It’s my daughter’s birthday today; she’s three. And I learn from her more every day than the collected wisdom I hope to relate in the nearly 300 posts in this blog. But, usually, it’s not about the writing of musicals. But sometimes it is.
One of the things she’s fond of saying occurs whenever I’m laughing at something I read or see on TV: “What’s silly about it?” She wants me to explain jokes, and there are times when she recognizes something is funny (though she really didn’t find it so), knows she’s supposed to laugh, and will rear back her head and deliver an energetic, vociferous and pretty-near-believable fake laugh. In one sense, this is a reminder not to write jokes that will go over my audience’s head. In another, it makes humor seem a little easier: time your punch-line right, have a great comedian deliver it with panache, and some people, far older than three, will laugh at it simply because it feels like they should. There are also times when I think Adelaide’s question should be applied to whole shows. Like that new Broadway musical by a trio of intriguing writers, The Last Ship. I don’t really want to see it unless someone can tell me what’s silly about it.
And yes, I know what I’m saying is a matter of taste. And I wouldn’t deny there have been effective musical tragedies. But most of those are operas. The stage musical, as folks know it, is typically better suited to celebrating moments of happiness than amplifying sadness and pain. I put that sentence in red because it seems so many young musical writers disagree. I’ve sat through shows about men saving Jews from the Nazis: does that “sing” to you? It did to the authors.
Back in the day, friends and I used to amuse each other by coming up with World’s Worst ideas for musicals: “The conjoined Hilton Twins!” we’d giggle. “Trial of Leo Frank!” Never thought I’d live to see the day when these jokes materialized, (as Side Show and Parade) are praised by some, get revived and revised. Adaptations handled with varying degrees of proficiency but they remain wholly unappealing ideas for shows and one kept making me laugh without intending to.
In entertainments devised for kids, there’s a curious habit of writing gags that adults get, but children don’t. Even in the film she’s most obsessed with, Frozen, the lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez humorously signals to supposed grown-ups in a smarmy “wink-wink/nudge-nudge” way. At a key moment, the heroine has to tell her sister that their hometown, Arendelle, is stuck in perpetual winter. She summons her courage to reveal it in song thusly: “Arendelle’s in a deep…deep…snow.” If I’d laughed at that line (which I didn’t), Adelaide would have asked me “What’s silly about it?” and, in the film, there’s really nothing silly about it. But adults read this as an expression that usually ends with a dirty word, and so can be amused while the young ‘uns aren’t. And, and…really, Disney?
But a greater “really, Disney?” moment comes when a princess sings “Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy, but I’m somewhere in that zone.” To which I say “Ewww!” In the history of Disney princesses, there’s never been any evidence any has a digestive tract, let alone digestive distress. Sure, times have changed, but do they have to exchange in that direction? I may be far behind the times, and hopelessly patriarchal, but I preferred the days when princess weren’t gassy.
A young (adult) friend of mine also points to a line in the same song, “Why have a ballroom with no balls?” She thinks that’s another joke written just for parents, but I accept the line at face value because it’s a sincere expression of exactly what the character is feeling; I don’t hear it any other way. And there’s another joke of this ilk that I’m kind of charmed by. In a duet expressing mutual attraction, there’s “maybe it is the party talking or the chocolate fondue.” Adelaide understands that as a single entendre, that the character is intoxicated by the heady atmosphere of the coronation ball, its deserts, and a terribly attractive prince.
Which reminds me: There’s a father-daughter show tune that’s never far from my mind, Growing Pains from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The little girl is about a decade older than Adelaide, and they openly discuss bittersweet rites of passage: “Papa’s not president since maybe tonight.” Adelaide’s very clear on who the president is, and knows the names of a lot of the former presidents, frequently mentioning James Madison. If I take this as a sign she’s started down the road of becoming president herself (her mother would like that, but she wouldn’t be president unless she wanted to be), it must be the party talking, or the chocolate fondue.