Meg Huskin’s response to Richard Nilsen on Musicals

So I read the article you posted on your page “To Sing the Unbearable Song,” and it got me thinking. I hope you don’t mind but I’d like to respond to it.


Now, as much as I do love musicals, I must admit that I understood where this guy was coming from. After all, I have often rolled my eyes at the cheesy, two-dimensional plots of The Pajama Game and Brigadoon. And yet, I still enjoy these musicals. I still find meaning in them, and just because the show has an unrealistically happy ending, I’m not sure I would go so far as to say it presents an “unpleasantly optimistic lie.” Here’s why.
When I look at Musical Theater, I like to consider it a true marriage of music and theater. This means that both the music and the theater play an integral role in the telling of the story. A musical is not a piece of theater with periodic musical breaks for entertainment. Rather it is a musical work held together with the costumes, the lights, and (of course) the story of a theatrical production. To truly understand musical theater is to understand that one isn’t meant to passively listen to the musical numbers in the hopes of being entertained by them. Music is the expression of the things that cannot always be expressed through words. “Where words leave off, music begins.” I can see where some diehard theater and literature fans might take issue with this. These people want a well-developed story with a theme (or sometimes multiple themes) that is both clear and yet subtle. Musical theater, in nature, tends to rush to the happy ending with little plot development because it needs time to fit in all those musical numbers. To some, this may seem like a sacrifice of true story development in order to attain cheap entertainment value. But if you think about it, you realize that the music IS the development. It’s not just about the entertainment, the music is important to the story too. When you hear Tommy singing “Heather on the Hill,” it’s not just supposed to be a cutesy number between leading man and his leading lady, it’s supposed to express the budding feelings between two people who, previously, weren’t completely confident that they would find the right person. When Anne Hathaway sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” it isn’t just supposed to be another cleverly-placed ballad designed to move the audience to tears. It’s designed to make you empathize with this character. Who has not felt the pain of dashed dreams, even childish ones? This idea of empathy – the idea of making the audience FEEL something or connecting to a character – I believe lies at the root of both music and theater. Empathy is a beautiful, unique capability that we, as humans, possess. Musical theater is yet another way that we, as humans, can make one another empathize, as we have for centuries through a variety of means.
Also, I would just like to say that just because something presents a happy message – or, as Richard Nilsen calls it, “a distorted happy-face world view” – does not necessarily mean that it holds no artistic value. By Nilsen’s definition, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” are nothing more than silly little ditties.
Just wanted to share my thoughts. I’m sorry if you actually decided to read the whole thing through.

Written by Meg Huskin HHS 2013


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