A jolly little song

It’s one month since my father’s birthday, which means it’s now my mother’s birthday (she was born many years later).  Rather than re-using the reminiscence-connected-to-writing-principle theme of the recent post, I’m going to discuss a type of show tune my mother especially likes.

We might as well call them rousers – those click-your-heels, totally positive celebrations of ordinary pleasures. The vociferous enthusiasm is supposed to be infectious: ideally, if you’re in the audience, by the end of the song you love life too.

Used to be, songwriters would look for opportunities to create this type of production number.  Today, they’ve gone out of fashion, and this may have to do with a shift in what modern musicals are doing.  Where once musicals extolled good things in life, it’s become far more common for shows to cast a negative judgment.  One thinks of the old aren’t-the-Amish-wonderful chestnut, Plain and Fancy, versus Sondheim and Weidman’s Assassins, which purports to criticize America by giving voice to its most famous miscreants.

May I say, as my mother’s son, that I kinda miss the rousers?  The unrelenting misery of, say, Miss Saigon wears on me.  In Area 51, I seized the opportunity to write a big production number that salutes the natural world, and director Gary Slavin got it to pour out onto the stage like a Gower Champion showstopper.

While it’s perfectly legitimate to write musicals that critique the status quo, I find that too many writers disdain the rouser completely.  And so the audience loses out on a chance to feel a burst of joy.  One of my mother’s favorite shows is based on a Dickens novel about how life is awful for the poor, the orphans, the dregs of society.  And yet Lionel Bart filled Oliver! with one rouser after another, each a delightful spoonful of sugar helping the polemic medicine go down.  I don’t know whether contemporary show-writers are unable to do that, or are unwilling to do that, thinking such expressions old-fashioned.

Playwright Jeffrey Sweet connected Our Wedding – The Musical! to the jubilant side of the praise/harangue divide:

It would be simplistic to suggest that the theatre of protest speaks and the theatre of celebration sings, but generally musical theatre has produced a larger share of works offering the audience more support and encouragement than criticism.  Though Oklahoma! has some surprisingly sophisticated things to say about citizenship and when people are ready for self-government, ultimately it expresses its faith in the essential integrity of the American character.  The Music Man may make mild fun of stiff-necked Iowans, but ultimately it is a story of both personal and social redemption.  Even that tough old bird of a show Gypsy suggests the possibility of reconciliation between the generations at its final curtain.

We need both kinds of theatre.  We need the works that shake us and shock us into seeing where we are betraying the ideals to which we give lip service, but we also need the works that express those ideals and encourage us to live them.

A wedding is a celebration to begin with, and, by structuring theirs as a musical, Noel and Joy employed a celebratory form to express it.

Click for the full essay


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