How I Learned to Enjoy Musicals

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I once remember watching a bit of My Fair Lady (1964) when I was little, and two parts of it stood out in my mind: “Why can’t a woman / Be more like a man?” and the whole “The rain in Spain / Stays mainly on the plain!” bit.  Of course, these are two of the moments where the characters spontaneously start singing, and I wasn’t having it.  I could accept it in animated Disney films, but when it came to a live-action film that was supposed to be realistic (unlike, say, Mary Poppins), I had issues.

Interestingly, I still carry a little bit of this bias.  I’m not as interested in musicals as I’m interested in straight plays and films.  (And I don’t watch Glee.)  There’s the fact that musicals are inherently unrealistic.  Who spontaneously bursts out into song?  Okay, there may be some people who do.  But, honestly, who spontaneously bursts out into song and choreographed dance – in a group?  That’s what has, mostly in the past, made musicals difficult for me to appreciate.

Nevertheless, I’ve learned to enjoy some musicals, and it’s helped me overcome some of the bias I hold against them.  I’ve seen live productions of Hairspray, Rent, Movin’ Out, My Fair Lady, Wicked, Grease, Sunshine on Leith, and On the Town, as well as film versions of a handful of others.  I’ve loved some, was able to enjoy some, and didn’t like some at all, which is similar to how I react to works of other media and styles.  Of the lot, my favorite is definitely Sunshine on Leith, an irresistible Scottish musical based on the music of The Proclamers; if it ever tours the United States, I will be first in line to see it.

What’s interesting about musicals is that, even though I find the musical numbers to be unrealistic, they are by far the best parts.  Although I’m not the biggest fan of Wicked, I’ll admit that the “Defying Gravity” number is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen.  And at the end of Sunshine on Leith, when the company bursts into, “And I will walk five hundred miles / And I will walk five hundred more…” and the audience starts singing and clapping along, you can’t help but get excited.

Unfortunately, however, sometimes, I think that this causes an imbalance, as the nonmusical bits often pale in comparison to the musical numbers.  Sometimes, when I’m watching a musical, I think, “Just starting singing, already!”  I have this feeling when I watch the YouTube sensations A Very Potter Musical and A Very Potter Sequel, two full-length musical parodies of the Harry Potter novels.  The musical numbers are simply fantastic, especially AVPM’s opener, “Goin’ Back to Hogwarts,” with its chorus, “Back to witches and wizards and magical beasts / To goblins and ghosts and some magical feasts…”  The talking parts have some memorable dialogue, but I never find myself rewatching them; they’re simply not as entertaining as the musical numbers.

But more importantly, musical numbers are a way for the musical to heighten the emotion of the story.  Two songs in A Very Potter Sequel – “To Have a Home” and “The Coolest Girl” – depict the emotional cores of, respectively, Harry and Hermione as First Years better than any monologues could have done.  And in Sunshine on Leith, when Jean sings the titular song, her anguish is all the more real.

And that’s when I enjoy a musical: when the music becomes an integral part of the story and helps heighten its emotions.  You can’t help but smile when you listen to “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “Summer Love.”  You can’t help but be moved when you listen to “On the Street Where You Live” and “Seasons of Love.”  Whatever the case, a good musical will make you fall in love with the story and its characters – and of course, leave a few tunes stuck in your head afterwards.

What are your thoughts on musicals?  Do you love them, or do you, like me, enjoy them despite a negative bias against them?

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