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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Musicals?

During a long car journey with an older gay friend, I suggested he put on one of his CDs. I said this knowing full well that he liked show tunes. Sorry, LOVED!! show tunes. It was a warm sunny day, the top was down, and I was feeling reckless. “I can deal with this,” I told myself. “After all, how bad can this be? It’s only music.”

But I was wrong. So wrong. Musicals are not, in fact, musical. They’re much more than that. They’re vocalised, choreographed insanity. Hoofing hysteria.

As we sped through the English countryside to a soundtrack of Liza Minnelli impersonating a dying llama, I began to lose the ability to change gear or focus on the road ahead. I had to ask my blissfully happy passenger pointedly if he had any other CDs. He reluctantly obliged and I found myself missing Liza already. Now my stereo was pumping out a gee-whiz-fellas! Broadway male chorus that sounded like a battalion of Ned Flanders on happy pills. Every time we drove through a village, small children and stray dogs ran after us. I sank below the wheel and steered by the position of the sun.

I don’t like musicals. That way unreason lies, hands on hips, drumming its fingers on its pink silk sash and tapping its emerald slippers. For a while I kidded myself that I was man enough to endure them because I liked the title song sequence of Singin’ in the Rain and quite enjoyed Calamity Jane when I was 12. But neither of these count, since Gene Kelly’s virile, carefree embrace of the elements transcends the musical genre and is in fact one of the pillars of Western culture, while Calamity Jane isn’t a musical at all but lesbianism in reverse.

Liking films like Grease, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Can’t Stop the Music, a movie which single-handedly ended disco, the 1970s and the Village People, doesn’t count either. Campiness is cheating. Musicals are sincere. Terrifyingly, ruthlessly sincere. They block all your exits and breathe down your neck demanding you marry them forever and ever. Or else.

Phantom of the Opera is the only bona fide musical I’ve been to see (for a dare), instead of watching from behind the sofa. I cheated again: I slept through the whole smothering thing, waking once for the big chandelier crashing to the floor at the end of the first half and a second time for the final curtain. For me, all musicals are a scary night-mask.

Emma Brockes, author of What Would Barbra Do? (Bantam), subtitled “How musicals can change your life”, is made of much sterner stuff however, and she likes – no, LOVES!! – real, unadulterated, hairy-chested, five-alarm musicals like Phantom, Mary Poppins (which she has watched hundreds of times), Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and Guys and Dolls. And even – sharp intake of breath – Yentl. So she has my deepest respect.

She is also often rather more entertaining and witty, not to mention cogent and ironic, than most musicals. Brockes’s autobiographical advocacy makes a song and dance about musicals without actually making a song and dance. Perhaps this is because she has a keen awareness of how mad musicals appear to most men, and probably most women. She also knows that musicals are a disease usually passed down the maternal line, but for her it is a blessed, blissful one, and the book is peppered with affectionate, funny memories of her mother and the quirky passion for show tunes she passed on.

Despite the title, the book doesn’t really have much to do with Barbra; it’s mostly an attempt to persuade men to like musicals. Brockes hopes that musicals can melt the ice around the heart of men, just as hearing his children singing ‘The hills are alive…’ in the parlour melted Captain von Trapp’s:

“…tears spring to his eyes and he walks into the room crooning that he, the captain, also goes to the hills when his heart is lonely. The children stare at him as if a small mammal has just appeared through the curtain of his fringe, but, recovering themselves, come in with backing vocals to accompany their father… Maria has brought music back into the house! And that, my friends, is the magic of the musical.”

Yes, that’s what I was worried about. Brockes argues at one point that musicals disturb men because they’re not about them. But, as much of this book shows, and almost all musicals demonstrate, the audience for musicals may be women but the target of them is men, on and off stage. This is the main reason why men feel uncomfortable around them. Musicals are femininity mobilised and orchestrated against them.

To prove this, I only have to point out that the recent BBC series, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria, was presented by Graham Norton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Brockes knows that “in these metrosexual times”, as she puts it, “straight men are getting gayer by the day,” but she also knows that for even for heteroflexible men, musicals represent a high-kick too far. Apparently, most homosexual men love musicals – a few don’t but this is only because they are in denial or afraid of cliché. Real gays know that they were born to be hag fags to girls like Brockes, sighing over Mary Poppins together.

Well, as a paid-up shirt-lifter who also happens to have been credited with/blamed for siring the term “metrosexual”, I can tell you frankly and openly that I’m not afraid of cliché, but I’m terrified of musicals. While the question “Are you musical?” may once have been a discreet way of asking if someone was a player of the hairy oboe, today it won’t get you many drinks bought in Old Compton Street. (Though it might get you a herbal tea from my car passenger.)

I identify with the experience of Brian, Brockes’ straight friend, who as a seven-year-old boy was taken by his mother to see South Pacific at the cinema. It’s recounted as an example of why straight men hate musicals. He was understandably troubled by the poster, which had too many girls and flowers in it for his liking. “Really, dear,” Brian’s mother said, “it’s about war.”

Little Brian was quickly reassured, as I was, by the appearance of Rossano Brazzi, “built like a war hero, dressed like a war hero, and surrounded by all the exhilarating paraphernalia of the Second World War”, and “bare chested sailors”.

But then things started to go wrong. A strange expression crept across Brazzi’s face. “Sort of strained… then he opened his mouth and out came a sound that, at first, Brian couldn’t quite place. Hey; wasn’t that… singing?” Now he was singing into the face of a woman who’d materialised behind him who looked like “she, too, might be about to… yup, there she went. What was this?”

Heterosexuality, Brian. The real, unvarnished kind.

In other words: from the point of view of the dame.

(Independent on Sunday, 18 February 2007)

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3 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Musicals?”

  1. It is a testament to the insipidity of Rogers and Hammerstein that they were able to make Mary Martin a virgin again.

    As a young ingénue, Mary Martin was discovered by Cole Porter, for whom he wrote ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’, arguably the most salacious song ever written — or at least the filthiest thing this side of marine boot camp marching chants: ‘When I invite/Some boy at night/To dine on my fine fin and haddie . . .’

    Martin went on to be Rogers and Hammerstein’s squeaky-clean nurse in ‘South Pacific’ and the squeakier still nun, Maria, in ‘Sound of Music’. Making the regression complete, she ended her performing career by playing Peter Pan!

  2. Thanks for a splendid post – much more interesting than my cheap review.

    And yes, it’s true. In spite of my butch protests, I’m a Judy Garland fan. ‘The Man That Got Away’, as sung by Judy in ‘A Star is Born’, is one of the great, defining songs of the Twentieth Century – and one of the most poignant, most convincing scenes in American cinema.

  3. Apropos of your Rufus Wainwright interview, you and I discussed our shared, unabashed admiration for that dying llama’s tough-as-nails mom. I’d like to think I’d be a fan of Judy’s even if I weren’t one of her friends.

    The musical as a genre is inextricably tied to the Great American Songbook, and includes songs that the dying llama’s mother, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holliday, Ella, Sass, Fred Astaire, Doris Day, and many other great voices served so well. Collectively, the songbook is America’s ‘Classical’ music — the Opera of Democracy.

    Let’s forget about ‘Over the Rainbow’ (arguably the greatest single song in the Great American Songbook cannon), and focus instead on ‘Get Happy’ (from ‘Summer Stock’) or ‘The Man that Got Away’ (from ‘A Star is Born’) — both, like ‘Over the Rainbow’, composed by Harold Arlen (nee Arlensky). These ‘melt the ice around my heart’ not because of some insipid, sentimental appeal but because they are pure genius: great songs, brilliant performer, and, in the case of ‘The Man that Got Away’ Cukor’s expressionist-inspired direction (which in many respects predicts Bob Fosse’s work with aforementioned dying llama in ‘Caberet’.)

    At the risk of being overly simplistic (and perhaps a tad prejudiced) this most idiomatically New York outburst of genius can be reduced in large measure to the simultaneous arrival of Blacks and Jews in Manhattan in the first decade of the last century, and the ensuing two generations of ferment between their musical traditions. Both were running away from inhuman conditions: the Blacks from the South, where Jim Crow had just been given the Supreme Court’s imprimatur (Plessy v. Ferguson 1894) and the Jews from the Pogroms. Thus Jews, in particular one Israel Baline (Irving Berlin), were uniquely positioned to grasp the genius of Black music to which bigoted white Americans were all but deaf. But for Irving Berlin, American Musical Theater would have likely begun and ended with the horrible Victor Herbert.

    Interestingly, a similar phenomenon occurred in the 1960s, when The Stones and others taught post-war suburban American teens about The Blues.  So complete was the de-facto apartheid in America at that time that the 10 mile journey from Skokie to Chicago’s South Side required a stop-over at Heathrow.  This cultural isolation of its two principal sources, I’d suggest, may well be the most salient factor in the decline of both the Great American Song and the American musical

    The ‘Great American Songbook’ period lasted roughly from 1915 to the early 1960s, from Berlin to Lerner and Lowe. Sondheim’s ‘I Think About You’ (circa 1970) is perhaps last great song to come from an American musical. Apart from it, his production is largely pretentious and forgettable. I would also suggest that many of the songs from the ‘Golden Age of Soul’ in the late 1960s, early 1970s was the American Popular Song’s last gasp (the ‘Philly Sound’ of Gamble and Huff, much more so than Motown). Its requiem may very well be Fosse’s brilliant ‘All That Jazz’ (1979), a movie of which I suspect Ms. Brockes heartily disapproves: rather than melt, the heart of its womanizing protagonist infarcts!

    My personal litmus test for a great popular song is ‘could Miles (Davis) jam on it?’

    There are many cultural factors that have contributed to the decline of the America Popular Song and Musical Theater, upon which I would not even begin to speculate. This would require a book unto itself, penned by a wit less by the infatuated its subject than Ms. Brockes’.

    However, I think a correlation can be drawn between the decline in the Broadway musical (or perhaps ‘Disneyfication of’ is a better term) and the decay of the democratic process, both politically and culturally, in the United States. Circa 1950, the Average Joe brought a sophisticated ear to the theater; and was used to – and demanded – high standards. These days, his grandson is as apt to fork over 7 bills to treat his family to ‘The Lion King’, and himself settle in for a four hour nap. If he’s me, he’d have is IPOD hooked up with Zep blaring, as a statement of his enduring disgust for ‘Sir’ Elton (currently hard at work on a version of ‘Candle in the Wind’ for Anna Nicole!)

    There are musicals and there are musicals; or, rather, there’s Rogers and Hart and Rogers and Hammerstein. ‘Pal Joey’ yes; ‘Sound of Music’ no. Indeed, the rise and fall of American Musical Theater might be encapsulated in the career of its most prolific and prodigiously talented composer (‘the man pisses melody’ — Noel Coward). With the brilliant, dissolute, tortured homosexual, worldly wise-man Lorenz Hart (the W. S. Gilbert of Time Square) Richard Rogers’ music was at once sophisticated and street-smart — and as close to the Black muse as his Uptown childhood home was to Harlem. Conversely Hammerstein was an All-American assimilationist, and like most of his generation strove to place as much distance between himself and the Melting Pot of Manhattan as possible (he lived on a farm in Pennsylvania). Under his influence, Roger’s production became ‘as corny as Kansas in August’.

    It is a testament to the enduring genius of the ‘Trane that, when I think of ‘My Favorite Things’, I am more apt to see him blowing his Soprano sax in a smoke-filled Vanguard, circa 1960, than I am Julie Andrews in prim nighties surrounded by little herrenvolk!

    There was a time when American musicals where not intended to melt men’s hearts, but to simply entertain both sexes. The aforementioned ‘Pal Joey’ is about an unrepentant heel. Two of the genre’s masterpieces, ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ and ‘Guys and Dolls’, are far more comic than romantic (‘When you see a gent/payin’ all kinds of rent/for a flat that could flatten the Taj Mahal . . .’)

    As for the future, I don’t think you have to worry about anyone leaving ‘Elton John’s Aida’ with ‘a song in his heat’. In fact, when I think of that ‘show’, I recall one of Lorenz Hart’s great lyrics: ‘Verdi turned round in his grave!’ (‘Johnny One-Note).

    Addendum: you refer ‘South Pacific’. Perhaps it is significant that the ‘show within the show’ is a drag review featuring a career ‘old salt’ sailor all dolled up with coconut boobs and a grass skirt! ‘Crossed the line’ one too many times, I suspect.

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