Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

I Hate Musicals

A long time ago in a cinema far, far away, a wide-eyed pre-pubescent girl was sitting in the front row clutching her salted peanuts and Kia-Ora and waiting eagerly for a film about King Arthur to begin.  At long last, the auditorium darkened, the opening credits rolled and …

Richard Harris burst into song.

Up a tree. In the snow.  As one does.

Or, rather, precisely as one doesn’t – and that’s my main problem with musicals.  I really can’t be DOING with people singing at me when they should be talking

In my entire life I have seen just six musicals – on stage and on screen – through from beginning to end:  The Sound of Music, Cats, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Little Shop of Horrors and The Rocky Horror Show.

I was about ten when I saw The Sound of Music – and even then was a bit bemused by all those people running around singing at each other. During Cats (where I was taken as a special birthday surprise by a friend who knew that I loved live theatre, but hadn’t quite got a handle on my preferences) I kept hoping that Rum-Tum-Tugger was going to fall off the stage and break something.  I accompanied my cousin to Godspell when it was on stage in Oxford because she wanted to see it and didn’t want to go alone.  I must have blocked most of it because my only memories are of a clown (shudder) a bouncy bunch of technicolour happy, clappy types and lots of ribbons.  Or perhaps I imagined the ribbons? I know I didn’t imagine the clown.

I was dragged unwillingly off to the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, which has unfortunately lodged in my memory as Godspell reimagined by Jerry Bruckheimer.  For some reason a bunch of people prancing around singing in the desert is even harder to deal with than a bunch of people prancing around singing on a stage.

Over the years, I’ve pondered the question of  The Musical and I, and I’ve realized that I don’t have a problem with ALL musicals.  I love Rocky Horror – both the film and the stage version.  I’m always happy to sit down and watch The Little Shop of Horrors, and something tells me, although I’ve never caught up with it, that I’d  thoroughly enjoy Spamalot too (ironically enough).  What Rocky and Little Shop have in common is, of course, fantasy.  They don’t pretend to be real.

I also don’t mind those ‘musicals’ – like Five Guys Named Moe – that are really nothing more than revues – a flimsy storyline thrown together as an excuse for belting out some really great songs.

My beef is (mostly) with musicals where people sing when they should be talking.  And it’s not that I don’t like the music – I have a vast collection of musicals in my CD collection.  I’m word perfect on The King and I, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls, On The Town, et al.  I can even sing you all of the songs from The Flower Drum Song – and not many people can claim that.  (“I Enjoy Being a Girl” was one of my party pieces when younger …).

It’s the absurdity of it all that makes my teeth itch.  Take the end of West Side Story, for instance.  There’s the mortally wounded Tony, dying beautifully in Maria’s arms and what does he do?  Yep.  He sings. There’s a Place for Us is a beautiful song, but as fellow Book Fox Kirsty said to me over a vegetable lasagne not so long ago: with breath control like that, he should be good for at least another six months.

Perhaps I need to lighten up.  Perhaps I’m just the archetypal Englishman/woman, taking my pleasures sadly – or perhaps I need to unlace my critical faculties a little, suspend disbelief, stop thinking about the fact that Emile is spitting in Nellie’s face as he sings Some Enchanted Evening, and accept musicals for what they are:  pure entertainment.

I actually appeared in a musical once you know.  I was 10 years old.  It was The Sound of Music and I played the bad-tempered nun who couldn’t stand Maria.

Prophetic, no?

~~~o~~~

In real life, Moira is actually quite a cheery soul (in a po-faced sort of way)She’s been hiding in the Lake District for last 25 years, where she’s rumoured to be the manager of a small charity near Ravenglass, but as she spends most of the day lurking   behind a door marked “Here Be Dragons” nobody feels too inclined to check it out …

32 comments on “I Hate Musicals

  1. sakura
    September 5, 2011

    But have you seen Phantom of the Opera?? I’m not such a fan of musicals on screen but I LOVE watching them live.

  2. Christine
    September 5, 2011

    And, speaking of breath control, what are your feelings about opera? I love La Traviata, but you have to let go of reality when a woman dying of consumption can sing like she does.

  3. Moira
    September 5, 2011

    Sakura – I haven’t seen ‘Phantom’ on the stage, only bits of it on YouTube, which I’ve been haunting recently, inflicting the likes of ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ on myself in the name of research. I also tried to watch the recent(ish) film version – and I started to experience that familiar throbbing sensation I get when I want to bite someone.

    Christine … Opera. Hmm. Nope, not really. Musicals writ large. I know it makes me a bit of a philistine, but I wouldn’t go to an opera from choice either. I sit in my office playing The Magic Flute full volume and bellowing along with the Queen of the Night (well, mostly – I wimp out on those top Fs …) but I wouldn’t pay good money to watch it on stage. Weird, isn’t it?

  4. kirstyjane
    September 5, 2011

    I thought this piece absolutely terrific, and you’ve expressed something which has vaguely, mutely bothered me about musicals for a long time. I often love the music — your Flower Drum Song is my Fiddler on the Roof — and as an opera fan, the whole idea of singing when one ought to be talking presents no problem for me, even including those long and florid death scenes and the fact that you can apparently sing the contents of your head at full voice and *nobody else on stage can hear you*. (My favourite opera is Boris Godunov — I doubt a stricken tsar ever sang so beautifully).

    What gets me about musicals is the mixture of singing and speaking. The transitions between the two are often horribly awkward and the spoken parts always strike me as particularly contrived, more and more so as they lead up to the next big show-stopper. And that makes me feel… LIKE A SONG! 😉

  5. John
    September 5, 2011

    I have never actually seen a musical but the concept of one fills me with genuine horror. This is in part because I really loved a certain novel by Victor Hugo for a diversity of reasons and the idea of a vile vandal using it to make a crass entertainment for people with more money than taste appalls me. Hope I have entered into the soapbox spirit.
    Thanks for this,
    John.

  6. Gwilym
    September 5, 2011

    John said it best for me – musicals fill me with a genuine horror. I am so entrenched in my dislike of musicals that should they come up in my hobby – pub quizzing – I refuse to answer questions on them. It still galls me when in the interests of plurality I have to dig out some trivia to ask my audiences about them. I am sure some people feel the same about pub quizzing, mind…

  7. Moira
    September 5, 2011

    Oh my. I’m getting an attack of the warm fuzzies. I always thought I was a lone weirdo.

    Kirsty – Yes – I’d forgotten the old “If I just stand over here to sing at the top of my voice no-one will hear me” thing. And you’re right on the money with the “I feel a song coming on …” manouevre. You can tell when it’s going to happen, because more often than not they sort of ‘assume the position’ – stand up, discreetly expand chest …. LET RIP ….

    John – you have caught the spirit of the sopabox perfectly. And I feel exactly the same way about ‘Les Miserables’ …

    And Gwilym, ditto on the matter of compiling quizzes.

    You have no idea how HAPPY I am that there are kindred spirits out there. In fact, I’m so pleased, it reminds me of this almost completely irrelevant song…. *Assumes position, puffs chest* ….

  8. Angie
    September 5, 2011

    I knew there was a reason I loved you! I’m a huge fan of Rocky! We do the Time Warp every Halloween!

  9. Shelley
    September 5, 2011

    Suspension of disbelief? Standing in line in the grocery store, watching the news about the Tea Party–dismal.

    Astaire dancing to Porter is not dismal.

  10. annebrooke
    September 5, 2011

    I must admit I do enjoy musicals, though not the modern ones so much, and I’m a secret opera fan too. Plot? Who cares! 🙂

    I have to say that the worst and dullest musical I ever had the misfortune to sit through was the wretched and limp Blood Brothers. Ghastly in every way!

    Anne
    xxx

  11. ChrisCross53
    September 5, 2011

    Made me remember some of the am dram productions I reviewed in days as a juornalist… a My Fair Lady where Professor Higgins was 20 (or even 30) years older than his mother and Freddie was even older than him and neither of them could sing in tune; a Showboat where the cast blacked up (this was the 1990s and there was no excuse); a Carousel with exploding lights; a Trial by Jury where the orchestra and cast appeared to be in competition to see who could finish first (is G&S musical or opera?)… oh yes, and Brigadoon, about which the least said the better…

  12. Melrose
    September 5, 2011

    Maybe you should go and see Hair, if it is still on. You might enjoy it. My mother went with her workmates, and got quite a surprise!

  13. Hilary
    September 5, 2011

    Well, I dunno. I think I know where you are coming from, but there are some musicals that I have a very soft spot for. I do have two pet hates – musicals that maunder on and don’t have huge production numbers, and, yes, those with implausible chat in between them. Also, I’ve never quite recovered from the sudden shock introduction of a psychopath in the middle of ‘Oklahoma’ – just when I was enjoying it so much. But some musicals have the most fantastic music (some don’t, and I diskard them). I count West Side Story in that – the soundtrack of the film was the first LP I ever bought with saved up pocket money, and I was blown away by it. From now on, I shall forever think of Tony being good for several more months ……. .

    Where do you stand on musicals with dancing, Moira? I just love them – Astaire and Rogers for sure, but actually, Astaire and almost Anyone. I think those film musicals often get around the implausibility factor by being shows about shows (about shows) – so of course the protagonists are going to break into song and dance – they’re rehearsing! And that goes for not-quite-show settings like ‘Funny Girl’ (fashion shows). And it brings me to my all time favourite ‘Kiss Me Kate’. I loathe ‘Taming of the Shrew’ with a passion, but love ‘Kiss Me Kate’. Whoever is tired of ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ is tired of life.

    Looking at this lot, I think what unites the musicals I love (West Side Story apart) is that they are funny, and don’t take themselves seriously in any way.

  14. Moira
    September 5, 2011

    I’m afraid I’ve never even SEEN a Fred Astaire film, Hilary. I’ve never wanted to, and I don’t turn them on when they’re on television. I just don’t watch films with singing and dancing in them – they’re anathema to me. And don’t get me started on the young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney with all that ‘let’s put on a show!’ drivel … which just makes me want to punch someone really hard.

    Wait a minute. Actually, I lie. I forgot The Producers. Springtime for Hitler – is MY kind of musical.

    Melrose – ‘Hair’ is another one I know all the songs from … but have never seen. I can guess what the surprise was though … 😀 Dunno. I have a feeling it has lots of jolly people leaping around in it, hasn’t it? Did I mention that jolly people leaping around tends to get enormously on my noives too?

    I suspect that deep inside, I’m just a miserable git who doesn’t like jolly things …

    Chris – In the production of the Sound of Music I was in, Captain von Trapp was played by a very – um – rotund, let us say – boy. During the escape from the Nazis, the family escape stage left as the Nazis arrive stage right, demanding “Vich vay did zey go?” or some such. Cue howls of hysterical laughter from the (probably long-suffering) audience – because apparently rotund boy’s posterior was still plainly visible to everyone …

  15. Christine
    September 6, 2011

    I completely understand the inability to watch a musical on stage even though loving the music. Musicals (and operas), like books, can be enjoyed in a variety of mediums. Just because you love the music, doesn’t mean you love or even want to know about the plot. And just because you can’t stand the music doesn’t mean you can’t be entranced when watching a production unfold on a large stage (me seeing the Seattle Opera’s Ring Cycle with the Valkyrie riding in on carousel horses IN THE AIR and my husband seeing Billy Budd at the Metropolitan when a ship six stories tall rises up out of the stage). I also have a friend who’d given up on going to live opera because he couldn’t see as well. He is now a convert to the simulcasts shown in his local movie theater. They have close ups. But I am not sure Fred Astaire could have been enjoyed anywhere else the way we can enjoy him on film. His voice would never have carried on a stage and I don’t know that he could have reproduced the sort of perfection you see in the movies on a stage night after night. The man was a genius.

  16. Katherine Howell
    September 6, 2011

    Moira, I have little experience of musicals so nothing to add to the discussion, but I just wanted to say you make me laugh 🙂

  17. Trilby
    September 6, 2011

    What about ballet? Most people in the real world don’t express themselves through dance, either… 😉

    Have you tried rock operas? The Who’s Tommy? I can think of a fair few musicals that don’t involve any speech at all (lots of Andrew Lloyd Weber, for starters…)

  18. Trilby
    September 6, 2011

    And The Producers is *genius*!

  19. Moira
    September 6, 2011

    Thank you Katherine!

    Christine – I just LOVE that irresistible image of the Valkyries arriving on carousel horses!

    Trilby – ballet doesn’t really do it for me, either. I used to LOVE ballet as a little girl – I even studied it for a while – until I was actually taken to SEE a ballet live (Swan Lake, I think …) and it broke the spell. It was all that unromantic THUD-THUD-THUDDING on the stage that did it. Instead of being magical creatures, they became people in costumes. Does that make any sense?

    I tried “Evita” (another score I know by heart), but didn’t get all the way through it – but I’ve never tried watching Tommy. I’ll give it a go, out of curiosity if nothing else.

    I think a big part of the problem is connected to the sudden way I fell out of love with ballet. What I imagine in my head as I listen to the music is somehow much more satisfying for me than anything anyone can stage -…

  20. rosyb
    September 6, 2011

    This made me laugh too. But what about normal theatre, Moira? Give us your thoughts – likes and dislikes.

  21. Moira
    September 6, 2011

    Straight threatre I generally like – from the old warhorses/crowd pleasers like ‘An Inspector Calls’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ through the classics like Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlow to modern plays. I’m not a huge fan of all the special effects that so many productions seem to be relying on increasingly, but I DO very much like studio theatres – like the Riverside, Hammersmith – and the sense of involvement you get from being so close, physically, to the actors.

  22. kirstyjane
    September 7, 2011

    And here I thought I was the only one missing the ballet-appreciation gene. Even though I do frequently express myself through dance…

  23. Llyn
    September 8, 2011

    “No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible”. W. H. Auden

    Goes for musicals too.

    Now, I adore musicals, but only the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. If you’ve never seen Sweeney Todd murdering customers while singing the most beautiful song to his lost wife and daughter, you haven’t lived. BTW, I don’t mean the film version. Johnny Depp is a very talented man, but he can’t sing for nuts. Sondheim’s musicals are romantic and cynical and sharp, bitter, twisted,sad and life-affirming all at once. No one else can write both lyrics and music like he can. No one else would have written a opera-revue based on the assassins and would-be assassins of the American Presidents.

  24. Hilary
    September 8, 2011

    Ah Moira – resisting the temptation to deluge you with Youtube clips. Astaire was a miraculous dancer – he seemed to defy the laws of physics. Hesitating for a favourite between ‘They All Laughed’, where he sends up classical ballet (and, as ever, himself), and where Ginger Rogers shows the same gravity-defying skill and art, and ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’, where Astaire dances in front of a chorus line of identically-dressed men, just to show off that he’s doing something completely different. It’s so exuberant – I can’t watch him without a big grin on my face.

    However – the wonderful Anne Miller quoted Astaire as saying ‘I know I made it all look so easy, but, honey, it was like ditch-digging.’ Which brings me onto Anne Miller – superb, fabulous dancer in musicals – see her fantastic work in ‘Kiss Me Kate’ dance numbers ‘Too Darned Hot’, ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’, and ‘I’m Always True To You Darling In My Fashion’.

    So that’s me – I can give you a list of musicals I hate that’s as long as your arm, but a somewhat shorter list of musicals that make me very happy indeed!

  25. Llyn
    September 9, 2011

    Hilary, where do you stand (or sway) on Cyd Charisse?

    She was my idol when I was ten or so. I so wanted to grew up to be tall, dark-haired, glamourous and could dance on the head of a pin. Sadly, none of theses things happened, but I still love Cyd.

  26. Hilary
    September 9, 2011

    I’m a Ginger Rogers gal as far as Fred Astaire is concerned – though I think Cyd Charisse is terrific, but she’s out of scale with Astaire, in my opinion. Actually, one of the unexpected pleasures of these wonderful dancers from the 30s – 50s was to see what strapping girls they were – Anne Miller just such another.

    Must slink away now, and stop subverting Moira’s noble hatred ……..

  27. Moira
    September 9, 2011

    Curiously enough, I enjoy excerpts from musicals – Fred Astaire, et al … the ‘big numbers’ from shows … and I can’t watch the closing scenes of “Oh What a Lovely war” without getting a lump in my throat … I like the music. I like the dance numbers . It’s when they’re all lumped together into ‘a musical’ that I break out in hives.

  28. Jackie
    September 13, 2011

    I tried watching “The Sound of Music” a few years ago to see what all the fuss was about & I thought it would never end. I did like “Eidelweiss” though & that was it.
    When I got the soundtrack for “Jesus Christ Superstar” for my 14th birthday, it bowled me over. I don’t like the movie much, but still like the songs.
    Have you tried “The Wizard of Oz” ? It’s a fantasy, so might be more tolerable. I really like it, but that could also be because I can relate to the Cowardly Lion. What about some of the Baz Luhrman films, such as the fabulous “Moulin Rouge” which mixes in pop songs?

  29. Jay Benedict
    September 13, 2011

    Ah yes, the lone weirdo syndrome. ‘Doctor! Doctor! I can’t stop singing the green green grass of home!”” You’ve got a classic case of the Tom Jones syndrome.””Is it common?”” No, but it’s not unusual….”Boom! Boom! Chaqu’un son gout as they say.
    Musicals are sheer and blind entertainment pure and simple. If you don’t like Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse/Judy Garland/ etc.. you don’t like life, basically! They’re not designed to make sense-They’re there to transport you into another world for a couple of hours so as you can forget yourself. They’re sentimental and funny and silly and not intellectual and not to be over analyzed. They’re fantastical and absurd and defy logic and yet they’re uplifting and skillful and you often come out of them singing the songs even, God forbid! Even in the Kings Speech, he used singing a form of therapy for getting over his stammer..Hating Musicals is like hating little children and old ladies and all things vulnerable-Easy target.Let’s hate war and terrorism and lousy government and let’s celebrate deeply all things frivolous. Think Oscar Wilde-Was I the only person in the country to see the musical version of the Importance of being Ernest? Nonsense, but what an afternoon! Laughed all the way home…..

  30. Moira
    September 13, 2011

    *Pauses on her way in to wipe the blood from the walls*

    Finally! A knight on a white charger comes galloping in, to fell the infidels. It’s nice to see a whole-hearted defence of musicals, not that I’d expect anything less from a man who’s played Billy Flynn and Bobby van Heusen … But I don’t think they’re terribly vulnerable, somehow … Chicago appears to have more legs than a centipede, along with Les Miserables, Wicked, South Pacific,et al.

    Part of me really wishes I liked musicals in toto – I do, after all, have a neat line in amiable absurdity myself – so why do I find it so hard to slap my brain into neutral and just accept musicals for what they are? I don’t know, especially as I like them in small doses. All I know is that I can’t persuade the logical, analytical part of my brain to shut down. My internal narrative just goes into overdrive when confronted with the assembled improbabilities of musicals … I provide my own running commentary … “Oh Lord, I bet those cat costumes smell bad by the end of the evening … For pity’s sake, stop playing with your own tail, it’s positively obscene … and DO leave your ears alone, you DON’T look like a cat grooming itself, you look like a bloke in a furry jump suit with a shaky grasp on reality … Oh NO, Rum Tum Bloody Tugger’s come back … I thought he’d gone for good … Sheesh! … how can anyone be flat and sharp at the same time …. If she does THAT too often, she’ll have arthritis in her hips before she’s 50 ….” etc, etc, ad nauseam.

    I KNOW they’re supposed to be entertaining and life-affirming and fun and an escape from dreary reality … I also know Fred Astaire was a genius, and that if you peer at musicals too intently, they just vanish before your eyes like a snowflake in the sun – but knowing all of that doesn’t help me. King Arthur just has no business sitting up a tree, singing.

  31. Jay Benedict
    September 14, 2011

    Remember what the fellah said,” In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare…terror..murder bloodshed..But they produced Michaelangelo Leonardo Da Vinci the Renaissance…In Switzerland they had brotherly love. 500 years of Democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

  32. Moira
    September 15, 2011

    Chocolate. He forgot chocolate.

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This entry was posted on September 5, 2011 by in Entries by Moira, Special Features and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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