Whatever happened to love?
It used to be the stuff of every musical: people went to shows expecting a romantic experience, and to hear a new love song. If Oscar Hammerstein were to return to earth, years after his death (like his character, Billy Bigelow), he’d be shocked, more than anything else, by the lack of love on our current stages.
On the progress-related side, part of what’s changed is that, nowadays, musicals can focus on a variety of subjects. They needn’t depict love, and there was a long chunk of the last century when they had to.
A couple of years ago, a young commenter on this blog alerted me to a pervasive issue:
There’s another consideration to be had in any discussion of romanticism in lyrics: the audience’s perception. Most people who make love in song come across to most people as either unschooled doe-eyed ninnies or total bullshitters. What would be your reaction if you saw a teenaged boy in real life say to his girlfriend, “Today, the world was just an address” or “Tonight there will be no morning star”? You’d think he was a bullshitter, because the falseness of those lines would convey exactly that.
The frightening implication is that a generational shift has taken place. Newer theatre-goers aren’t just uninterested in romance, they don’t buy a certain amount of poetry in romantic expressions. Everything the musical once was, then, it can no longer be.
I call this frightening, in part, because love songs are a thing I can do; I hate to see the devaluing of an important weapon in my arsenal. Also, as a fan of new musicals, I get tired of seeing a string of loveless plots. And the skill set of Stephen Sondheim comes to mind: it’s been about 55 years since he successfully depicted characters struck by Cupid, not that that’s impeded his stunning success.
So now let’s get down to the brass tacks of gold hearts:
Exactly what my commenter objected to, those poetical flights of fancy, made for many a great number in the past. I think they still can. It’s part and parcel of the disbelief we suspend in musical theatre. Characters can break out in song – we accept this – and they can also get a bit – is “lyrical” the word? – in lyrics. In The Fantasticks, there’s a meta level, a certain self-consciousness, but I’ve never had any trouble accepting the teen boy earnestly expressing
If I were in the desert deep in sand,
And the sun was burning like a hot pomegranate,
Walking through a nightmare in the heat of a summer day,
Until my mind was parched!
Then you are water…
Cool, clear water…
A refreshing glass of water!
Man, that pomegranate simile is something else. And written back when you couldn’t find its juice in stores.
Speaking of which, did you ever consider that when lovers in a musical are singing a duet, in some alternate reality, they’re having sex? Think of the old giggle-inducing film cliché. Amorous travelers shoot each other intense looks, move towards each other, the music swells…and the film cuts to a shot of a train entering a tunnel. When we next see the couple, they’re in a state of dishabille, smoking cigarettes. In a musical, on the other hand, the doing-the-nasty is handled like this:
I made fun of this convention in a show involving concupiscent scientists:
We should take an anti-biotic
So we can imbibe this erotic air
And then swap spit with not a care
I know, I know: Something wrong with the rhyme there, as the sound of “a” doesn’t match the middle syllable if “biotic” and “erotic.” Luckily, the performers got such a response on “swap spit,” nobody heard my error. Pshew. Don’t try this at home, kids.
Note, though, that they sound like scientists. Show tunes, unlike pop songs, have the specifics of character, time and place setting to draw upon. If a character is singing to a huckster who blew into a prosaic Iowa town and revealed the music in things (the clucking of gossips, marbles on a library floor, wheels turning on a train or the Wells Fargo wagon), she can warble “And there was music…but I never heard it singing…till there was you.” A great love song, totally connected to The Music Man’s plot.
There’s also a connection to the overall harmonic structure Meredith Willson set up for his setting. (I can’t believe I’ve gone on this long without mentioning music.) Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Younger Than Springtime employs a musical idea that owes a lot to Tchaikovsky’s famous Romeo and Juliet love theme. In the accompaniment, there’s a repeated two note figure, descending over and over again. This, to my ears, is something like sighing. So, whatever Romeo and Juliet (or South Pacific’s Cable and Liat) are doing, there must be a lot of sighing going on.
Happy Valentine’s Day. May your night be filled with that two note accompaniment figure, over and over again.