Monday, June 18, 2012

Musical Context (or: Why Glee Is a Better Musical Drama Than Smash)

Sorry for the weird blog posting last week. On Thursday, when I posted my Band Wagon post, I genuinely thought it was Wednesday, and then the next day I thought it was Thursday but, no, it was Friday, so I didn't blog anything. Not having a job GOOFS UP YOUR SCHEDULE. Let's try to get this back on track.

Generally speaking, there aren't a lot of people who are in-between on musicals. People either love them or hate them. If you a) have ever read my blog before, or b) have ever met me before, you know by now that I love them. Love them love them LOVE THEM.

However, not all musicals are created equal. I talked a little bit about one of these aspects in last week's blog about The Band Wagon, and I wanted to elaborate on this point in a larger blog.

I'm talking about the idea of musical context - why is this song being sung? This is something that the earliest musicals didn't really consider. Musicals in the 1920s and 1930s usually consisted of performances of popular songs, with an awkward plot slapped around them, and songs were preceded by lines like, "Hey, do you remember that song we used to sing together?" "Yes, it went like this!"

Although there were several shows that toyed with it early on, Oklahoma! was one of the musicals that changed all that. Much as I hate the show, it was the first one to really connect all its songs to the characters and the plot. The songs showed who the characters were and how they were feeling, rather than just being there as pure entertainment. And as such, those songs gained meaning. Rodgers and Hammerstein continued to do this throughout their careers. "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music is just OK as a song by itself, but it's the context in which it is sung that it becomes much more interesting. It becomes moving and inspirational and very beautiful.

There are still shows that provide little to no context for their musical numbers, but those shows are nearly always comedic or spectacle-heavy -- shows like Cats or Mamma Mia!, which are clearly not meant to be an emotionally meaningful show. They're just fun dance numbers. However, it's worth nothing that the one song in Cats that everybody remembers is "Memory" - the song most connected to a plotline. It creates a character, tells a story, provides an emotional context. Without that, it's just a pretty melody.

Now, on to Glee and Smash.

Smash provides little to no emotional context for its musical numbers. There's certainly a practical context for the songs - they're singing because they're putting on a musical show of their own. And the original songs written for Bombshell are very good songs. (How could they be otherwise, with Shaiman and Wittman at the helm?) But they fall very flat. The actors performing them aren't given any emotional context. We don't even get to see the "unreal" emotional context - the reason it's being sung in the musical-within-a-musical. We don't see the full show they're creating, just the scattered musical numbers.

Smash's best musical numbers are the few that connect to the plot emotionally. Michael's rendition of "A Song For You," sung to seduce Julia. Ivy's rendition of "I'm Going Down," reflecting her state of mind and feeling of loss. The Bollywood-esque sequence "A Thousand and One Nights," featuring a musicalized version of Dev and Karen worrying about their relationships. These songs had context. These songs had reasons we should care about them. It made it feel like a musical, rather than a concert.

Glee may have ludicrous plot points, iffy acting, and overproduced musical numbers, but the one thing it EXCELS at is context. Yes, it has its fair share of contrived context, but at least it's giving us something. Even when the context is "Let's have fun and dance around the glee room in spontaneous song," that's still context. They have a purpose: to enjoy themselves. That's a much more entertaining purpose than the very meta purpose of "to sing a song."

Glee's masterful use of context elevates many of its musical numbers far above what they should be. "Just the Way You Are" by Bruno Mars is a cheesy, silly musical number, but when Finn sang it to Kurt at their parents' wedding as a gesture of acceptance into his family, it became a very beautiful moment - something that song could never have produced on its own. I am bored stiff by Coldplay's "Fix You," but the season three performance of that song, sung by Will to his girlfriend who was plagued and tortured by her own phobias and compulsions, moved me to tears.

It is ALL about context.

There has to be a reason for the songs to be there. You can either mildly entertain me, or you can match your songs to your story and create something much more moving and beautiful than either the songs or the story on their own.

So far, Smash is a better drama than Glee, absolutely. But it is a worse musical drama, because it doesn't seem to understand the purpose of music in a show: to tell the story. To communicate. To create. Smash's songs and performances are pleasant, but they are going to waste. There's simply no reason for them to exist in the show. I sincerely hope this gets fixed next season, because I would love to prefer Smash to Glee. They're just going to have to get the whole musical thing right first.

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