I should love musicals. It takes two of my favourite things, music and film, and puts them together. But I'm not a glutton - I don't want ice cream lobbed on my medium rare steak. Some things are best left as far from each other as possible.
I hate musicals and it's a hate that goes beyond the regular, ho-hum, straight back and sides kind of hate reserved for Adam Sandler comedies and sprouts. I hate musicals with a passion, so much so that I once almost - almost! - joined in a debate on an internet forum about it, which is probably the most useless thing anyone can do. Of course there are good musicals but these are usually the ones with their tongues firmly in cheek, sending up the silliness of it all - Grease, Hairspray, Cry Baby, South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut - or could by just a marvel of filmmaking, like Singin' In The Rain (Debbie Reynolds annoys me, however). I've also paid money to see the off Broadway production of the Muppet-esque Avenue Q (it was my first time in New York - you got to go see a play, right?). The jukebox musical, bar Greek-based one that was set to the music of Abba (I can't bring myself to name that travesty) can be occasionally entertaining if only for clunky way they've incorporated the lyrics of Foreigner into the dialogue.
But it's when musicals ask the audience to do more than smile that the problems begin. The musical wants to have its cake and eat it - it wants the audience to be emotionally invested in the story, to be exhilarated by the fun peaks and also to take to heart the dramatic lows. It's the latter where it all falls apart. It's impossible to be moved by a musical's more emotional moments. How am I supposed to get involved with the Von Trapp's flight from the Nazis if they're prone to sing at the drop of a hat? If they're not alarmed then why am I supposed to be? Being emotionally invested in a musical is akin to being annoyed that your favourite professional wrestler lost an important match.
The first thing the musical hater states is that it would never happen in real life - your friends (and everyone in the vicinity) have never, in a moment of crisis, burst into song and tap-danced their way to better times - but I don't buy into that. Musicals aren't real life and don't pretend to be. And being a sci-fi fan I'm aware that a suspension of disbelief is needed for the entire enterprise to work. BUT sci-fi movies establish their own reality and - this is what is important - stick with it (there are no aliens in Bladerunner. There are no ghosts in Star Wa - oh. Wait. Ehhhhh…) Musicals, however, veer from their own reality (the dramatic storyline) and the song-and-dance-number (fantasy) and back again, all the while asking the audience to forget reality while the cast exercise their lungs, and then forget the fantasy when it gets down to the business of the story. Either sing all the time or don't at all. Don't at all preferably.
The musical is a contradiction. It wants you to enjoy the songs but for it to work, dramatically speaking, it asks you at the same time to ignore the song's existence. It has to. You can't pretend to get locked into a story as it reaches its climax if they're just going to highlight it's all nonsense at a crucial moment by bloody singing. So this ignore/acknowledge battle goes on throughout, pulling you in both directions at once. Then there are the counterpoint duets - not only am I being asked to enjoy the song and ignore it at the same time, I'm also asked to concentrate on two different lyrics sung simultaneously. I'm tired thinking about it.
And why are they singing? ‘It's a musical, you idiot!' might be your first response but that's no comeback. Even dense b-rate action movies find a reason, however tenuous, for Chuck Norris to beat up on some ‘terrorist' from Derkaderkastan. And what is the character being sung at thinking? Why are they just standing there, waiting around for this obviously insane person who has just burst into song for no reason to finish? Why doesn't anyone say, ‘What the fuck was all that about?' when they do finally stop warbling on. Are they pretending they aren't singing? Are the audience and the singer privy to the song's existence but all the other characters aren't? Did they just hear all that singing in dialogue form but we were allowed to witness the emotional outpouring through the medium of song, like a musical voiceover? Maybe, but that doesn't explain when passers-by join in, mimicking the singer's dance moves in an impossibly choreographed sequence.
And when they do start singing, I'm bored. I'm stuck there waiting for these cringey three minutes to end. Cringey? Yes, I somehow get embarrassed for those on screen (out of curiosity, do musical fans get bored during the downtime between songs?) The songs themselves are an issue too. Advancing the plot is a rare thing - they usually tell us something we already know (Anne Hathaway is really upset in Les Mis. No, she's reaaaaaally upset) or are tough to follow (Christina Aguilera's shouty vowel style in Burlesque - what is that girl on about?). Must of the time I just tune out and wait for the story to kick off again.
But what I hate most about musicals is something down to my own stupidity (but I like to think it's wishful thinking). You see, I occasionally forget I'm watching a musical. Ridiculous, right? There might be a stretch for ten or fifteen minutes where there's nary a song to be heard and I begin to hope … but then Julie Andrews starts twirling in a field again and the rage returns.
By Gavin Burke.