In the wonderful meta-musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, a man simply called ‘Man In Chair’ is playing one of his favorite LPs for the audience, the original cast album of the (fictitious) 1927 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. As he narrates the action, the musical comes to life in his dreary New York apartment with characters making all kinds of surprising entrances, like from his refrigerator or up through the floor.
After the intermission, he informs us that he has to go to the bathroom. He puts on the second side of the LP, which begins with the entr’acte, and leaves. The stage fills with characters that look like a nutty cross between The King and I and the opera Turandot. While the audience is trying to figure out just what is going on, the Man in Chair rushes back onstage in a panic. Apparently his cleaning lady mixed up his LPs and instead of the second act of The Drowsy Chaperone, we are hearing/watching a number from a musical of the same era called A Message from a Nightingale. Man in Chair gives us a mocking precis of its plot which hits every White Man’s Burden cliché, with an American Lady coming to China to civilize the emperor and eventually help him build The Great Wall. Man in Chair groans and rolls his eyes. But then, he flips over the LP, scans the song list and then says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”
This perfectly encapsulates my feeling about most musicals. When I was a kid, I listened incessantly to Original Cast Albums of classics like Oklahoma and Carousel, as well contemporary (at the time) shows like Pippin and Company. I loved musicals, even though I had seen very few live. I had seen a lot of movie musicals, but they were on TV, riddled with commercials and I was just waiting for the next song. But I loved those LPs.
As I got older and saw many musicals live, I got the sinking feeling that there was something wrong. The experience in the theater was never as great as listening to the LP at home. I blamed myself for not concentrating enough on the show while in the theater. When I would go home and listen the albums again, I was back in heaven.
This was especially true of the Sondheim musicals.
What was the problem? It was not that people suddenly burst into song. I liked the artificiality of that, and it is part of the deal.
It came down to one thing: the book.
Most of the time the book weighed down what was so transcendent in the score. This was particularly true of the ‘serious’ musicals, like West Side Story, South Pacific and the rest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon.
What did seem to work were the ‘musical comedies’, the shows with the farcical plots. Guys and Dolls is perfection, and you can tell it is because you love the linking dialogue as much as when the numbers are performed. Other examples of this are She Loves Me, Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady (mostly thanks to GBS), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Bye Bye Birdie.
I think any of these shows would work pretty well if they were just mounted with the dialogue and none of the music. It is because the books are light and fast-moving, and most importantly, they don’t take themselves so seriously.
But imagine having to sit through South Pacific without “Some Enchanted Evening”. Yikes.
Since the majority of musical lovers only know the objects of their love through Original Cast Albums, they have a skewed view of the enterprise in question.
I worship the scores of Stephen Sondheim. I play them all the time. But sitting through them in the theater is often a nihilistic experience. There is so much bile being spilled, even in the comedies, that the songs become earthbound.
Unfortunately, movie musicals highlight this problem. The ones made by MGM in the 1950s that everyone lauds are so elephantine that every element of joy is crushed. Compare the ghastly On The Town film to the OCR. Show Boat is so overinflated that it sinks.
Just as on stage, the musical comedies are what seem to fare best on the screen. Kiss Me Kate is mostly a joy (thank you Ann Miller). Also, it seems that musicals created for the screen work much better than those lugubrious adaptations of original stage hits. Singin’ in the Rain is always a pleasure. Meet Me In St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, the Astaire/Rodgers musicals are all original and all delightful.
So, you’re off the hook next time a friend asks if you want to go to see A Little Night Music, but you must listen to the cast recording as much as you can. As the man says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”