The uncompromising realism of musicals


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Singing through the implausibility?
  • Singing through the implausibility?
Last week, NPR's All Things Considered ran an interview with Tom Hooper, who directed the new movie version of the Broadway megahit (two productions, 7,143 performances) Les Miserables. ATC host Melissa Block asked Hooper why he'd chosen to "have, really, no spoken dialogue" in his adaptation, and he replied that the "central challenge" of making a movie musical is that "you are creating an alternate reality where people communicate through song, but you have to make this reality utterly convincing or all is lost."

Most musicals, he went on, "stick to the format of dialogue interspersed with songs," which is a problem because "you go from one ear to another, you know? If suddenly I burst out singing . . . you'd think, oh, why now? Why did Tom suddenly feel that now was the moment? And I began to think, actually, maybe it's more honest to say, no, this is a different reality, this is a world where the primary communication form is singing, and let's own it and be confident about it."

Couldn't disagree more.

Not with the decision to go all out on the singing. There've already been some bold experiments along those lines—they're called operas, and they've turned out pretty well overall. It's Hooper's reasoning that bothers me. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say essentially what he told Block: that they're put off by musicals—on film or live—because they can't accept the convention of the sudden song. Nobody does that in real life, they say, so it's not believable.

To me, that suggests a misunderstanding not just of musicals but of real life. Who hasn't burst out singing at a moment of great happiness or sadness, introspection, openheartedness, or anger? Who hasn't used song as a means to seduce somebody or make them bleed or simply blow off steam? Who hasn't sung their way out of or into a mess? The fact that we don't usually do the singing out loud and in rhyme is a technicality. The old radio slogan, "soundtrack of your life," was a cliche from the moment it was invented. But it gets at something about how many—maybe most, maybe all—of us see ourselves. Musicals don't represent a different reality. They exist precisely because we're always singing, one way or another. Their function is to make that fact explicit.


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