In Defence of Musical Theatre

‘Are you sure you don’t want to see Cats?’ I ask R.  It’s being performed in Sydney for a limited season, and I’m keen to get tickets.

 He looks me dead in the eye. ‘Surer than I am of my own sexuality,’ he replies. OK, so he’s pretty sure then.

I’ve tried in vain to talk him round. ‘The lyrics are by Eliot,’ I’ve pointed out. ‘T.S. Eliot – you know, the Nobel Prize winner.’ He remains unmoved, however.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by his obstinate stance: R doesn’t like musicals. Indeed, on our first date he openly expressed the view that musicals – as in all musicals, without exception – were ‘shit’ and that one day modern science would be able to isolate the gene that produced them.

In hindsight, this is probably the most positive comment he’s ever made about them.

R's personal view of Hell

A few days after I broach the Cats question, we have dinner with my Mum and Dad in a local Italian restaurant. We meet at our house first, giving them a chance to spend some quality time with the cat before we eat.

Like all new cat owners, R and I labour under the illusion that all our acquaintances are as besotted with the cat as we ourselves are (ie. endlessly fascinated by anecdotes about her fondness for drinking from untended water glasses and the adorable way she claws the carpet when we get home from work.)

My Dad is actually quite fond of Fina – he admires her camouflage coat in particular – but Mum didn’t wholly take to her at first. She’s more of a dog person, and she found Fina skittish, undemonstrative and shifty. ‘She’s got funny eyes,’ she commented when they first met. ‘Yellowish – evil-looking’ – which can’t have been very pleasant for Fina to hear.

She began to warm to her over time though. It was her habit of hiding in hessian shopping bags which did it mostly (Fina’s habit that is – not my mother’s.)

On this particular night, she and Fina are engaged in a stare-off: Mum looking at the cat appraisingly and the cat looking back at her unblinkingly, her lambent green eyes and neat triangular ears the only things visible above the rim of her hessian bag. ‘You know, she looks like a character from the musical Cats,’ Mum says suddenly, breaking the tension.

I can hear what R is thinking, although his face remains perfectly expressionless: ‘She’s a cat. Of course she looks like a character from Cats.’ He’s also wondering if he should have probed more deeply into my family background before we moved in together – in particular, to see if there was any history of mental illness on the maternal side.

‘Yes, she looks like that little orange and brown cat,’ Dad agrees.

‘The Rum Tum Tugger,’ I volunteer. R looks aghast – not only at the name, which manages to simultaneously evoke alcohol, obesity and masturbation in his mind, but at the fact that both Dad and I immediately know what Mum is talking about.

The Rum Tum Tugger...

...and Fina: separated at birth?

My family likes musicals, you see. When I was growing up, we used to listen to them at home and in the car on long trips. Andrew Lloyd Webber, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter… Les Miserables was probably our favourite though. At one time, I knew the complete score word for word and would sing it when I couldn’t get to sleep at night. It beat counting sheep.

Our favourite song in it was one that most people  will probably know – ‘Master of the House’, a jaunty, rollicking tune about a corrupt innkeeper, Thenardier. In the first half of the song, Thenardier waxes lyrical about his many virtues including honesty, hospitality, and affability. The second half of the song is narrated from the more jaundiced perspective of his wife and includes the lyrics: ‘Master of the house / Isn’t worth me spit / Comforter, philosopher and lifelong shit.’

One of the favourite pastimes of my brother and I during long trips was to wait until Mum and Dad got out of the car to stretch their legs, fast forward the Les Mis tape to just after the ‘comforter, philosopher’ part then wait with baited breath for ‘shit’ to explode throughout the car when the engine started again. (Not literally of course – just the word. Otherwise it would have been horrific.) We found this hilarious.

R did not come from a family like this, however, and so did not have our refined appreciation for the musical theatre genre.

‘So, we better get to the restaurant before it fills up!’ he says now in a hearty, and somewhat desperate, tone of voice.

We go to the restaurant and the evening proceeds smoothly at first. The waitress is pleasant, the pizza is good, and the wine is cheap enough for Dad and I, yet not so close to turpentine that R refuses to drink it.  

Then Mum and I again find reason to mention musicals. My family are all Gershwin fans and I’d seen that a local theatre company was doing a production of Crazy for You. I’d left it until the day before opening night to try and book tickets and so had been unable to get any. ‘I can’t believe we missed out!’ I lament.

‘I know!’ agonises Mum. ‘I only saw it advertised after the season had finished. I could have kicked myself!’

‘They’re doing Crazy for You?’ Dad suddenly pipes up, not having been following the conversation. ‘That’s got some fantastic numbers in it! We should book some tickets and all go together!’ R looks at us all uncertainly, unable to believe that we’re not being sarcastic. I’m sure that if his chair had had an emergency eject button, at that moment he would be hurtling happily into the stratosphere. Lacking that option, he starts frantically signalling the waiter to bring another bottle of wine in the vain hope that in the morning he’ll be able to pass this entire conversation off as a horrible drunken delusion.

Deep down, I realise that it’s highly improbable that we will ever share a love of musicals, no matter how many times I sing ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ ostensibly to entertain the cat, but really in the vain hope that R will be struck by the delightfully whimsical lyrics. The  likelihood of R suggesting we celebrate our anniversary with a Wicked theatre and dinner package, or relieving the tedium of a long car trip with a little bit of Fiddler on the Roof, is about as great as me getting a job in an abattoir or Fina being appointed to the UN Security Council.  I will never stumble upon him dancing around the kitchen like Peter Allen while belting out tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar – in fact, despite his Catholic upbringing, I can more easily imagine him belting Jesus himself.  

Even though I understand it’s futile then, I still feel obligated to say a few words in the defence of musicals. So (clearing her throat portentously and shuffling her notes about on the podium): the general perception of musicals is that they’re sentimental, saccharine, vacuous and naive. This is not musicals though – this is pop music. How many songs are there in the charts today expressing vapid ‘we’re gonna be together forever’-type emotions in excruciatingly bad rhyme accompanied by lots of wringing of hands, pounding on chests and teary heartfelt looks? The singers take themselves so seriously!

Musicals – the best musicals at least – are completely different to this, however. They are insightful, emotionally engaging and real. They are also knowing, self-reflective, and conscious of their own sentimentality. Unlike, say, opera, they never get carried away by an avalanche of inflated feelings: when they deal with hyperbolic emotion, they tend to ironise it rather than falling victim to it. Each time they make a shamelessly romantic utterance, they do it with a wink. ‘Yes, I’m being foolish and sentimental,’ they say, ‘but aren’t we all?’

They don’t allow themselves to be coerced by the strictures of rhyme and metre either. Their approach to lyrics is fundamentally playful: they delight in puns, in-jokes, and deliberately bad or clunky rhymes, unlike pop songs which never seem to realise how very embarrassing their lyrics actually are.

I was going to prove my point with 10 examples of great tunes from musicals, but in the end I decided I only needed one: ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ by Rodgers and Hart. It’s probably my favourite song of all time; a great song to listen to when you’re completely besotted with someone, know it’s going nowhere, yet just want to revel in the experience anyway. It’s both smart and ingenuous, cynical and dreamy, worldly and romantic all at the same time: ‘I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again.’ It’s sexy – incredibly sexy for its time – with those gorgeous, swooning melodies and lyrics that are frank about the heady force of lust: ‘I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, until I had slept where I shouldn’t sleep.’ It’s funny too, with that dry, sardonic Lauren Bacall quality: ‘Horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best.’ Most of all though, it’s a kind song, telling you that it’s ok to make the same mistake again and again – we all do – and it’s even kind of lovely.

Listen to it alone by candlelight on a summer’s night with a bottle of red wine. Then tell me you still don’t like musicals.


About bakersdaughterwrites

What to say? I’m a 30-something year old woman from Sydney notorious for changing her mind. I have a cat named Seraphina Nightingale, whic
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3 Responses to In Defence of Musical Theatre

  1. Richard says:

    Alone: check
    Candlelight: check
    Red Wine: check
    Musicals: still excrable

  2. But the season, Richard – it’s Winter and I specified a Summer’s night. Try it again in January – I’m sure you’ll feel differently then. PS. I have booked tickets for Westside Story.

  3. RubyTwoShoes says:

    I like it when you shifted gear and got right into analyzing the musical genre – you have really thought about it! And you made some exciting points, which made me esp happy that I am going to see West Side Story next week!
    I love what R said about isolating the gene responsible for producing them though, hilarious.

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