We all have friends or family members who – 10 minutes into a movie, when the first character opens his or her mouth to sing – exclaim, “Ugh, I didn’t know this was a musical!” as if the movie had suddenly deceived them.
“I don’t like musicals!” they cry, swatting the popcorn bowl from their lap and onto the floor as they cross their arms and pout. “This was a good movie until they started singing! Hrumph!”
Okay, so maybe I’m being dramatic, but I’m writing about theater, so cut me a break. I find that folks who take a staunch position against musicals often don’t think past their initial arguments, so I’d like to examine a few of those reasons, apply them to other genres and see if we can’t find a better starting point when we talk about the media we consume.
The number-one follow-up I’ve heard to “I don’t like musicals” is that people don’t just break into song and dance in their everyday lives. It’s unrealistic, so it takes the viewer out of the experience.
I’ve usually found, though, that people aren’t as upset when Tony Stark steps into his Iron Man armor and flies through the sky, despite people not normally behaving like that in real life. Therefore, I’d posit that if you enjoy sci-fi and fantasy stories, seeing a character suddenly do something “unrealistic” – whether breaking into song or flying – is not the reason you dislike musicals. If realism is the most important part of a story to you, then you’d be better off saying you don’t like fiction, and that’s a better argument to have.
I’ve also heard that people don’t like musicals because the plot is constantly interrupted by the singing, and the story would be better off without the music. If this were the case, I’d argue that the musicals you’re watching aren’t very good. A song should always serve to advance the plot of the musical, so much so that if any one song were removed from the show, it would become unintelligible. If you can remove a song and the story doesn’t change at all, that isn’t a very good song to include in a musical.
Let’s step back to the first point to examine it a little further. If you don’t like musicals because the characters suddenly break into song – though I’d say that one of the hallmarks of a good musical is effective musical transitions from speaking to singing – we should examine why the music exists in the narrative in the first place.
One of the oldest adages in musical theater is that when the emotions grow too big for words, you sing. The music opens the door to the characters’ emotions in a way that dialogue often fails to do.
This holds true for more than musicals, however, because the same idea can be applied to every other genre of film and theater. For instance, consider a scene in an action movie when two characters, diametrically opposed, meet to discuss the central conflict of the narrative. They start calmly enough, state their side of the argument for which of them should overcome the other, and then, when the emotions grow too big for words, they start punching. In a horror movie, when the emotion – the suspense – builds so much that the audience can’t take it anymore, the scare happens. In a romance, when the romantic tension grows too strong, the lovers finally kiss, and so on.
The central mechanism that defines each genre is brought forth when words fail to capture the emotion any further. Musicals are all about exploring the emotions of the characters because music is an intrinsically emotional medium, and therefore the only way to truly get to the heart of a character’s intentions is through song.
Finally, I’ve also heard the argument that musicals are all the same story, but with different details. I could argue that’s true for every genre: All adventure movies are the same but take place in different settings; all Westerns are the same but use different horses, and the like.
But musicals are distinctive in that they can have different narrative and musical genres as well. Hamilton is historical fiction and hip-hop. Sweeney Todd is a horror story and an opera whereas Little Shop of Horrors is horror and ’80s pop. Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a musical adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that mixes Russian folk music and electronic dance music, for cryin’ out loud!
So the next time you hear people say they don’t like musicals, kindly remind them that they haven’t liked the musicals they’ve seen so far, and then show them Hamilton. Because everyone likes Hamilton.