It may come as some surprise that I didn’t like Frozen, despite a very fine score by EGOT winner Bobby Lopez (he wrote two of my favorite recent-vintage musical comedies, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who was another songwriter the year I was included in the NEO concert at the York). I heard most of the songs before catching the film and was particularly taken with Do You Want To Build a Snowman? in which a little girl grows up, knocking on her older sister’s door, not knowing why her once-close playmate refuses to play with her anymore. I was moved. And I really wanted to know, just like that girl, what was causing the rift.
Could be I got over-excited about a story about sisters and expected too much. Seems to me there’s much to be mined: the love, the admiration, the rivalries and jealousies, petty or large. In Frozen, what’s keeping the girls apart is a bit of BS, made up by the writer: nothing to do with anyone’s real experience of when their sister refuses to play with them.
And therein lies the first problem I have with the whole sci-fi/fantasy genre. I’ve little patience for made-up piffle. There are so many moving stories that can be told with human beings acting like human beings. Once a creative writer starts doling out superpowers or whatever para-normality, I’m unmoored. Usually the story comes to a dead halt so the “rules” of the made-up elements can be explained to us, the mere mortals in the audience. (Sometimes by an old codger named Mr. Lundie.) Then, if the tale doesn’t stick to these rules, or a new rule springs up as a dues ex machina, I feel cheated. Dorothy could have always returned to Kansas just by clicking her heels and repeating “There’s no place like home?” I’m pissed off!
And I’m not writing this to criticize Frozen. You want to make an emotional investment in a problem caused by magical powers and run the risk the problem will be solved, out of nowhere, by yet more magic, fine. But a lot of people write musicals where characters defy the laws of nature – I’ve penned two or three – and, when you do that, well, there are inherent problems worth mulling over.
And who, you might ask, is this Mr. Lundie? Probably the least-loved character in the history of musicals, he exists merely to explain the supernatural mumbo-jumbo the author made up. In Brigadoon, the action comes to a dead halt so that a town elder (Mr. Lundie) can inform two outsiders about the specific permutations of how the town disappears every night and wakes up one century later the next day. In one of the dullest scenes ever to clog up a famous musical, time is taken to define the “rules” governing this piece of unreal estate. A visitor may enter, but if you don’t leave before sundown, you’re stuck in Brigadoon forever. And if you do leave, you can’t come back. The not-at-all bright hero, helpfully named Tommy Albright, opts to leave, regrets his choice, tries to find the town again and – inconsequential spoiler alert – the power of love breaks the rule; a heretofore unknown bit of magic saves the day.
That’s shoddy plotting, there. Not the sort of thing I think we ought to emulate. But, in the playing, the biggest problem is the length of Mr. Lundie’s scene. And I find the time spent going over the rules of fantasies always hampers my enjoyment.
So, back when Not a Lion was called Popsicle Power, my collaborator had a kindly old creature explain the magic spell that needed to be lifted and how that could be accomplished. I explained the sad history of Mr. Lundie scenes and how I didn’t think our audience would sit still for it. But he refused to shorten the scene. We opened and everything played like gangbusters except that Mr. Lundie scene. The audience rustled, ran to the concession stand or bathrooms. After my collaborator saw how they wouldn’t sit still for that scene, he told me I’d been right and he’d been wrong. Satisfying, I guess, but I’d much rather have a show where everything plays like gangbusters.
Some fantasies manage to minimize the amount of time given to rules and therefore have time to devote to entertaining stuff. In the first act of Big, a boy wakes up as a grown-up, sans explanation. We don’t get bogged down in thinking about what magic steps he’ll have to take to return to boyhood. So, there’s room for romance and some brilliant songs (I Want To Go Home, Dancing All the Time, and, especially, Stop Time) before Act Two gets bogged down with abracadabra babble. I had a better time at Big than I had at Into the Woods, where I tired of hearing that list of four things the Bakers needed to find.
Another thing, very common in sci-fi, that annoys me no end is profundity. The ever-wise author makes grandiose statements about the Great Questions of Life and I throw up in my mouth a little. When Rodgers and Hammerstein have something profound to say, they dramatize it using realistic and relatable characters. That’s moving to me in a way that trekking up a mountain just to hear the slowly-intoned wisdom of some unworldly shaman can never be.
But Noel, some of you are saying, what about Area 51, your science fiction musical? When Tom Carrozza brought me 5 pages, proposing we write a musical comedy, it was immediately apparent the approach was to take it as UNseriously as possible, and any rule would be a hysterically funny joke. He had a non-threatening alien creature complain of a headache, ask for an aspirin. When one is produced, he looks at the humans incredulously. “And a cup of water! Whoever heard of taking an aspirin without water?” Indeed. We expect outer-space creatures to act differently than us; this one doesn’t. And thus our expectations are subverted: we anticipated learning something strange about the stranger-to-earth. Now we know everything’s going to be silly, not a drop of earnestness.
But whenever I see science fiction, I have to take along a pill. Which, of course, I grind into my forehead.