Last post I talked about musical expression in musicals. Now I’ll talk about how the theatre side of Musical Theatre can also be used as a form of expression. Despite being a huge fan and wanting to study the Art, I’ve not actually been lucky enough to see many musicals. Most of the ones I’ve watched were performed at the HKAPA, which despite being the best we have, is a rather pathetically small stage in comparison with other international stages. So what I say is slightly limited, although I do try to be objective.
One of my favorite musicals by far is Richard O’Brien’s “Rocky Horror Show”. Musically, it hasn’t got as much continuity as I would like, hence expression via the music itself is slightly lacking (note that I don’t mean expression through performance but solely the score). However, the dramatic side is astounding.
The Rocky Horror show is what my girlfriend and I often describe as ‘Theatre or Cruelty in a musical’, the way the characters are written, the plot, the costumes in addition to the music is what makes the entire show horribly uncomfortable but at the same time a timeless piece of art.
Theory preamble: Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is a is a theatrical form categorized by a rejecting of social norms on stage. It is an attempt to showcase the darkest inner parts of humanity, according to Artaud the theater should not be an escape but a realization of our inner darkness. In every performance there is a general feeling of unease, disgust and fear amongst the audience; and that is what Artaud wanted. (see: http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/academy/theatres/theatre%20of%20cruelty.htm).
Now in the Rocky Horror Show, the main antagonist, Dr. Frankenfurter, is a mad scientist creating a man, he has very little empathy, oh and he performs the entire show in drag. This already is uncomfortable for many members of the audience, I know I performed his title song “Sweet Transvestite” once and even only half in drag the audience were shocked.
However, there is one particular scene of interest that I think illustrates how the Rocky Horror Show, and of course expanding out to Musical Theatre, can be used expressively. (Note: I speak from the movie because I haven’t actually seen it on stage, I’ve watched some performances of the scene I’m about to talk about on Youtube but I think that the movie version is the most apt). Close to the climax of the Musical, Dr. Frankenfurter has hypnotized most members of the main cast and put them all in very revealing drag, especially the men, and they sing a sequence of songs in which they let out their inner sex drives. One particular song: “Don’t Dream It – Be It” is slow, lyrical, atmospheric, almost like a trance, however it is in this song that I realized how Artaud the entire show is – half way through the song, all the characters lose control and have an underwater orgy.
The scene realizes one of the greatest human fears: loss of control. Being put in drag by a mad scientist and then losing all your self control and giving in to your most animalistic, sexual desires. The scene is wholly unnerving. The music truly aids it by repeating the same slow phrase, slowly building up vocal and instrumental harmonies. Until Dr. Scott enters, the texture doesn’t change that much and even after his magnificent loss of control as he finds that he too is in drag, the musical texture quickly dies back down when Brad sings. The music almost beckons the audience to join in, it sounds so innocent, so pure, yet at the same time no one on stage has any self control.
As Dr. Scott says: We’ve got to get out of this trap
Before this decadence saps our will
I’ve got to be strong and try to hang on
Or my mind may well snap
Und my life will be lived for the thrills…
The question now is, can this sort of expression be done in another Art form? I would argue maybe, but not quite in the same way. Musical Theatre has the ability to bring together very talented actors and musicians, trained professionals in two very expressive art forms. It has the ability to portray a message through Music and through Theatre. The only question that remains now is: why doesn’t it?
Perhaps that’s not a question though, that’s a goal.
And that is what Musical Theatre is to me.