So we’ve come at last to the final week of my first ever themed month. This has been a fun little experiment, and I’m sure I’ll do more themed months in the future, but for now, I’ll be honest, I’m looking forward to going back to a variety of types of content.
And since I’m being so honest, I’ll tell you something else – I had no ideas at all for what I wanted this week’s post to be. I had made my plans for this month banking on the fact that October would have four Sundays. But oops! It has five. So while I had plans for all four of the posts leading up to this one, this last week remained kind of a question mark. Until I thought… duh. I’ve talked up and down all this month about specific musicals and songs from musicals I liked, but I haven’t really talked about what it is about musicals in general that is so appealing.
And I think that really is an important thing to consider when looking at musicals. It’s a unique genre with it’s own unique rules and quirks, and I think it’s definitely worth going into.
So what makes musicals so good? Well… the music, obviously.
I don’t think this is a wild, earth-shattering revelation. It’s the music that sets a musical apart from a stage play. It’s the music that has lent musicals the reputation of being unabashedly unrealistic (How many times have you seen the “why do we burst into song out of nowhere?” joke repeated ad nauseum about them?) And it’s the music that makes musicals appealing, at least for me.
Music is a very powerful tool of storytelling. Believe me, I’m a big fan of the storytelling power of music; see my post all about it. So I think that’s one of the biggest draws of musicals for me. It utilizes the storytelling power of music in a way that is incredibly literal and often really fascinating.
And while, yes, music from musicals can often be really straightforward as to how to tells story through music (usually through people just singing about whatever is happening or about whatever they’re feeling), there’s also a lot of potential to add in a lot of depth and nuance just through how the songs are performed, or written, or composed.
Take for example “Natasha & Bolkonskys” from “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” This song song tells the literal tale of main character Natasha going to meet her fiance’s family for the first time. It’s obvious just from the dialogue that the visit does not go well, but more depth is added to the dynamic between Natasha and her future sister-in-law, Mary, just in the way their notes clash on the “Constrained and strained” lyric. The audience can understand that Mary and Natasha don’t particularly like each other, but through this musical clue, they can also understand why they don’t like each other. They come from fundamentally different places in life, and have clashing perspectives that cannot be reconciled without a change of perspective. Thus, the notes they choose to sing literally clash just as their worldviews do.
But that’s a pretty straightforward use of music to tell the audience key details about the characters. How about something a little more abstract? Consider Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton.” Her big solo number and the introduction to her character is “Satisfied”, where we learn about her short-lived relationship with Alexander Hamilton before she more or less gave him up to her sister. What’s interesting about this song, though, is the fast-paced rapping Angelica does. Rapping in “Hamilton” tends to clue the audience into the character’s revolutionary attitudes, so the fact that Angelica has the rapping ability to rival Alexander’s, it lets the audience in on the fact that she is his intellectual equal. Compare that to her sister’s songs, entirely sung and not rapped, and the fundamental intellectual difference between the two women is clear. (Not insulting Eliza at all, as she’s my favorite character, but she’s definitely less of a revolutionary/intellectual.)
But there are even more interesting ways to tell stories using musical conventions. Consider the reprise. The reprise is a fascinating way to connect plot points throughout the story of the musical. For example, compare “Dead Girl Walking” and its reprise from “Heathers.” The first song is mostly a way of cluing the audience into Veronica’s rapidly decreasing caution when faced with the circumstances of the story. Also, it sets up her relationship with JD. The reprise, on the other hand, is the breakdown of her relationship with JD, and features her taking responsibility for her role in the disasters that have taken place in the story, due in part to that aforementioned recklessness. The fact that one song is a reprise of the other connects the entire arc of Veronica’s character really nicely. (Also, both songs are some of my favorites in the whole musical).
So, all that being said, I think I admire musicals for how how their structure leads to some really unique ways of telling story. Plus, it’s done with lyrics and music, and I love lyrics and music. And storytelling. And incredible performances. And musicals!
Thank you for hanging on with me through this Musical Month. Your regularly scheduled varied-topic shenanigans will resume next Sunday.