I know there are many people in the world who would rather get a root canal than watch a musical. I know that many folks — even intelligent ones of my acquaintance — have a deep-seated contempt for any movie in which characters suddenly get a manic gleam in their eye and stand up and break into song. These people think musicals are hokey and lame. I get that.
But I think they’re wrong.
I’m a musical junkie from way back, somewhere around the time my mom took me to a community theatre production of Brigadoon at age four and I was so enraptured that I wanted to be Fiona for Halloween (“But no one will know who you are,” my mom said.) Around forty years later, I still adore them.
And it occurred to me recently that since I have two captive audience members here in the house with me (it would be three, but my husband has a means of escape),this summer is a great chance to revisit some of my favorite musicals and hopefully expose my two boys to a little culture.
I started with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which you really should see if you haven’t. It’s the very definition of “rousing” and “robust” — focuses on seven backwoodsmen in the 1850s, so the dancing is pretty muscular. And the songs are wonderfully catchy. I thought, “Gee, my boys will love the barn-raising dance scene,” which is justly famous.
What they really loved was the fight scene. I had to replay it a few times, at their request, all the while adding, “But you know you should never fight people like that, right? Right?”
“We know,” they said dutifully, eyes aglow as they watched Frank get smacked with a board.
And then we got to the part where the lonely brothers kidnap six girls to marry and bodily carry them off to their mountain hideaway, and I was thinking, Oh man, I didn’t vet this one as well as I should have. (“You know you should never force a woman to go with you if she doesn’t want to, right? Or anyone, actually?”) It was a slightly more complex viewing party than I’d expected.
Then I tried Kismet.
I have to say, I was way more familiar with the music of this show (lovely) then the story (um — a little odd). I’d seen it long ago but didn’t remember it well, other than that it was an Arabian Nights-type show with a bazaar scene (and several bizarre scenes, quite honestly). For example, when Howard Keel was about about to have his hand cut off by the evil Wazir, he started singing to it, which led to the following exchange:
Son: Who is he singing to?
Me: His hand.
Me: That’s what people do in musicals.
Son: That’s weird.
Next, we tried State Fair by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This one is a sentimental favorite — homespun Americana, telling the story of a lovely and bored-out-of-her-gourd farmgirl who falls for a big-city newspaper reporter. Her brother falls for a singer who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be married. And other than a scene or two of drunken behavior involving spiked mincemeat (truly), there’s nothing objectionable here. Good songs, too, and my kids enjoyed it. (And I didn’t have to say anything like, “You know you should never _______, right?”).
But this whole Summer of Musicals is making me think about them in a new way. And as I think about which ones to share next, I am realizing that all of these musicals have some sort of darker element.
Carousel: Oh, the music is so pretty. It’s one of the most glorious scores. But then there’s that subplot about how Billy hits his wife, and she takes it and makes excuses for it. I saw a stage production of this years ago that handled that icky part very effectively, but the movie doesn’t, alas.
Oklahoma: Cornfed goodness and a surrey with the fringe on top! What could be wrong with this? Well, there’s Jud the socipathic farmhand, who has a stash of girlie pictures in the shed and ends up with a knife in the ribs.
The King and I: Aww, best polka scene ever — totally sexy in an understated way. But I still remember being spooked as a kid by the big whip and how Tuptim almost gets thrashed. And concubines and slaves are not exactly light subject matter.
My Fair Lady: I love this musical, so I sort of hate to say it: When you stop to think about it, Henry Higgins is a raging misogynist. Even worse, he gets rewarded for it at the end. (In the original play, Eliza leaves him, which I kind of prefer.)
Fiddler on the Roof: Such great music, but there are all those nasty Russians smashing things. Pogroms are anything but light fare. On the plus side, this one might lead to some good conversations about ecumenism.
Brigadoon: I loved the musical when I was a kid. I think the only objectionable thing about it is the risibly fake scenery. I may try this one with my kids, with the appropriate fashion warning (“You know you should never belt your pants that high, right?”).
Gigi: A girl is trained to be a courtesan. I am so not going there with my boys.
The Sound of Music: Major Nazi unpleasantness. But there’s a triumphant escape at the end, and no real violence, except to the curtains and the Gestapo’s car.
Anyhow, as I run through the list, I just keep realizing how substantial these musicals actually are. They are not cotton candy fluff, most of them — they address real issues and complex human situations. I’m not saying they all address them well, but there is much more to these musicals than meets the eye, and I can’t help but feel that maybe there are a lot of Teachable Moments lurking in there. (So take that, musical detractors! There’s more to them than relentlessly cheerful people singing and dancing in unison!).
But for our next one, we’ll play it safe and go with The Music Man. I think I’m on pretty benign thematic ground with that one … at least until we get to the song “The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me.”
What’s your favorite musical? And why?