One of my biggest pet peeves is how musicals are often perceived as being as far from reality as you can get in theatre, because the characters sing and dance. Whilst we don’t tap dance our way through life, we do have a primitive need for music – most religions use music and singing to commune with their gods and young children use it to learn language. Bruno Nettl, a famous Czechoslovakian ethnomusicologist, defined music as “human sound communication outside the scope of language”. This manifests itself in multiple ways, from the crying violin on the Schindler’s List soundtrack to a musical theatre ballad that pulls at an audience’s heart strings.
But it is not just the deep-rooted use of music that makes a show naturalistic, but its structure. On 31 March 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein opened their first show and it was revolutionary – the audience knew it was ground-breaking from the moment the curtain went up. Musical theatre tradition dictated that a show open with a big chorus number and dancing girls. Instead when the curtain rises on Oklahoma! the first image the audience sees is an old woman on stage churning butter, which she does for a few minutes before you hear an unaccompanied voice sing the opening lines of ‘O What A Beautiful Mornin’’ from offstage. This is straight out of the naturalistic movement and has echoes of Miss Julie by August Strindberg. In this opening you almost don’t have to suspend your belief because Curley is aware that he is singing as well, even saying to Aunt Eller: “I’ve come a singin’ to ya” – for him, he is singing a folk song he knows or has just made up as he wanders across the farm. Hammerstein knew that if he could make the audience believe these characters were real, then the singing parts would be believable too.
This is furthered in through-sung musicals, where because the singing and music are continuous there is nothing jarring an audience’s mind going from dialogue to singing. It is just accepted by the mind that this is how these characters are communicating. It also gives the writers the freedom to explore ways you can make a through-sung musical true to life. In Les Miserables there is the song ‘The Confrontation’, where Val Jean and Javert argue about the right course of action before getting so angry at each other that they sing in counter point, which is the singing of two different lines at the same time. This is so realistic because rarely when we have a heated argument do we stop and let the other person have their say, we usually just shout over the top of each to make our point heard, and this is what this song achieves.
Musical theatre training often instilled in us the need to make what we are believable for an audience – if we make it real, then it can be easier for an audience to accept we are singing instead of speaking. It is this ability that has caused some of the best musical theatre performers to come from non-musical theatre backgrounds. Judi Dench was the original Sally Bowles in Cabaret and breaks hearts every time she sings ‘Send in the Clowns’ from A Little Night Music, despite not having the best voice. Ewan McGregor got his degree in acting from Guildhall School of Music and Drama and has been the lead in Moulin Rouge and performed in the West End production of Guys and Dolls. RADA, which is not known for musical theatre stars, has turned out a vast amount of graduates who have gone onto musicals, such as Imelda Staunton who recently played Mrs Lovett in the Chichester Festival production of Sweeney Todd, with Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall starring in the film version of the stage show. Jonathan Pryce was Peron opposite Madonna’s Evita and The Engineer in Miss Saigon. These performers are trained to understand Shakespearean text and in turn make an audience understand it. As one teacher screamed at me, “Shakespeare is like poetry”, which in turn means it is like a song and requires timing and skill, which is what many of these ‘straight’ actors have in abundance.
To say there is no realism in musical theatre would do its writers and performers a disservice. For every show that is based on high kicks and jazz hands, there is a gritty show demanding a lot from its performers. It requires a lot of performance ability to act through a song or a dance and these skills come from the methods of Stanislavski. However, it is also true to say that like most plays tend to fall into either the Stanislavski or Brecht school of thought, so do musicals. Some shows require you to be natura,l but equally some shows purposely go down the alienation route. Brecht himself co-wrote The Threepenny Opera with Kurt Weil. Personally, I am a strong advocate for naturalism in musical theatre, but this may partly because I wish my life was a musical.
Image by Structures:NYC.