DISCOURSE TIME: musicals????
Over a long career of making fun of theater kids, I have learned the following: people who love musicals don't understand how some people can hate them, and people who hate musicals don't understand how some people can love them. I wanna dig into that a little bit.
Now just to expose my bias from the get-go, I do not like musicals. I struggle to sit through them, actually. But, I can understand why they exist, and why they are so important to a lot of people. Also, just for simplicity's sake, I'm gonna ignore the difference between on-screen and on-stage productions (mostly cause I don't know enough about the details of either to write about them intelligently). I'm just gonna call them all "shows"
HOUSEKEEPING COMPLETE. LET US BEGIN.
We are all familiar with the escape vs interpretation theory of media consumption, and we are familiar with the two types of show that necessarily follow from that. The problem is the relative diversity within these two broad categories.
Escape shows are untethered to reality, and so their authors can set them any in any old world they can think of, and fill those worlds with whatever kind of vibrant shit piques their fancy. Space operas, fantasy epics, and dystopian thrillers (just to name a few) all share some bones in terms of how the story is built, but in the details they present themselves to the audience as beautifully rich and distinct. Star Wars and Star Trek are really not that different. Sure, they explore slightly different themes and deal with different scales, but at the end of the day they are both swashbuckling adventures in which found families travel through space, trying to learn enough to survive. But they hit different for their audiences because their trappings are different (warp vs hyperspace, phasers vs blasters, Kirk vs Anakin, Obi-Wan vs Picard).
Interpretive shows have the opposite problem. The structure of the different stories told in interpretive media vary hugely, but due to the need for the audience to see their own experience in and identify with the protagonist's struggle, the trappings always stay the same. No matter if you are telling a story about a mother and daughter reconnecting after a family tragedy or a single man fighting a two-front war against crippling loneliness and a cancer diagnosis, the bulk of your interpretive show is going to be characters having intense conversations in dark rooms. Maybe they will have an intense conversation in the car. If the author is really wild they might chuck in an intense conversation at a wedding or a funeral. Or a diner.
I know I'm oversimplifying here, but I'm trying to speak in generalizations, and you know what they say about eggs and omlettes.
This is where musicals come in. Musicals create a loophole through which a show can still tell a moving, intimate, and very human story, while also allowing the audience the luxury of a little bit of spectacle. Musicals get to exist in the liminal space between escape and interpretation. If you have the choice of 3 different shows about sad white teen boys trying to figure out what a girl is and how to talk to one, you will probably be picking the one with the dance number. At least, you will if you are a certain type of person.
The musical's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: its bipole nature is by definition noncommittal. If you are sitting down after a long dreary day and looking for a show to give you a good think, you are likely left underwhelmed when a tense and emotionally complex narrative gets interrupted by the main character jumping up onto a cafeteria table to sing for 3-5 minutes about how unloved they feel. Whatever happened to "show, don't tell?"
On the other side, maybe you like spectacle. Maybe after a long tiring day, you're just looking for some showbiz, babeyyy. In that case, when the protagonist climbs down off the table and resumes gloomily eating their tray lunch, you will likely be full of energy and wondering where to put it all.
A musical is a compromise. Some people like compromises. Some people just think of compromises as compromised. An interpretive musical will always be more escapist than an interpretive show.
All this is not to say that escapist musicals don't exist, they definitely do, but I think that escapist musicals are even more escapist than escapist shows, which puts them in a separate conversation. When you go to see Grease, you know what you are getting into and you know what you want. An escapist musical isn't a compromise, it's an extreme.
But back to my point. I think this huge rift of understanding between the musical-lovers and the musical-haters comes down to a difference in the relative value each group places on self-consistency vs entertainment. I've heard a lot of haters say that musicals are "unrealistic" and that's why we can't really sit down and appreciate one. The lovers invariably respond to this with "like elves and magic and spaceships and lasers are realistic??? what are you even talking about???"
Both of these people are missing the point. Realism is an inherently vague term when talking about fictional realities. Does "realistic" mean "what is taking place in this fictional reality could take place in our reality" or does it mean "what is taking place in this fictional reality follows the rules created by that fiction"? To avoid this, I will use the term "self-consistency" to mean the latter definition. Musicals ARE realistic, usually. They take place in a world we recognize, with trappings we recognize, and tell stories about characters we can relate to (Cats nonwithstanding). Musicals ARE NOT self-consistent, in that they do not follow the rules that they themselves set up. The main character stands on the table, crooning mournfully, but the rest of the fictional world moves around them, unaware. In this moment that they exist a little less in their reality, they exist a little more in ours. They straddle the fourth wall for 3-5 minutes and sing to the audience, then step back across to safe territory. The song ends and suddenly the character fully exists in their own reality again, maybe receiving weird looks from their classmates cause they are standing on a table.
This is the lack of "realism" that me and a lot of others who can't stand musicals take issue with. I understand why it happens, and I understand why people enjoy it, but I personally consider self-consistency to be the foundation of good writing, and don't really have time for an author that doesn't care to stick to the rules they set. It completely undercuts the stakes. A moment ago, I was worried about the lonely protagonist. I was wondering what was going to happen to them, hoping that they would pluck up the courage to send that risky text to their crush or whatever. Now, watching them standing on the table and singing, I am unceremoniously ripped out of the narrative and shoved back into my body. I'm not empathizing with someone as I watch them struggle with loneliness and self-confidence, just like I struggled with loneliness and self-confidence. I'm watching a very well-paid Jiulliard-educated pretty boy PRETEND to struggle with loneliness. I am watching him stand on a table and sing a vapid song full of overused lyrical tropes and milquetoast chord progressions, making a one-dimensional showbiz mockery of people who actually have lived the shit he is gonna get famous off of pretending to suffer through. I'm not invested in the narrative anymore, I'm just sitting here watching a show, wondering what else I could be doing instead of waiting for this cornucopia of corniness to end.
I'm letting my bias out. Sorry. I know that from a different perspective, the fact that the realism of the narrative is punctuated with the spectacle of the song is empowering rather than reductive. It allows you to understand your own life with a bit more of a sense of grandeur and passion. You feel less exhausted by feeling everything so intensely, emboldened by the knowledge that other people also feel so much that they could get up on the table and sing about it. I know that these stories mean a lot to some people, and I don't want to minimize them.
Imma really need all you theater geeks to stop telling me "that I just haven't seen the right one yet" or "c'mon I just KNOW you'll LOVE Hamilton." You are a carnivore trying to convince a vegetarian that they are gonna just love this wagyu. No, I don't think I will. We have fundamental differences in what we want out of this experience, and I actively DO NOT want out of it what you DO want out of it. If I actually do sit down and watch your favorite musical with you, I most likely won't enjoy it, and we will be left in that awkward moment in which you have made yourself vulnerable and shared something important to you, only for me to respond with stutters, trying to assure you that I enjoyed spending the time with you even though I was waiting for the show to end.
When I say "I don't like musicals," I'm not saying "I think all musicals are shit. I think everything you like is shit. I hate you, actually." You don't need to defend yourself or the stories that are important to you. You don't need to try and convert me cause you're sure I'll thank you later.
Let's just like different things, and be ok with that.