LAST WEEK I wrote about museums as a popular form of American entertainment and education, reporting in particular on my encounter with the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. Musicals are arguably no less educational, except that they educate the heart and spirit rather than the mind.
There seems to be something fundamentally silly about people suddenly breaking into song in moments of high tension (in Bollywood, of course, they’d start shimmying and shaking), but the truth of the matter is (and the magic of the musical is) that it feels just right, and that the characters are singing exactly what we’re feeling. When Nancy sings “As Long as He Needs Me” in “Oliver” or when Tuptim and Lun Tha bewail their lot in “We Kiss in a Shadow” in “The King and I,” we absolutely understand what’s going on, and root even for the most ill-fated love.
Sometimes silliness is pure fun: who could have resisted Mary Poppins (except her famously persnickety creator, P. L. Travers) trilling “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”? Some songs just give you a lift to sing, like “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady,” “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man,” and “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.”
And then there are those rare and very strange moments when a song from a musical just walks into your life, providing the perfect refrain for the occasion. This happened to me 40 years ago, as I waited outside the maternity ward while Beng was giving birth; at that very instant, as if on cue, a song came on over the PA system, and it was the “My Boy Bill Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” where the expectant father wonders what it would be like if the son he expects turns out to be a girl… as our Demi was.
I don’t know what it was that drew me to musicals when I was a young boy growing up in Pasig, except the long hot summer afternoons better spent in a cool dark moviehouse than under a tin roof at home. Ours was a moviegoing family, and I’d already seen “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “West Side Story” in some theater downtown on Avenida Rizal, but the musical that got me hooked—maybe because it coincided with the onset of puberty—was “The Sound of Music.” What this chaste production full of nuns and Nazis had to do with adolescence could be answered by the doe-eyed Brigitta, aka Angela Cartwright, who was Penny in “Lost in Space”; of course I also nursed a crush on Julie Andrews, but she could’ve been my mom. I watched “The Sound of Music” six, seven times until I could recite the libretto and sing the songs by heart. (For fans of “The Sound of Music,” there’s a very interesting story about the writing of the song “Edelweiss” here: http://www.steynonline.com/6683/edelweiss.)
Prurient considerations aside, the old-fashioned Broadway musical (which we Pinoys got in the movie version) had something going for it that Westerns, thrillers, and spy movies hardly ever did: an insistent optimism, even in the darkest and direst of circumstances. “West Side Story” doesn’t end with just a death; it ends with the song “Somewhere,” and a plaintive hope for “peace and quiet and open air;” “Carousel” ends with the redemption of the likeable scoundrel Billy Bigelow, promising that “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” (Billy may have gone to heaven, but critics gave “Carousel” hell for changing the ending of the original play on which it had been based.) “Camelot” was probably the first musical I saw that didn’t come with a happy ending, but even Lerner and Loewe couldn’t possibly undo centuries of Arthurian lore.
In a time of AIDS, 9-11, tsunamis, and ISIS, the darkening of the American musical was probably inevitable if not mandatory. One of art’s most necessary functions is to provide relief to the distressed even by the mere recognition and reflection of pain, and today’s less melodic, more dissonant musicals do that, acknowledging that rainbows don’t come with pots of gold, and may not even come at all after a long day’s rain.
I watched my first live Broadway musical—Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which was actually more of a revue—in 1980, from behind a post, the cheapest seat in the house. Since then I’ve been able to afford a few seats with a view, though not by much; as I reported in this corner a couple of years ago, my happiest hours in the musical theater came not on Broadway but in Melbourne, during a rousing Australian production of “South Pacific” that I watched from the topmost row where I sat all by my lonesome, to the amused consternation of the ushers, who urged me to move on down after the lights had dimmed. But I declined, because where I was, I could merrily sing along to “Dites-moi, Pourquois” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame.” Having outgrown Angela Cartwright, I now rank “South Pacific” my most favorite of musicals, with “West Side Story” a close second (Beng has a soft spot for “The King and I,” and never fails to cry when Mongkut dies).
On this most recent trip to the States, we caught “Evita” (my third favorite) at the Kennedy Center in DC and a trio of shows in New York: “From Burlesque to Broadway,” a revue of an art form that I wish I’d seen at a more responsive age; “The Bandwagon,” the revival of a forgotten art-about-art opus with three showstoppers (“You and the Night and the Music,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark”) and, finally, the Rockettes Christmas Special, classic Americana.
We stepped out of the theaters freezing in the cold but warm and dizzy with song, fortified against the inevitable anxieties and disappointments of another day.
[Images from flixster.com, childstar.com, musicalheaven,com, and amazon.com]