February 13, 2009

The Sound of Musicals

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So, this week, let’s talk about musicals. Woohoo, musicals! OK, seriously, though, who doesn’t love musicals? I can name at least 10 that I adore. But first, I’d like to consider the particular musical that has inspired me to write this column. This weekend, I saw Mamma Mia for the first time, and I will say, I did so reluctantly. (Come on, admit you thought it looked cheesy. I did. Mamma Mia con queso. Extra queso. And Abba.)
As such, I was entirely unsurprised when the movie started out rather bizarrely. The daughter and her friends sing a ridiculous song, Meryl Streep (the mamma) sings three nearly consecutive songs completely at odds with each other and seemingly totally incongruous with her character and I quite honestly couldn’t figure out what was going on. Still, I persevered and in the end I actually liked the movie. I also like Sweet Home Alabama, which may or may not be beside the point. In any case, I came to realize that Mamma Mia was purposefully over the top (I imagine Legally Blonde: The Musical adopts a similar style). It’s an actual stylistic device, over-the-top-ness, and in this movie, it really works well.
Everything is ridiculous. The characters, the situation, the mannerisms, the jokes, the very premise of the movie. Oh, and the fact that Pierce Brosnan sings. But at the same time, it’s absurdly joyful and draws you irrevocably in. You want the happy ending. You want to throw your arms in the air and dance along, sing along, jump off the pier in all your clothes. Yaaay. The movie rushes by so quickly and so happily that I was surprised when it ended and found that I had liked it. Hey man, there’s a dancing queen in all of us.
There are three types of musicals that appeal to me, in general. Mamma Mia fits flawlessly into the happy-go-lucky genre — made for having fun, not taking itself particularly seriously. Also here one finds Legally Blonde, Spamalot (which I absolutely must see … road trip anyone?), Guys and Dolls, The Wizard of Oz, The Pirates of Penzance. If you are not familiar with Pirates I suggest that you see it. Preferably, you find a tape of the version my high school put on in my senior year (check out my xylophone prowess in the pit band!). You may know the “Modern Major General” song. Super fast — “I am the very model of a modern major general, da duh da duh da duh da da, etc., etc … ” Great song. (I rocked it on the xylophone).
The second type is more serious — more about telling a story and more about achieving something beautiful through music. The Sound of Music is probably one of my favorite musicals ever. Nearly every song is of the kind that sticks with you for a long time (“Climb Every Mountain” perhaps excepted). The songs aren’t just something convenient for the actors to sing, something to express a mood, but are beautiful music in their own right. “The Sound of Music” is a great song (basically, I love Rodgers and Hammerstein), and really, how often do you break into “My Favorite Things?” Be honest. Every couple of showers, at least. Other favorites in this genre include My Fair Lady, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof and A Muppet Christmas Carol (which I admit fits only sort of into this section).
I’m not sure if this third delineation is exactly a genre, but it is beloved nevertheless … wait for it … Disney movies! The Lion King, is of course, my absolute favorite. Disney just never got better than that. Sadly, I have not seen the Broadway version, but don’t worry, I’ll get there. I did see the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast, another favorite, though I haven’t watched the movie in quite some time. I took in Pocahontas the other day (you can ostracize me later), which I will say I enjoyed, despite the voiceover quality hovering right around total crap. Somehow an animated movie actually smacks of bad acting in Pocahontas.
Maybe I’m prejudiced towards my own ’90s classics but, is it just me or have Disney movies gotten worse? There’s something about the 21st-century animation style that just really irks me (The Incredibles and Finding Nemo and even Wall-E somewhat not included, but, not being musicals, they’re really not included in the first place anyway). Mulan was, in my opinion, one of the last really successful musicals Disney produced. And I will openly admit that I can sing along to every song from Mulan. “Let’s get down to business / to defeat the Huns! / Did they send me daughters? / When I asked for sons.” (Ohh, the irony.)
In any case, watch some musicals, chillins. Enrich your musical experience. (T-pain not included). Even Mamma Mia counts. Cultural karma, you know. Musicals are a great way to learn first-hand how music tells a story, how it gets to the heart of us. Let it into your heart, dancing queen.