Some people dislike musicals. While this is hard to believe, it is nonetheless true. Admittedly, that’s kind of like saying that you don’t like sunshine, happiness, and kittens, but some people are disturbed enough to suggest that these things are actually unpleasant. Apparently some poor souls cannot understand the joys of singing in the rain, song and dance, or food (glorious food). Some in the scientific community are endeavoring to prove that the brains of those who don’t understand the joys of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens actually function differently than those of the regular populace. Music can transcend the individuals’ culture, language, and biases to bring all to a place of common understanding…unless, of course, you’re just too cool for them.
Musicals are designed to appeal to every possible aspect of the human personality. In our darkest moments, we may be channeling “No Place Like London” from Sweeney Todd, convinced the world is full of diabolical judges who will send us to Australia so that they can steal our wives. When we’re strapped for cash we may wish we were rich men like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof. And who among us have not been filled with angst while contemplating what we did for love, like Cassie in Chorus Line? Humans universally respond to music, and when set to a story it amplifies our understanding of characters, of the story, and ultimately of each other. You know if Lola in Damn Yankees would have just said, “Hey, we’re gonna date,” it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful as her singing “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets…” Songs can convey complex emotions while engaging us in the moment in an intense and amplified way.
Throughout the history of musicals, certain names became synonymous with excellence. Sometimes, though, the most popular of teams were not necessarily the most prolific. Rodgers and Hammerstein, the incredibly well known duo that created Oklahoma! only ever did six large scale projects filmed for the big screen, of which The Sound of Music was the last. Sondheim had almost that many Tony Awards for Best Musical, winning one more Tony than a surely jealous Andrew Lloyd Webber. The history of musicals and musical theater is riddled with names that even those completely unconnected with theater would recognize.
But no matter how deep the traditions of musical theater run, new talent is rewarded and appreciated. Bye Bye Birdie, the musical which debuted Dick Van Dyke in his first musical comedy role, was never expected to be a success. With almost no big names, one critic said that the best thing to be said for it was that no one important was in it. After becoming one of the most popular musicals ever to hit Broadway, being nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning four, and being made into a hit movie, Bye Bye Birdie still stands as a testament to the creative power of individuals willing to take risks for their art form. The possibility of something new is part of what keeps us going back over and over again.
In this way, musical theater is the most open art form to the public. It doesn’t matter what a critic says nearly as much as it matter whether or not a show speaks to its audience. There have been critically well written flops, and hits written by nobodies. While it’s true that in the stories of our real lives we don’t burst into song when we’re being abandoned in Saigon, coming to terms with our green skin, or being forced to leave our village in Russia because of our ethnicity, some part of us strongly identifies with the characters that do.