So recently I went to see Moana in cinemas. I loved it, and you might hear more about it from me soon. Anyway, it prompted me to think about the reasons I love musicals. Not everybody likes musicals and it’s always somewhat baffled me. I understand it from a taste perspective but I think that there’s a musical for everyone who loves music.
For me, I think that my love of musicals was founded early. We used to own a CD of the musical Les Misérables until it was stolen because we used to live in a bad area of town. I vaguely remember being devastated at the loss of that CD, so I must’ve enjoyed it. Why did we own a Les Mis CD? My dad was often involved in theatre in my hometown when I was young (So well known that I’m often introduced as his son, which can get a little irritating when you’re trying to forge your own legacy). As my siblings and I got older all bar one of us entered the theatre scene. Anyway, as a result of this, I went to see many theatre shows when I was young. I have vague memories of Oklahoma, Les Miserables, and Jesus Christ Superstar in my head; as well as some more concrete memories of the Producers, and Cabaret.
There’s also the other element of my childhood, an element that I have in common with many people my age: the Disney Renaissance. You might not know that name but you’re probably familiar with works created during that time. The Disney Renaissance was the period from 1989’s The Little Mermaid to 1999’s Tarzan and the films contained within. It was named the Renaissance because it represented not only a creative explosion during that time but also propelled Disney to new heights with hit after hit. All of these hits during this time were musicals, and I loved them. Many of my age adore these films and remember any one of them as one of their favourite movies. I recall watching Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King repeatedly to the point of being able to quote each film’s opening from memory.
So, that’s a brief recollection of my history with musicals, but I feel there’s something deeper to my love of musicals. I’m going to attempt to explain it. There are a few elements that I believe contribute to the appeal of musicals. So, the first is about moments. People remember the great moments (it’s why some people think BvS was a good movie). Moments are what are often referred to in screenwriting courses as the turning points of a scene. Scenes, good scenes, anyway are about characters exchanging power. Turning points are those exchanges of power, and they create powerful moments. The turning points I like most are those moments where all the conflicts of the characters are revealed and the protagonist is abandoned by their friends (this moment usually happens at the end of Act 2). I like these moments because, if the movie does them particularly well, you engage with the heartache of the character as they confront the core problem with their character. It’s that moment, that exchange of power, where the hero, in order to regain their power, must confront their failings. Then there’s the moment when they realise that they can overcome their problem if they change their mindset (there’s a moment in Moana that I adored that was exactly this moment mentioned above. Now there are two things about musicals that heighten this particular moment at the end of Act 2 that I mentioned.
The first is exclusive to stage musicals, and it’s a quality shared with plays. So, if you’ve ever been to the theatre you might have encountered an intermission. An intermission occurs roughly halfway through a show and serves a few practical purposes. The audience can stand up, grab a drink, and talk about what they just saw. The backstage crew can change the set into a totally different set to wow the audience when the curtain opens again. The leads can have a considerable break and change if necessary.
However, out of these practicalities spawned an interesting situation. This is the second quality that heightens that moment mentioned above. You’ve got an audience who are going to be separated from the performance for 20 minutes. Narratively, this opens an opportunity. Like a TV two-parter, you can end on a cliff hanger. You can impress the audience and leave wondering what will happen next. Now, the part of musicals that can be more impactful than a straight play is the fact that you have a song. Songs do stuff to our emotions, so using this you can craft a perfect moment of suspense combined with a song that plays with the audience. Consider the climatic song of Les Miserables’ Act 1 Finale: One More Day. One More Day is the culmination of everything you’ve seen in Act 1. The ex-prisoner fears his recapture by the law. The new lovers fear their separation. The smitten friend fears the rejection of her love. The students prepare for an uprising. The lawman prepares to fight the uprising. The opportunistic thieves prepare to loot the losing side of the uprising. All of them sing of tomorrow, each with their own goal and motivation. And as the song crescendos and the whole ensemble sings in unison on the last note. Boom! Curtains. Now you, like the characters, have to wait to see what happens. That’s the moment that musicals create.
Another thing that makes me love musicals is their ability to capture emotions. For musicals to exist one has to accept the characters bursting into song at any time. This is often a bugbear of some who don’t like musicals, but there’s more to it than that. Musicals have to create that space where bursting into song makes sense. It doesn’t have to make sense on a practical level, just on an emotional level. That’s why characters burst into song. It’s a very precise moment by the writers for the characters to reveal themselves through song. Songs in musicals are just like those moments I was discussing earlier. They’re about power. They are a singular moment given time to breathe and be explored. Duets are particularly good for this. For example, Next to Normal’s I Am the One (Reprise). In it, the father of a family must confront the fact that his wife is leaving him to find herself. He then confronts the spirit of their dead son who has been haunting his wife for most of the show. He realises that he hasn’t fully gotten over his son’s death. The song is his realisation of that, with another actor representing his son, tormenting him. The exchange of power is resolved when they both recognise each other and the father faces his son’s death. This moment could be a short film on its own or could be glossed over with a few shots in a masterful film, but the musical extends it and confronts the emotional in a heightened reality.
The songs that make up musicals are crafted in the same way as any other song. They might contain character or narrative that fits in with the rest of the show, but they are still songs. It’s like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy Stardust chronicles the story of Ziggy Stardust, a rock star destroyed by his fame, and the band overshadowed by their more successful fellow musician. Bowie weaves the narrative of Ziggy across the song but the song also has an emotional centre. There’s a mournfulness to the song, as you hear of Ziggy being torn apart, literally, by his fans. This detail is followed by the line ‘Ziggy played guitar…’ which fades slowly. Someone more adept at music could probably explain why Bowie chose certain notes to amplify the emotion, but I’m sure you’ve experienced a song like Ziggy Stardust where the melody of the song amplified the lyrics. It’s the same with musicals. Every part of writing a scene is present in the songs of musicals (character, setting, plot), and every time you hear the song you’re transported back to that moment in the show. That’s why I love musicals.