I have loved musical theater since I was a little girl obsessed with watching movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and Annie over and over. I watched those movies so often that I memorized the accompanying commercials. I’ve studied musicals seriously over the intervening years, as a vocalist and performer, as a composer, as a critical audience member, and as a musical director.
I’ve noticed that my associations with musical theater are very different from those of many people I encounter. I often don’t mention my interest, and when I do, it’s even odds whether my companion’s eyes will glaze over, or he’ll try to change the subject, or worst of all, she’ll make a derisive comment. About musical theater. To ME. Musical theater has gotten a bad rap, and ignorance is rampant about much that moves and interests me about musicals.
Not every musical is an Oklahoma!, with energetic grinning and almost insanely enthusiastic dance numbers that consist of singing about the weather (and once you’re aware of the historic connotations of Oklahoma!, it’s a lot easier to take the aggressive cheerfulness). Not every musical is a puff piece of finely spun sugar that melts in your mouth, leaving nothing of meaning behind. Not every musical is overwrought rock opera from the 80s. Not that I have anything against any of these types of musicals. I enjoy and am interested in musical theater of all shades. But.
Not all musical theater is created equal.
My very favorite type of musical theater may or may not feature any dancing. It often consists of a fairly small cast. There may or may not be fancy lighting or other technical derring-do; in my musicals of choice, the spectacle of the experience is not the point of focus. I tend to adore musicals that have something to say and say it with passion. I look for deep characterization and a satisfying narrative arc. I want lyrics that are both clever and true, and music that drives home the themes of the piece. My goal is to take something away after the show that has nothing to do with a snatch of a tune to hum for the next month.
Musicals are a form of performance art, and like the best theater, are capable of teaching us about ourselves and the world around us. They make us feel, they make us question, and they make us wonder. My favorite musicals will linger with me for months, or in many cases, my entire life. Yes, musicals do feature characters who spontaneously burst into song (unless it’s through-sung like opera), but if done well, the music can harness the emotions of the character and present them in a visceral and memorable fashion. If done by a master, the music can actually both cause and illustrate character development.
This post is the beginning of a series I plan to write and publish every Tuesday for the next month or so, discussing each of my favorite modern musicals (I currently have four), all of which were written and produced in the 1990s and 2000s. I’ll be talking a small amount about the music and lyrics, but my main focus is going to be on the narrative and thematic ambitions of each piece.
For now, if you’re a musical theater buff, what shows are your favorites? And if you’re not, what is your general impression of musicals? Do you like Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” or “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”, or are all musicals equally anathema to you? Weigh in and let me know!