I was in Dundalk, Ireland, in an ordinary, nondescript Italian restaurant on the high street, with some friends who were there attending a conference, along with a few other miscellaneous diners, when suddenly a woman at a table nearby, probably in her forties or so, let out with the refrain to Cat Stevens’s “Moonshadow” – and at once we were all, instantly, “leapin’ and hoppin’” along. The strange thing was that the waiters and waitresses took no notice of it; she sang, and we all came in on the chorus. At the end of it, there was applause, and people looked ‘round the room at one another, and someone called out “Well, give us another song!” And someone did.
This would never, of course, happen where I live, in the United States. Here, no one bursts into song, except maybe in a Karaoke bar, and badly. If you were to start singing at the top of your lungs in a TGI Friday’s or a Pizza Hut, people would think you were crazy, and before long the police would be called, and you’d be taken away to face charges.
But here, in Ireland, it was understood that people did do such things, and that it was a perfect part of the ordinary. People could, actually, burst into song in a public place, and just as in an episode of “Pennies from Heaven,” the other diners – if they didn’t join in themselves` – would just carry on with their business as though it were the most usual thing in the world.
* * * * *
Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, I was subjected to my parents’ deep and inexhaustible love of musicals. Living far from New York, we never actually went to one, but they blared forth from the stereo all the same. “My Fair Lady” – “Oklahoma!” – “The Most Happy Fella” – “The Pajama Game” – “The Mikado” – “Carousel” – “South Pacific” – the list seemed endless. My mother loved them, but my father loved them even more, turning out all the lights in the living room and turning up the stereo as far as it would go without distortion. “We are gentlemen of Japan!” … “All I want is a room somewhere” … “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one” …“Some enchanted evening” … there was an instant drama in every line, and though I hated the music itself, some portion of its feeling got under my skin, and planted a kind of weird seed for the future. I remember hating these songs, the darkened room, the way that my father would, from his prostrate position on the couch, quiver quietly with tears.
But now, decades later, when I hear these same songs, I’m the one that's crying. Not for the fate of poor little Buttercup, or Liza Doolittle, or Billy Bigelow -- but for the lost world in which people indeed did burst into song. And in that world, it now seems to me, there was such a tremendous reservoir of pent-up emotions, such a backlog of heartache, that it was absolutely impossible to speak – it had to be sung. And yet, once the final lines had finished and the strings faded, everyone went back to their ordinary, pent-up ways – and it was this final loss, the loss of the miraculous world of people actually singing about their feelings, that touched me the most. For even then, when such things were common knowledge, they failed to transform the world with their beauty; people went back to ugliness, got on with their tawdry lives, and if asked would probably have said “Singin’? I didn’t hear no singin’! Did you, pal?”
All of this came rushing back to me recently on when I re-watched the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. I’d seen it when it first came out in a theatre – a lonesome one, populated only by myself and the love of my life, two little old ladies, and an usher collecting for the Jimmy fund. Somehow, the lip-synching made these songs work, and made the self-representation tragedy of singing one’s heart out a double loss – for the voice these actors sang with was not their own. Of course, that was often true in the classic Hollywood era, when Marni Nixon provided the voice for everyone from Deborah Kerr to Audrey Hepburn, but I never knew that back then. Later, of course, I saw Singin’ in the Rain and realized what a strange fate it was to be the unknown voice of a famous actress. It’s an uncanny kind of real-time pathos that goes back at least to Cyrano de Bergerac and right up through Disney’s Little Mermaid: to watch another woo one’s love with one’s own words, or voice. It’s a kind of tourture, really.
Some years seeing the 1981 film, I tracked down a copy of the BBC series with Bob Hoskins. Until then, I hadn’t realized how heavy-handed the irony was – that a man who sold love-songs for a living could be, not just a low-grade jerk, but a complete asshole – so that the transformations he underwent, and witnessed were a sort of false, cruel magic, one in which the kiss of song transformed toad-like people into temporary princes, not because they were really princes inside, but because they and the whole goddamned world were so deeply, perversely, incurably toad-like that this formed for them a kind of cruel joke. I wondered whether Dennis Potter was a cruel man, or whether, in the manner of other dark comedies, it was meant to be humorous. His genius, I decided, was that it didn’t matter – it worked either way.
But what's happened to musicals today? It's strange to realize that Pennies from Heaven was in fact the very last musical produced by MGM before its long descent into financial ruin and dissolution, its legendary film library sold to Ted Turner, and then to Warner's. It was Disney -- or, more properly, Ashman and Menken -- who revived the musical feature film in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. Somehow, bursting into song had become something that was too much for any human actor; it had transcended that world and moved into animation. Even Broadway was swept by this phenomenon, as adaptations of Disney films have been among the highest-grossing and longest-running stage musicals.
There are exceptions, it's true, but they're rare. I have to confess that Stephen Sondheim, for all his storied career, has always left me cold. His melodies never quite soar; like tethered birds, they tweet too close to the ground, and are soon forgotten. Wicked -- which I've seen in its current incarnation at the Gershwin -- is transcedent on stage, but the soundtrack doesn't really do it for me. There's soaring -- who can forget their first experience of "Defying Gravity"? -- but without the visuals, the music itself sounds overblown and frantic.
And then there's Glee. Many love it. I loathe it. Not because it lacks magical moments of bursting into song, but because there are too many. You can't just constantly be bursting into song; as Alan Jay Lerner put it,
"A man's life is made up of thousands and thousands of little pieces. In writing fiction, you select 20 or 30 of them. In a musical, you select even fewer than that."And that to me is what a musical is -- a series of dramatic moments, carefully curated. But a serial musical is like a serial killer -- you never know when it will strike again; we live in dread instead of wonder. Each song must count, must form the peak of one of the mountains of our existence. We mustn't descend too soon to our tawdry, toad-like world -- we must allow these shadows of our better selves to burst, to break, to echo down the corridors of everyday life, daring to sing out loud.