I Went Where the Music Took Me

Every once in a while (particularly when I'm particularly baked), I think about why it is that so many people love musical theatre so much. I dunno, maybe I'm over-thinking it. Maybe it's no more complicated than why people love jazz or country music. But it sure does feel more complex than just taste.

I know why people love theatre. I'd argue that pretty much anyone who sees great theatre will always love theatre. (Thank god the Rep was here when I was a teenager.) There really isn't any other experience like it, both its liveness and its demand for our imagination and participation. It's hard-wired into all of us to love storytelling, because we need it. Storytelling is how we understand ourselves and the world around us, or to use Sondheim's words, how we make order out of the chaos of the world, so that we can look at it and try to make sense of it. And theatre is the most immediate, most palpably human storytelling.

I also know why audiences respond to musical theatre so powerfully. As I've written about a lot, music is an abstract language and so it conveys emotion (the most difficult human experience to put into words) much more strongly and clearly than any dialogue or stage picture ever could. So when you take an already powerful experience like storytelling and add this abstract language to it, the audience receives it on both the conscious and subconscious levels at the same time. It becomes an even more potent, more total, more fully human experience.

And let's not forget – theatre started with music. Once upon a time, all theatre had music. The idea to divorce music from the theatre is a relatively modern one. Musical theatre is complete theatre, Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk.

But none of that answers my question. I know a lot of people who have no desire to ever see a non-musical play (or as I put it in one of my books, "a play that lacks music"); they only want to see musicals. That's not me – I love seeing a great play, and I see a lot of them. But I think a lot of people only want musicals.

Is that just about habit? Is it a (conscious or unconscious) statement? Is it because high school drama clubs are often very welcoming Islands of Misfit Toys? And while we're at it, why do gay men disproportionately flock to musicals?

My working theory is that because musical theatre uses the language of music, it is by definition a storytelling form of much bigger emotions, and that many people are drawn to that because it heals and feeds them emotionally. Some of these people are shut off emotionally, for whatever reasons (like being gay and in the closet). And in my experience, some people just feel more than others do. Their emotions are more easily triggered and those emotions are both more intense and deeper. I think I'm in this group. I've always felt like musical theatre just "fits" me. I feel comfortable in the gigantic emotion of "Wheels of a Dream" or "Bring Him Home" or "You Don't Know/I Am the One."

But even though most people don't usually feel their emotions that extremely, everybody does sometimes. Musicals traffic in big emotion, but sometimes life does too. Sometimes, the stakes in real life are as high as they are in a musical. People have screaming fights. People sob. people mourn. People rejoice.

Maybe it's that musicals hold a magnifying glass up to our emotions. They enlarge them, so they're easier to get a look at. Take bare as an example. It's so melodramatic, so perilously close to being over-the-top, but it works because the emotions are all so honest and so universal. Every one of the lead characters' "arias" hits someone in the audience right in the solar plexus. This is a story about what is arguably the most emotional period in any person's life, and we all remember it. So we accept the enormity of emotion onstage because we recognize it as genuine. Though it is bigger than "real," it feels real.

That's also why many people who think they hate musicals will fall in love with New Line's work. I think musicals make many people (especially men) uncomfortable for all the reasons I've laid out here. Some folks don't want to deal with giant emotions, particularly their own. But they love New Line musicals because the emotions are always really honest, and I think that on a subconscious level, people recognize that; and also because many of our shows are very self-aware and blissfully free of that awkward, Fourth-Wall, faux-naturalism from the Rodgers & Hammerstein era. New Line doesn't ask our audience to "suspend their disbelief" in the way that South Pacific does. We reject that "lie" at the heart of most mid-20th-century theatre.

Generally speaking, most musicals are much more presentational, more obviously artificial, more Brechtian, than most plays – which arguably also makes them more honest. Other than the shows in the R&H model, almost all musicals admit their artifice. Ever since the 1950s and 60s and the birth of rock and roll, authenticity has become important in our culture. Not coincidentally, that's also when we started abandoning the R&H model for the rock musical and the concept musical. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the very artificial art form of musical theatre is actually the most honest.

We don't try to convince our audience to believe they're watching Andrew Jackson onstage; we just need them to follow the story with us, and discover its surprising resonances with today's politics. By comparison, we are supposed to "believe" we're eavesdropping on Laurey and Curley in 1906, when the (hidden) orchestra fires up and he breaks into "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." It's fundamentally dishonest. We know it's not real. Why not admit it?

There's one other reason I think people love musicals, especially young people – energy. Musicals are just more exciting. Our bodies and brains react differently to music. Again because of the music, musicals (when done well) have an energy that most plays lack. One of the writers of Bat Boy coined the phrase "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression," and we live by that. Honest, but BIG. The music demands it.

You can always tell when someone has directed a musical for the first time – the energy is wrong, even if the cast are all musical theatre veterans. You can also tell when a musical theatre director directs a play – it feels musical. It wasn't until I directed a straight play for the first time in 1998 that I truly understood how fundamentally different musicals and plays are.

So where has all this gotten me? What about my initial question?

I guess it always comes back to music, one way or another. So my conclusion is that what's different between musicals and plays is the music. Yeah. Duh. Well, I guess that explains why I relate so powerfully to Rob Gordon in High Fidelity – it's all about the music, about living your life to music. It's about my favorite quote from Sondheim: "To live in music is a gift from God."

Maybe the truth is that musical theatre freaks are kindred spirits with hardcore rock and roll fans. Maybe that's why so many rock songwriters are writing for the musical theatre now. Maybe that's why theatre music and rock music are coming together at long last. After all, theatre songs were the hit pop songs of the 1920s and 30s. Maybe it was just the detour of the R&H Revolution (and let's be fair, the Sondheim-Prince era, too) that unnaturally separated theatre music and pop music, and they're finding their way back home.

And that also means that more young people are finding their way to the musical theatre than ever before, which is great news for the future of our art form. As much as I don't like The Sound of Music, it was so heartening to hear, especially after the disappointments of Smash, that The Sound of Music got over 18 million viewers and was the top-rated show for its entire broadcast! That's close to twice the audience the Breaking Bad finale got. And NBC has already agreed to broadcast another musical live next year.

People love musicals. Even the mediocre ones.

I"m not sure if I've settled anything here. I don't know if I answered my question or not. But really, what can you expect from this humble philosopher-stoner on this dreary Saturday afternoon?

Why do you think musical theatre is such a powerful force in so many of our lives?

Long Live the Musical!