How do you solve a problem like the musical?
The musical is the strangest of all movie genres. It is perhaps the most entertaining of all, but it is also the most despised. We all love film and we all love music. But put them together and faces stop smiling and people start sighing. If a man shows even the slightest affinity towards musicals he is quickly – if not, automatically – assumed to be gay (or, at the very least, effeminate). Because, as everyone knows, all gay guys just love musicals; in the same way that all straight guys just love macho, shoot ‘em up Schwarzenegger movies. And that’s it. Black and white. Case closed. If you like Fred and Ginger, you’re into guys. If you like Sly Stallone, you’re one of the guys.
It was once alleged by W. Somerset Maugham that Sir Winston Churchill confided in him that he had slept with the composer Ivor Novello. This was apparently in an attempt to find out, “what it would be like with a man.” It was later reported that old Winnie’s evaluation of the experience was said to be “musical” – “musical”, of course, being old-fashioned jargon for “gay”.
Thankfully, expressing support of “musical” marriage is finally out of the closet, but expressing support of “musical theatre” is sadly still locked inside. Musicals are seen as deeply unfashionable, horribly uncool, far too sentimental, and sweeter than a sugar-coated lollipop. Much like Churchill’s alleged coquetry, a love of musicals is something never to admit to in public; and definitely not something to include in the official biography.
The problem with musicals is a rather bizarre one. Mention a movie is a musical and alarm bells go off in a person’s head. Big flashing lights (the likes of Broadway itself) occupy the person’s vision warning them, “Whatever this person has to say about this film, forget it! It’s not worth it! There’s singing in it for God’s sake!” Immediately a prejudice has developed towards the film before even seeing it, and the person seems know for a hard fact that they will hate it. Dig a little deeper into this hatred, in an attempt to discover the source of their derision, and the musical-hater always seems to cite the same objection: “I just don’t get why they have to sing!”
How wonderfully put. What a perfectly logistical argument. Why I’m sure even Lenny Bernstein himself would marvel at its excellence.
In the last number of decades, a lazy conformist trend of musical-bashing has developed that has become the default setting for so many – even among cinephiles. Everyone hates musicals. And almost everyone that does is not afraid to show it: A few sneering jabs at singing nuns, a shrewd mockery of Dick Van Dyke’s “Meh-wee Pup-ins” cockney, and, of course, a contemptuous shot or two at characters spontaneously bursting into song. And that’s it. The entire genre rendered defunct; neatly wrapped up with pink little ribbons on it.
But by simply prying into the ridicule of the musical-hater, you usually find that they not only don’t hate musicals, but that they actually quite like them. A debate with an average musical-hater over the genre itself generally goes something like this: “Musicals? Oh God, I can’t stand them. Dull, sentimental, nonsense. They’re for old ladies with big hats and old men who can still remember the war.”
“You mean you don’t like Cabaret?” “Yeah but Cabaret’s different. It’s the exception that proves the rule.”
“Did you see Les Misérables last year?” “Yeah.”
“And…?” “Yeah it was good, but there was too much singing.”
“What about The Blues Brothers?” “Yeah OK, I like The Blues Brothers but that’s really just a one-off.”
“South Park The Movie, then?” “Well yeah I thought that was good too.”
“Bugsy Malone?” “Yeah OK, I’ll give you that one.”
“How about The Wizard of Oz?” “But that’s different. Everyone likes The Wizard of Oz!”
“All right then, what about some of the animated ones, like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book or The Nightmare Before Christmas?” “Yeah but… but… they’re animated. They don’t count.”
“Why not?” “I don’t know, they just don’t.”
You see, whether it’s the wonderful extravagant pantomiming of Mamma Mia! or the more sophisticated operatic tragedy of West Side Story, we all have our preferences. We all have our favourites whether we admit to them or not. We all like musicals in some form or another; we just never say or even acknowledge it.
To some, “ostentatious costumes, lavish singing, and flamboyant set pieces” may be the summation of a Rogers and Hammerstein musical. But the description could easily be assigned to a heavy metal concert (which is basically just a more aggressive version of musical theatre). It could also pertain to an episode of The X Factor. It could also, very plausibly, be a synopsis of the latest Beyoncé video. And yet all of these seem perfectly acceptable to love – bar one (which, for some unfair reason, seems perfectly acceptable to laud). Take a guess which is which.
If you are perfectly willing to accept giant robots fighting each other, alien-powered spacecraft headed for Earth, moody angst-ridden teenage vampires, or even a worldwide zombie apocalypse on the big screen, how hard is it suspend your disbelief that little bit further and accept that a character on screen can – unbelievable as it may sound – burst into song and dance?
Really? That hard? All right, I give up.