For some, the mere fact that people on stage are singing and, perhaps – horrors! – dancing is scary in and of itself. But you, dear reader, accept such things as next to normal. In the spirit if the season, I thought we might take a look at some frightening musicals.
A childhood memory: I was taken to Hänsel & Gretel, ostensibly an opera for the entire family by a fellow named Engelbert Humperdinck (no, not that one). The special effects, the darkness of the woods, and the general creepiness of the plot, at times scared the hell out of me. The music, influenced by Wagner, is frightening in its power. The methods behind making music menacing are well worth exploring.
Also in the 19th century, Arthur Sullivan made delicious use of frightening devices in Ruddigore. Every Halloween I play and sing When the Night Wind Howls from that score. In a sense, this aria spoofs Wagner, and W. S. Gilbert’s libretto is a full-scale send-up of horror melodramas. It’s supposed to be staged with spooky special effects as the full-body portraits in a gallery come to life. But from this early date, it seems, musicals were more comfortable making fun of scary theatre than actually spooking people.
In trying to think of a musical that takes Halloween seriously, my mind lands on the curious case of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, a show I don’t remember particularly well. It boasts Arthur Schwartz’s best score, and some excellent Dorothy Fields lyrics, but oh, that book. The main character of the first act, a diffident lass, is reduced, in Act Two, to the role of noble and overly-worried mother, with no songs all act long. Is that weird, or what? The protagonist of the second act is a 12 year-old with an alcoholic father, and, for them, Halloween is a terrifying event on three levels: of course there are children who feel that, one night a year, at least, it’s O.K. to be evil; the harrowing night is a spirit-sodden stupor for the bad dad; it’s also a foreboding nightmare presaging the tragedy to come. Serious stuff, that.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a prime example of a musical that sounds wonderful on record, but surprisingly is a chore to sit through live in a theatre. Huge gobs of the book are given to an annoying comic relief character, who, in one of the most excruciating would-be funny sequences I’ve ever seen, fakes childbirth. Yes, the man she’s with knows she’s fat (although she doesn’t bother to know his real name) and she sends him out of the room, screams a lot, and then shows him a baby. It boggles the mind that this ever passed for humor. Scary, no?
Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler and Harold Prince set out to frighten the audience in Sweeney Todd. The music references scores from classic horror films, as well as the dies irae. The original Broadway production kept us an arm’s length from the terror by presenting the violence in Grand Guignol form – so stylized you couldn’t take it seriously. But, the best part of Wheeler’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics, the close shave involving the song, Pretty Women, more effectively portrays nail-biting suspense than anything in the musical theatre canon. The creators wisely understood a rarely-discussed principle, that it’s best to let the air out of a pressure valve with a bit of humor. So the sequence winds up the first act with the delicious music hall turn, A Little Priest.
I often find myself disagreeing with those that claim that Sondheim has been very influential on more recent generations of show-writers. Where, exactly, are these shows that, in any way, resemble his oeuvre? Instead, the past three decades have been splattered with a bunch of bloody musicals that attempt to have fun with their frights in the manner of Menken and Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors. Some of them actually shoot red-colored liquid into the audience, and provide the first few rows of customers with rain-wear to protect their clothing. That’s not my idea of fun. I loved Little Shop of Horrors because it was constantly funny. I couldn’t abide Toxic Avenger because so many of its gags fell so flat. I had a similar sense of I-should-be-laughing-but-I’m-not at Bat Boy, although the songs in that one exhibited an admirable level of craft. If you found these funny, good for you. But my question is, did they frighten you?
I’ll tell you what musical frightened me, and how it did it: Night of the Hunter. The protagonist was a 12-year-old boy who bravely protects his little sister. They had a secret stash of money. And their mother gets romanced by an ex-con (also, a current con man) with a history of marrying women in order to kill them and steal their money. It’s a situation that’s suspenseful, but also one that particularly lends itself to musicalization as there are strong emotions at play: motherly and brotherly love, and the false love of the villain. There are some genuinely gorgeous tunes by Claibe Richardson and Stephen Cole’s book and lyrics effectively keep you on the edge of your seat. I’m biting my nails just thinking about it. But then, I often bite my nails.
Be safe this Halloween. Use condoms. For trick-or-treat bags. That way you’ll limit your intake of candy.