A new fairy tale

Doing some spring cleaning, came across three Playbills, from new musicals I really didn’t like. I’m not going to name them, because it’s too dickish to go to a friend’s show and carp about it on the internet. But I’ll talk, in a more general way, about what makes a musical theatre story work; or not work at all.

There’s a general principle of story-making that has been often stated: Take a protagonist we like and can relate to, give her a goal we can understand and root for, throw some troubles in her way, and, for a happy ending, have her succeed. That may seem a little simplistic, but hey, the whole thing’s condensed to one sentence. To expand: the protagonist must do something, that is, take actions in pursuit of her goal. Among the troubles in her way, there should probably be an antagonist, a character who, for whatever reason, tries to stop the heroine from achieving her pursuit. Furthermore, both the protagonist and antagonist must employ various tactics to do what they’re trying to do. Show us the same tactics over and over again, we’re bound to get bored. And a three-word phrase you’ve known all your life has particular meaning here: “Actions have consequences.”
In a good plot, things happen due to another thing happening. It’s also important to properly define “action” in this context. Your characters must regularly do stuff that affects other people.

I recently had a conversation where someone argued that, in Cats, Grizabella is the protagonist. Maybe, but if so, what actions does she take? In what ways do these actions have consequences, affect other people? Effective storytelling is not among the merits of Cats. I’ve had trouble staying awake every time I’ve seen it. The astounding success of this feline revue is attributable to other factors.

But I meant to discuss three new musicals I encountered this year. Show One had a protagonist I could relate to very well. He was appealing: quick-on-his-feet as well as quick-with-a-joke. And, early on, something truly amazing happens to him. I can tell you that it’s something I wish would happen to me, but the real problem here is that fate has put him in a fraught situation. He’s buffeted on the seas of outrageous fortune, not the captain of his own fate. While there’s some humorous scrambling to adjust to his new circumstances, we never see him take any action that has any affect on any other character. A protagonist shouldn’t be acted upon, all the time; he should act.

Show One had a glimmer of a good idea but chose not to pursue it. A female character develops a romantic interest in the unheroic hero, a feeling he does not requite. I kept hoping he’d use her somehow, leading her on in order to get her assistance in achieving his goal. That might be a little immoral, but at least he’d be doing something, not just standing there. Plus, it’s very often a good idea, in a musical, to explore and dramatize feelings of desire, love.

Show Two was a play of revelations. I learned the term “play of revelations” many years ago, seeing the first national tour of That Championship Season, currently in an all-star revival on Broadway. It’s a hard sort of drama to pull off: actions that happened in the characters’ past are kept hidden from the audience, until they’re not. We’re presented with a present and ask ourselves why people are behaving in a certain way. The big reveal comes, and then we understand; this is supposed to be satisfying.

In Show Two precious little is going on in the present. Two friends have no apparent goals: I guess one could say they’re both trying to clear their minds, but is that a pursuit worthy of dramatization? Through a great many flashbacks, it is revealed they both loved the same girl, and now she’s dead. But these revelations do not answer any question that we in the audience might have wondered about. The present the men share is placid, free of compelling drama. The past is certainly very dramatic, and I guess the authors hope there’d be tension involving our wondering when and how a revelation would upset the current calm. I must admit that, for me, the main tension was when the damn thing would be over. Plus, a light rain had started when I entered the theatre, and I kept wondering whether it would be pouring when I got out. Boom! Suddenly, in the present, one friend revealed to the other a very upsetting fact about the past. For no good reason. The only motivation I could ascertain is that the authors needed something dramatic to happen around the two-hour mark. I credit them for knowing that, but when a character’s blurting out something merely because the authors need him to, I’m no longer involved in the story: I’m thinking about the writers and their misbegotten process.

Show Three took a totally generic protagonist and plopped her down in Unreal Estate. (Someday, I’ll devote a whole post to the perils of fantasy settings with their own made-up “rules” that generally have to be explained by an otherwise-useless character named Mr. Lundie.) Naturally, her immediate goal was to get the hell out of there. But she was stuck in a place where she often couldn’t take any actions that brought her close to success. As if by chance, she keeps encountering characters who appear to be able to help her, but then it turns out they don’t. It’s a world with no if-then: there’s no point where it’s clear that IF you take a certain action THEN there’ll be a certain consequence. This sort of thing wears out its welcome very fast. We keep meeting characters who sing reasonably catchy songs about themselves. It’s an endless introduction, like the narration in the first part of a beauty pageant. I found the lyric-writing significantly worse than the plotting (can you imagine?). Each song had so little to say, and repeated itself so frequently, I could barely pay attention to them. I was more interested in the dialogue, which attempted to crack a joke every now and then. B for effort; D for execution.

I attend new musicals with every hope that I’ll be entertained by them. I share these ideas about musical-writing in the hopes that creators will wise up and fashion shows that won’t bore me like these three did. They’re not supposed to be sedatives, kids.


One Response to A new fairy tale

  1. Mike Shapiro says:

    Well said on all fronts. Too many musicals depict things happening to a lead character, without the protagonist impacting his/her own ends through action. Songs often end up being of the “here’s how I feel about what just happened to me” variety. You also make an excellent point about the need for clear cause-and-effect laws in a show.

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