The above quote is often ascribed to the French satirist Voltaire, all the way back in the 18th Century. Whether or not he said it first, it was certainly in circulation by the time of George Bernard Shaw, who referenced it in Man and Superman… which means it also would have been known by the time Gilbert & Sullivan were hitting their stride.
What would W.S. Gilbert’s reaction have been to such a damning statement about his lucrative profession, crafting lyrics and librettos for musical theater? In my mind’s eye I see him considering for a moment, then shrugging, nodding, and toasting the notion with a shot of something appropriately alcoholic (he was a species of writer, after all).
I firmly believe that the first rule of making a successful musical is in realizing the inherent absurdity of the art form, and I think every successful lyricist and composer understands this. Once you’re past that, though, you can paradoxically craft some amazing shit that has the potential to move hearts and minds in a way simple prose or speech can’t match. There are so many aspects of the human condition that even the greatest writers have struggled to express. What is love? What is beauty? The answers to these questions can end up sounding… well, really, really stupid.
And then some clever bugger somewhere along the line realized, hey… let’s put some music and dance in with those words and let them all gel into something greater than any element would have been on its own. Mixed together in the right amounts, seasoned with the correct surroundings, there is storytelling magic to be made, a bridge of existential communication on a massive and undeniable bandwidth; I would go so far as to say humans realized this pretty early on if tribal ceremonies are anything to go by, and it might be weird to point to something like Chicago as the modern refinement of the concept, but there you are.
It’s no coincidence this piece comes on the heel’s of Erik’s from earlier this week. I particularly liked his thoughts on what makes a true movie musical, which I could go so far as to argue is the ultimate refinement of the form. Anyone can throw a bunch of random songs into a story, but it doesn’t make it a musical. A true musical, a well-crafted musical, is something where people talk until they just can’t express what they’re feeling properly anymore through speech alone– which is when they start singing and dancing, goddamit. They have no choice. It is the least stupid option.
Am I not making sense? Think about your average direct-to-video animated flick, where there’s that groanworthy moment the dialog drops away and you realize it’s time for a song. The only reason that song is there is because some checklist somewhere says it has to be, because that’s how these cartoons work, right? The Little Mermaid made soooo much money, after all, so all we’ve gotta do is throw in those ingredients and we’ve got magic.
Sure. The same way we dump sugar, batter, eggs and milk into a bowl, shove it into an oven and get a cake. Technically all the ingredients are there, but if there’s no care in the making, it’s going to turn out, at best, as a somewhat palatable mess.
It’s unfortunate that the musical is so often seen and treated as fluff, something any group of hacks could churn out where the pomp and spectacle can cover for bad writing. If anything, there should be more care taken with the creation and presentation of musicals–especially movie musicals. Erik was not wrong when he wrote that in a movie musical, the camera demands that the world around it exist. It’s not our world, because in our world people don’t tend to spontaneously burst into song and dance (flash mobs excepted), but it has to feel real in a way other movies can just gloss over. The inherent stupidity has to be embraced, emphasized–venerated. Control of the camera, of sound, of every movement and facial expression of the actors (and for that matter, the extras) become crucial things, where any slip-up is noticeable. On top of all that, a dynamite editor is going to be mandatory.
Look, even a stage musical requires incredible amounts of coordination. Taking that and adapting it to cinema? And doing it well? This is why Chicago deserved every bit of gold plating on its Oscars for Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, and of course, Best Picture. Musical numbers like “Razzle Dazzle”, “Press Conference Rag” and “Mr. Cellophane” alone are mini-masterworks, and relish in their freedom from the confines of the stage, the camera cutting seamlessly between the reality of what’s happening and the fantasy that’s an even truer representation of what’s happening. In a way you could point to that as a wink on the genre, since a lot of the actual singing and dancing takes place on the “fantasy” level, while the talky bits cut back to the mundane.
Of course, it’s the mundanity of the musical, that meticulously crafted shared world of suspended disbelief, allowing for a uniquely sublime idiocy that keeps our conscious minds engaged while also slipping right by them to deliver a potent cocktail of flash, sound, and motion to the rest of us. In the best musicals, every aspect of that cocktail is helping and reinforcing the same message your forebrain is picking up.
That heady, crazy message the authors and directors and actors and everyone else involved wanted to convey.
The message too stupid to be said.
To see the post that got me started, check out Erik’s rumination on what makes a movie musical. Or for thoughts on a different artistic endeavor with superlative sensory potential, read David’s discussion on why restaurants fail.