets those particular adaptations which, content to rest on the laurels of brand affection, add nothing to the source material, and feel ersatz from overture to finale.

I think there’s something we writers can do about it, very early in the process: don’t write these shows.

To help, here’s a rough flowchart I knocked up on the kitchen counter.

Commodity Musical flowchart

A brief demonstration, using a hypothetical stage musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’, because it’s one of the best screen rom-coms, and has lots of brand affection going for it.

A must-have moment

Sally’s fake orgasm scene in the diner.

Is it cinematic?

Yes, I think it is. Most of it relies on a quiet voice and small face movements at the beginning, climaxing (forgive me) in table-pounding and hair tossing. The deadpan reaction shots of Harry and the other diners are vital. A stage version would be possible, but necessarily very different.

So, a whole fake orgasm number?

Yes, that’s probably what a real stage adaptation would do, and it’s a bad idea. You don’t stretch out a joke like that over three minutes. See ‘He Vas My Boyfriend‘, from Young Frankenstein, for a number that steps on the tail of a great line, and stops the plot dead.

Can you top it?

Nope. You will never do better than “I’ll have what she’s having”. And it won’t be surprising, which it really was in 1989. Now it’s ubiquitous.

Could you just leave it out?

Sure, but think about what an audience is expecting. If this scene isn’t in the show, why are you even writing a musical of ‘When Harry Met Sally’?


The best thing about this thought process is that it takes less time than Sally’s pretend orgasm, and leaves you free to write something worthwhile.


Feeling the Feels

Last New Year’s Eve, the family visited a local community event, where a fairly adept wind ensemble played many nice tunes, including “I See the Light”, from Tangled. I have complained about the impossible blandness of this song in the past.

Then it occurred to me that, with a little effort, one might craft a Disney lovers’ ballad so generic, so bereft of identifying features, that it might thenceforth serve as a suitable ballad in every Disney film yet to be made.

So here it is. You’re welcome, songwriters.

What’s that? You’d like a piano/vocal chart, complete with boy/girl harmonies? Oh, alright.

On ‘Smash’, and Its Self-Defeating Terror of the Book Number

A quick recap: there are, I think, only two main characters in the musical theatre canon who are established with a prop song:

Sally Bowles – Cabaret

Velma Kelly – Chicago

And there are only two who are given a prop song as an 11 o’clock number:

Sally Bowles – Cabaret

Fanny Brice – Funny Girl


We both reached for the gun!

We both reached for the gun! (Photo credit: shari thompson)

In the case of Velma Kelly (left in the photo), she’s a vaudeville performer, and she announces the evening’s themes in a prop song called ‘All That Jazz’. While she’s putting over this nightclub routine, we in the audience meet the show’s other main character, Roxie Hart (on the right), who murders her lover and later lies to her husband about the man’s identity.

This is important: Velma is established as a fairly static character, happy with her lot (“Oh, I’m no-one’s wife, but oh, I love my life”), and the audience sees no reason not to believe her. Roxie, meanwhile, is restless, unsatisfied, longing to be on her way to somewhere. Despite all the tinkering that’s been done with Chicago over the years, this hasn’t changed: Velma refuses to become a character who wants and needs things, and changes over the course of the evening – even though she’s been given songs designed to achieve precisely that – because of how she was introduced in the first place.

The show’s 11 o’clock number, in terms of its running length, should be ‘Nowadays’, but only Roxie has an 11 o’clock number realisation available to her (namely, that fame is insubstantial, which Velma knew at the start of the show), and so the number functions instead as a kind of Brechtian summing-up of the night. Then Fosse, clever guy, pioneers the 11 o’clock prop dance, ‘Hot Honey Rag’, into which ‘Nowadays’ segues, and in which Velma and Roxie dance in perfect sync as one woman. This dance, not the song, is what lands with audiences – both Velma and Roxie’s fictional audience, and the real one watching the show.

As a static character, Velma could deliver the kind of 11 o’clock number that sums up the evening in satirical fashion, while showing that her character hasn’t changed. The Engineer gets such a song in Miss Saigon, and Fagin gets one in Oliver! The problem is that this number has already happened in Chicago: it’s ‘Razzle Dazzle’, and another static character, Billy Flynn, sings it earlier in Act Two.

So, spare a thought for Velma, established in spectacular fashion with a fantastic song, and then doomed to a slow decline in importance throughout the remainder of the show.



funny-girl-barbra-streisand-dvd-cover-art (Photo credit: ttom_thgwid)

Fanny (right of photo, no moustache) is not established with a prop song, but she welcomes 11 o’clock (or 10:30) with one: in the stage show, it’s ‘The Music That Makes Me Dance’, a number begun in rehearsal, but transformed midway into a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza. Fanny’s audience thinks she’s just performing a number, but we, the real audience, know that Fanny is singing about her newly incarcerated husband, Nicky Arnstein.

(In the movie of Funny Girl, Fanny’s last big sing is ‘My Man’, a song which the real Fanny Brice actually sang as a comedy piece. Barbra Streisand performs it as a torch song, and once again we, the viewers, know it’s really about Nicky.)


Sally Bowles

Sally Bowles (Photo credit: nglacrosse23)

Sally Bowles (on the right, not a chair) is truly extraordinary: she is introduced with a prop song (originally, ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, then ‘Mein Herr’ in the film, and after the Donmar Warehouse revival of the stage show, both numbers – two prop songs!), and she later sings the show’s 11 o’clock number, ‘Cabaret’, which is also a prop song. Sally’s Kit Kat Klub audience thinks she’s just doing her usual devil-may-care stage routine, but we know that she just had an abortion, without telling her boyfriend Cliff. This knowledge (plus don’t forget the Nazis), makes a lie of the song’s central thesis, that life is only a cabaret, old chum.

Fanny and Sally Don’t Really Make Sense

Both Cabaret and Funny Girl briefly get away with not making sense, and yet a thoughtful audience member might later wonder: Fanny is supposed to be a funny girl, but she’s singing a sad song? How was her fictional audience supposed to respond to that? They don’t know about hubby Nicky, do they? And wow, it’s pretty convenient that just the right song is waiting to be rehearsed at that point, isn’t it? I mean, she sings a hundred songs that are all goofy, and then this one pops up, a sad song. No-one says “Hey, Fanny, we’re gonna try a little something different, a torch song, you wanna?” It just happens.

And what about Sally? Did she really have a friend known as Elsie? Maybe she wrote this song herself for her nightclub act? Actually, we have no idea where her songs come from, and this one seems pretty damned specific to her current situation. Are her songs written for her? If they are, they’re written by someone really good – she should move in with that person, not the drip novelist Cliff.


And so to ‘Smash’, a show that is terrified of book numbers. Every song in ‘Smash’ is a prop song, not matter what level of contrivance this requires. Every number is really happening: a real song, being rehearsed or performed; or a cover, sung spontaneously but for real; or a vision, a Dennis Potter-esque dream sequence.

The show’s worst moments have sprung from this terror of book numbers: the sight of 13 year-olds gettin’ down to Florence and the Machine at a Bar Mitzvah, the cast of Bombshell “singing” Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Dance to the Music’ at a bowling alley, and (horror), a Bollywood dream sequence.

These aren’t just moments of delicious cringe. They are structurally fatal, because …

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

Look at how Karen and Ivy, the two main women in ‘Smash’, are presented in song in the pilot episode.  Karen sings ‘Over the Rainbow’ at an audition, but is interrupted. Ivy is in the chorus of ‘Heaven on Earth’, and is unfulfilled. Ivy sings for a demo recording of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’, from an in-progress Marilyn Monroe musical. Karen sings a truncated version of Christine Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ for her audition for that very show. Ivy performs ‘The National Pastime’ in a workshop session of the Marilyn musical, and Karen sings ‘Happy Birthday To You’, Marilyn-style, while letting Derek the director sexually harass her. Only the last of these adds to Karen or Ivy’s character, by showing that Karen can be slutty when it’s really important. As far as what these women want, and how they express themselves, viewers have to rely on dialogue. Then, at the episode’s climax, both women sing, for their respective callbacks, a full version of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’ (music by Marc Shaiman, lyric by Scott Whittman). Karen gets this:

Fade in on a girl
With a hunger for fame,
And a face and a name to remember.
The past fades away
Because as of this day,
Norma Jean’s gone.
She’s moving on.

Her smile and your fantasies play a duet
That will make you forget where you are.
The music starts playing,
It’s the beat of her heart saying,
“Let me be your star.”

This is Marilyn’s ‘I Want’ song from Bombshell and, we later learn, Bombshell‘s opening number. Julia Houston, the show’s book-writer, made it so by moving an index card – it’s that easy, folks.

Ivy gets this:

Flashback to a girl
With a song in her heart,
As she’s waiting to start the adventure.
The fire and drive
That make dreams come alive:
They fill her soul,
She’s in control.

The drama, the laughter, the tears just like pearls,
Well, they’re all in this girl’s repertoire.
It’s all for the taking,
And it’s magic we’ll be making –
Let me be your star.

After a bridge, about the past being past, the two women sing together:

Fade up on a star
With it all in her sights,
All the love and the lights
That surround her.
Some day she’ll think twice
Of the dues and the price
She’ll have to pay
But not today

Then she’ll do all she can
For the love of one man,
And for millions who look from afar.
And what you’ve been needing
Is all in my heart, pleading
Let me be your star!

This song tries to play it three ways, as an ‘I Want’ song for Marilyn, Karen and Ivy, simultaneously. This prevents it from being specific (remove the words ‘Norma Jean’, and this song could be about any girl trying to become a screen idol) or accurate (Norma Jean has a song in her heart? That great singer, Norma Jean? And who is this man Ivy will do all she can for?). Worse, it’s far too passive for characters we’re supposed to care about (“Let me be your star”? Really? How about “I Will Be Your Star”?), and perhaps worst of all, it concludes with an apparent arrival at stardom (“Fade up on a star / With it all in her sights”), followed by more passivity (she became a star so she could do it all for a man’s love? Are you kidding?).

This is not a song you give to a character who is going to change. This is a static character’s song. And sure enough, Karen and Ivy have struggled to change ever since. They’ve had characteristics forced upon them (Ivy later takes pills, for example), but without a book number they have never been established as characters in song, and without later book numbers they have no way to show how their characters have changed.

I don’t think the fault is purely Shaiman and Wittman’s, who were given the impossible task of writing a prop song that couldn’t be specific about the stage show it came from, and also couldn’t be specific about the characters who were singing it, yet had to function as a leitmotif underpinning all of Season One. Rather, it’s the fault of all of the show’s creators, for thinking that prop songs can do what book numbers can do, and for thinking that anyone can be Sally Bowles.

But so far, only Sally Bowles can be Sally Bowles.

On ‘Smash’, By Way of a Preamble … Part Two (11 o’clock Numbers)

In the last post, I proposed this:

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

I think it takes a book number to establish a great main character. The only exceptions I can think of are Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly – and I think there is a problem with Velma, which I’ll write about in the next post. But, in short, it’s this:

If you haven’t been established, you haven’t earned an 11 o’clock number.

A brief matter of terminology: to put it mildly, you’ll encounter some debate as to the definition of an 11 o’clock number, and this is because the meaning of the term has shifted. According to legend, a wardrobe person backstage noticed that the song “Oklahoma!”, in the show of the same name, always happened at 11pm – this is from the days when the curtain rose half an hour later, at 8:30pm – so “11 o’clock number” originally meant a big song just before the finale of a show, something to wake an audience up and send them home humming.

But nowadays the term is more often used to describe a central character’s emotional peak for the evening, a moment of great realisation or catharsis, just before the resolution of the plot. This would normally happen at around the same time, near the end of Act Two, and involve a satisfyingly big sing for the star involved.

Obviously (and thankfully), not every show has such a number, but these big solo payoff numbers often counterbalance an earlier ‘I Want song‘, used to introduce the main character to the audience. Hence:

Mamma Rose (Gypsy) – Rose’s Turn, in which it becomes clear that the desperate ambition we learned about in Some People has led to a complete breakdown.

Elphaba (Wicked) – No Good Deed, in which all of the grand plans and optimism of The Wizard and I have turned to shiz.

Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) – Superstar, in which Judas (who spent Heaven on Their Minds calling Jesus a mere man) admits that Jesus is a god, but strangely crap at his job.

Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) – So Long, Dearie, in which an angry Dolly discovers that her breezy meddling, announced in I Put My Hand In, has lost her the man she loves.

But what about the characters who are performers? Are their 11 o’clock numbers ever prop songs?

Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) doesn’t get the 11 o’clock number: that’s Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, led by Nicely Nicely Johnson. Some people think Marry the Man Today, which Adelaide sings with Sarah Brown, is an 11 o’clock number. These people are mad. In any case, neither is a prop song.

Christine Daaé (Phantom of the Opera) – I don’t think Phantom has an 11 o’clock number. Its dramatic climax is scored with reprises, as is Lloyd Webber’s (and many an opera’s) wont. Some will insist that The Point of No Return is Phantom’s 11 o’clock number (and it is a prop song), but I think there is far too much plot (and music) left to go before the curtain.

Nancy (Oliver!) doesn’t get the 11 o’clock number: that’s Reviewing the Situation, sung by Fagin. By this point, poor Nancy is dead. Nancy’s last big sing is As Long As He Needs Me, which is not a prop song.

In fact, 11 o’clock numbers are almost never prop songs, and with good reason: this is not a time to keep an audience at a distance, with a contrived, rehearsed performance that is, within its own dramatic context, already a contrived, rehearsed performance – a double act, if you will. No, this is the time to make an audience forget that they’re watching a manufactured thing. I know of two and a half exceptions: Fanny Brice, Sally Bowles and (the half) Velma Kelly.

Fanny and Sally both succeed because of dramatic irony, and both of them, upon later consideration, make no sense. Velma makes sense, but I don’t think she quite succeeds.

Next post: Fanny, Sally, Velma and ‘Smash’.

(Yes, it has taken me this long to get to ‘Smash’, the second season of which has debuted to disastrous ratings. I’ll attempt to write about it before it goes off the air.)

On ‘Smash’, By Way of a Preamble … Part One

I think Bob Fosse started it all when he cut the book numbers from the movie version of Cabaret.

Cabaret the stage show has, of course, book numbers – those non-diegetic numbers, the ones that spring out of nowhere – the kind chiefly responsible for audience members who groan, “Oh, no, it’s a musical.” In Cabaret‘s stage version, they’re Why Should I Wake Up, Perfectly Marvellous, What Would You Do?, and so on – all cut from the film.

Non-book numbers, diegetic songs, or (useful term, this) prop songs, are much easier for those groaning audience members to handle. After all, there’s the band, and that girl is really singing, for real. The onscreen audience hears her just as you, the viewer, do. And the dialogue usually has subtle set-up lines like:

Perky Guy: Hey, remember that number we used to do in the old days?

Perky Girl: Oh, that old thing? Nobody wants to hear that

Assembled Throng: Yes we do, go on, oh please etc.

Once the song’s real nature has been established, audiences are usually prepared to forgive all sorts of unreal things: where did those strings come from? How does the band know the chords? Anyone who worries about this sort of thing too much shouldn’t be watching musicals, just as pedants about the laws of physics should avoid action flicks.

Jerome Robbins, after seeing a final rehearsal of Cabaret onstage, apparently suggested that all the numbers outside the Kit-Kat club be removed. Fosse, smart man, did almost exactly that for the film, and the new songs written for the film (Money, Maybe This Time) were prop songs too. The only number outside the Kit-Kat club is Tomorrow Belongs to Me, which was always a prop song.

Three years after the film of Cabaret, the stage version of Chicago (Kander, Ebb and Fosse again) was originally presented as a vaudeville, complete with A Master of Ceremonies to introduce each act. When Rob Marshall staged the movie version as Roxie Hart’s fantasy, he sidestepped the groan-problem with the original show’s book-numbers-done-as-vaudeville-turns by making them all prop songs, complete with proscenium arches and lighting changes, all taking place inside Roxie’s head. How does everyone instantly know their lyrics and dance moves? Because Roxie is imagining this as a song, and Roxie is cuckoo as a Swiss clock, that’s how.

So far so good, except for one thing which hit me at the start of the year, while I was watching the first episode of Smash:

The greatest numbers in the history of musical theatre are non-diegetic.

or, put another way:

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

I can think of only two exceptions, and they are Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly, from – natch – Cabaret and Chicago.

Allow me to demonstrate, with ten great (as in hugely successful) musical theatre characters, in no particular order, and the songs that make them great. Often, these are the songs that introduce them to the audience:

Fantine (Les Miserables) – I Dreamed a Dream

Prof Harold Hill (The Music Man) – Ya Got Trouble

Maria (The Sound of Music) – The Sound of Music

Erik, the Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera) – The Phantom of the Opera

Mamma Rose (Gypsy) – Some People

Elphaba (Wicked) – The Wizard and I

Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) – Heaven on Their Minds

Mrs Lovett (Sweeney Todd) – The Worst Pies in London

Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) – I Put My Hand In

Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) – Tradition, or If I Were a Rich Man

Not one of these is a prop song. But then again, not one of these characters is a performer. What about characters who are singers?

Miss Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) – her first song is a prop song (Pet Me Poppa or Take Back Your Mink, depending on which version you’re watching – [EDIT: please see gentlemanly correction from Richard Biever below]), but it’s Adelaide’s Lament that establishes her character. A great character, too.

Christine Daaé (The Phantom of the Opera) – her first song is Think of Me, a prop song, followed by Angel of Music, which establishes her character. Such as it is.

Fanny Brice (Funny Girl) – I’m the Greatest Star, which is not a prop song.

Nancy (Oliver!) – Nancy is given to performing the odd prop song in a pub (Oom Pah Pah), but she is introduced with It’s a Fine Life, which is not a prop song (in the stage show – it became one in the film).

Any male singers in musicals? Not many. An awful lot of actors in musicals, and plenty of writers and hoofers. Joey Evans, from Pal Joey, is a nightclub singer, and he is introduced with a prop song, You Mustn’t Kick It Around (“if my heart gets in your hair” writes Larry Hart, cruelly sticking it to lesser lyricists), but Joey’s character is established with a book number, I Could Write a Book. Hey, a number about books which is a book number!

Where am I headed with all this? Well, I contend that the musicals, historically, do not establish great characters with prop songs. And among the many (many) problems of Smash, about to begin its second season, this is the biggest.

(Musicals also, historically, do not farewell great characters with eleven o’clock numbers that are prop songs. Which is the subject of the next post.)

On Writing a Marilyn Musical – A Different Take

Fifty Cent Soul

English: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell putti...

Lights up on a man, riding a woman. She is on all fours, dressed in lingerie. He is wearing a shirt and tie, and apparently nothing else. The man is Chicago mob boss SAM GIANCANA, and the woman is MARILYN MONROE.

“Bobby, you’re next!” sings SAM, while he slaps playfully at MARILYN with a riding crop. BOBBY KENNEDY, smoking pensively in the corner, says nothing.

“As unresponsive as a fossil!” sings MARILYN, in a surprisingly full soprano. This is an actual quotation, and that’s all she’ll sing, all night: fragments of things she really said.

BOBBY pushes SAM off MARILYN, and tries to kiss her.

“Lipstick and mascara and precocious curves,” sings MARILYN, running away from him, “as unresponsive as a fossil!”

BOBBY slaps her, and returns angrily to his corner. Another blonde woman enters, and comforts MARILYN. This is JEAN HARLOW.

“Machinery is going to take the place of every profession,” sings JEAN.

“As unresponsive as a fossil,” sings MARILYN.

SAM tries to grope both women. Then JANE RUSSELL enters, and shoots BOBBY KENNEDY dead.

All three women face the audience, get down on all fours, and press their palms into wet cement squares at the edge of the stage. “Jane/Jean/Norma Jean,” they chant while SAM rides them, one after the other.

Pros: This freewheeling, grab-bag approach to the culture surrounding Monroe allows a writer tremendous scope, and can avoid all those straightjacketing bio-fiction cliches.

Cons: An indulgent and shallow approach like this can be clever, but usually that’s all it can be. Me, personally?  I’d thoroughly enjoy this night. But in terms of writing the show that appears in Smash – a big, glossy, mainstream Broadway show – this is cheating. It would never get enough backers.

On Writing a Marilyn Musical – An Opening Number, Take Two

A second suggestion for a Marilyn Monroe opening number, and the kind of show it promises:

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

Marilyn: I Am the Blonde

Lights up on a funeral scene. Three men stand before a casket, their backs to the audience. We never really knew her, they sing. We tried to save her, they sing.

The first man, JOE DIMAGGIO, turns to tell the audience about the nice girl ruined by fame. A MARILYN appears and sings with him – they argue about USO shows and skirt-blowing in public.

The second man, ARTHUR MILLER, turns to tell the audience of the intellectually curious but troubled actress he knew. ANOTHER MARILYN appears with him, and together they sing, arguing about infidelity and drugs.

The third man tells JOE and ARTHUR how wrong they are. Who is he? they ask. He is JAMES DOUGHERTY, Marilyn’s first husband, and he was the love of her life, he says. A third Marilyn (a pretty brunette named NORMA JEAN) appears, and she and JAMES argue about modelling. All the Marilyns and all the men sing and dance together. It was thrilling, it was fun, they sing. It was maddening, it was wild, they sing. But none of us really knew her, sing the men. And none of us could save her. Everyone leaves the stage, except for NORMA JEAN, who has decided to dye her hair.

Pros: Tries to make a virtue of Monroe’s many contradictory natures. This is what the evening will be about.

Cons: Slightly less obvious than the first effort, but still pretty damn by-the-numbers.

On Writing a Marilyn Musical – An Opening Number

Writers much more accomplished than I have pointed it out: the opening number is vital to a musical’s success or failure. It tells the audience what the evening is to be about, and it has to tell the truth. If it’s satirical, the show, overall, needs to be satirical too. If it’s earnest, then a more or less earnest evening has been promised to the audience. Break that promise at your peril.

Some suggestions, then, for a Marilyn Monroe opening number, and the kind of show it promises:

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

Marilyn! The Musical

Lights up on the set of Some Like it Hot. Everyone is waiting for MARILYN to arrive. She is late. JACK LEMMON and TONY CURTIS sing about how she drives them crazy, but boy, she sure can deliver. BILLY WILDER sings about how talented she is, but only he can really see it. MARILYN arrives, all flustered and vulnerable, apologises, and everyone forgives her. She nails her scenes in one take. Everyone applauds and sings about how beautiful she is. ARTHUR MILLER arrives to take MARILYN to a late lunch, and she sings about she wants to get away for a break, just the two of them. A FAN stops MARILYN for an autograph, and asks her for some career advice. Flashback to her childhood.

Pros: Exactly what everyone is expecting from a Marilyn Monroe musical.

Cons: Exactly what everyone is expecting from a Marilyn Monroe musical.

On Writing a Marilyn Musical

I’ve been watching Smash, because it’s trashy and fun. And, like many viewers, I’ve been saying “Wait. They’re auditioning without a script?” and “Hang on, who’s writing the book for this thing?”

Fair enough, Smash is a fantasy, and watching writers at work on a script is incredibly tedious. But the show has glossed over the near-impossibility of writing a decent musical about Marilyn Monroe. The characters of Julia and Tom, Broadway’s hottest songwriting couple, know that Monroe has been the subject of past flops, but they talked themselves out of that problem in the first episode with a hastily staged baseball number (also, incidentally, a feature of more flops than hits), and since then it’s been all systems go.

I’m going to take the task seriously, and really try to write an outline (as in place the scenes and songs) for a Marilyn musical.

First, Some Objections

1. Her story doesn’t sing.

From President Kennedy's birthday gala where M...

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t mean it isn’t easy to place songs – it’s too easy, thanks to Monroe’s musical comedies, and her serenading of JFK in that breathless, highly imitable voice (go on, imagine listening to it all night). No, her story doesn’t sing, in that her life doesn’t have a single dramatic focus. Like many film actresses, she went from one project to another. Some films did well, others not. Husbands appeared. Husbands left. Her story is not like that in Evita: girl is born in poverty, sleeps her way upwards, gets married, grows powerful, becomes a paradox, dies of cancer. The only way to give Marilyn Monroe’s life a single dramatic focus is to, well, give her a single dramatic focus. We’re familiar with all the possibilities that offers, and that leads to the next objection.

2. We know too much. Way too much.

The strength of Evita is that she’s not a figure in popular culture. And if she is, it’s because of the musical. Monroe, on the other hand, is exhausted, and exhausting. We know about foster homes, abuse, early divorce, pin-ups, hair dye, the walk, the voice, bras in bed, more divorce, Strasbergs, barbiturates, lateness, Tony Curtis, Hitler, Kennedys, Sinatra, gangsters, death. We know it all, and it’s all been arranged in order to make sense so many times that even the ways of telling it are overly familiar: Marilyn Wanted to be Taken Seriously. Marilyn Just Wanted True Love. Marilyn Was a Proto-Feminist Victim of the System. Marilyn Was Trying to Please Daddy. All of which lead me to the biggest objection of all.


This is, for me, why most stories of artists and showbiz types don’t work as bio-fiction. We spend the first hour watching them trying to get famous. They do pretty much whatever it takes. Why can’t the world see what they got? Then the world sees it! They’re famous! They’re beloved! But still not happy. The last hour is spent listening to them whine about how fame wasn’t what they expected. And I think: shut up, you brat. Get a real problem. If you hate it so much, retire. Take photographs of dogs. Care for the elderly. Become a swimming teacher. Because all non-showbiz lives are just as valid as yours, you pampered little wuss.

With those objections in mind, I’m still going to take a crack at it.

On a Thing a Guy Said During a Bit in the Oscars

I was wrong. Randy Newman won.

Far more interesting (and more interesting than if I’d been right) was a remark made during a montage.

It was one of those beautifully-edited and mixed Oscar retrospectives, designed to highlight the awfulness of this year’s Best Song nominees. “My Heart Will Go On” began to play, and a unidentified man was heard to remark something to this effect:

When my Dad was going through his heart surgery, that song was around, and my mom sang it all the time.

This means, unidentified man, that your mom is quite lovely.

The song is a turd.

That’s what Amanda’s line, from Private Lives, refers to: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. It doesn’t mean that cheap music is powerful. It means that humans are wonderful, able to find solace and emotion in whatever music is around them, no matter how tawdry. It means that music is wonderful; even its meanest examples can offer that solace.

Meanwhile, the job of songwriters is to present less tawdry options. That guy’s mom deserves it.