What Musical Theatre is to me: Part 1, actual music

A few weeks ago I participated in the Summer Musical School at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. For the past few years they’ve been performing shows written by their staff. This year the show was directed by award winning song writer Charles Teo (he’s taken ladies) and written by Louisa Caraffi (she’s also taken). (No not by each other you sick person).

The musical was called “New Kids on the Block”; a jukebox musical featuring memorable songs such as the not-annoying-enough-yet “Let it go” and classics such as “Big, Big, Girl” and “What Makes You Beautiful”. Usually I try to stay away from dance heavy musicals because I can’t dance, but in all honesty I had no idea what type of show this was, just that it would be good work experience for me. No seriously, I didn’t know what character I was auditioning for, good thing I got through eh?

Anyway, I’ve watched quite a few musicals, I’ve listened to a lot of musicals, I’ve been in a few and I’ve written one; so although I’m not professional, I’d like to think I have a leg to stand on when I talk about them. For me, NKotB was barely anything like anything I’ve seen before.

*disclaimer: sometimes I might go a bit too far with criticisms, in all honesty I really enjoyed being in the cast and I would do it again. The songs too, I didn’t like the song choice but GOD I loved the arrangements…*

Despite not being the most amazing show I’ve been in or seen, having a different experience on a topic I’m familiar with really made me think about what musical theatre really means…to me.

Our playwright and director, Louisa talked in rehearsal once about how to think about performance in a musical: “you have to deal with the acting which already a whole lot, then the music which is another lot, then the dance which is also a whole lot”. Yes, in a musical is a whole lot of lots. But seriously, it is. For me dance was never an integral part of the musical theatre genre, but I guess it still is for many people (see dance heavy shows such as: Chicago, Starlight Express and Cats vs Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop Of Horrors). However, this is just the practical side, what about the expressive side?

This question might come as a surprise to some common-goers of Musicals because the genre isn’t usually attached to being a vehicle of expression or criticism, contrary to a lot of modern art. The question therefore is, why can’t it be? I’ve said before that I totally believe, beyond reasonable doubt and to an overly enthusiastic and borderline insane degree, that music in itself can be treated as a language with the ability to express meaning. Theatre has often prided itself also in the ability to express, in fact a lot of modern abstract Theatre exists for this reason (see: Theatre of Creulty, for example). Postmodern Art, yet another example of how Art is used nowadays to express meaning and criticism; just a few days ago I was at an exhibition of Chinese artist Xu Bing who, using pictures, tried to create a universal language (I don’t think it worked but that’s a story for another day).

book from the ground

So back to Musicals. This genre, unlike any other, combines Drama and Music…minimum, often dance too. Sometimes, if particularly ballsy, visual Arts, electronic media etc also come into play. So why can’t Musical Theatre be used as a vehicle of expression? Personally, I would argue that this view is simply a social mindset that Broadway is for gays but then I look at the Musical Theatre boom and I get worried. On one hand, I’m happy that more people are looking into Musicals as an expanding Art form, on the other hand…everything has a Musical now and very few are particularly profound Musicals.

Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say expression. Compare the ethical dilemmas of Les Mis. or Ms. Saigon against some more modern Musicals such as Matilda or Shrek. Take for example when Javert, after having his life spared by Valjean jumps into the river Seine and dies; of course Victor Hugo wrote the plot, but the expression is just as strong Musically. The song itself is instrumentally almost an exact replica as Valjean’s Solioquy, by sharing the same music but changing the lyrics, the audience contrast what is essentially Valjean and Javert’s inner monologues. The song then ends with an instrumental reprise of Javert’s solo song “Stars” playing as he jumps to his death, the lyrics of “Stars” was when Javert swore to never back down from finding and putting Valjean in jail, even to his death the music shows this. Here, for your perusal:

Now, a more modern Musical: Shrek (Jeanine Tesori, 2008), not a bad musical in it’s own right but not sharing the same musical strength as Les Mis. More often than not, what the song says shares little with what the music says: take for example the song “Build a Wall”, this song is sung after Shrek hears Fiora say “Who would love a hideous ugly beast” and subsequently leaves Donkey and Fiora (in the movie I believe this is during Hallelujah). Have a listen for yourself:

The song, like most of the musical, has a distinctly 70s feel to it although this one might crossover a little into punk rock. One could argue that the grungy feel of the song aids in showing Shrek’s displeasure with Fiora, that’s a valid argument but there’s not much more to say. The ending of the song does bring to mind the overture:” Big, Bright, Beautiful World” which is ironic of course because Shrek is putting himself essentially behind bars away from the world. However, this is barely scraping the level of musical expression that Schoenberg and Boublil were writing in Les Mis. This is just the musical side, without being lucky enough to watch either Musical, this is what I gathered from listening to the album alone. Now let’s add some Drama.

*Second disclaimer: I’m really not saying that all modern musicals are bad, I actually really like Shrek, I just find that some of the more famous shows express a bit better. There are also some old ones that I find express nothing at all, but that’s a story for another day.*



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