Musicals that Transport and Musicals that Transform
Recently, a Facebook friend of mine started a debate over which people preferred: escapist musicals that transport us to a happier place or thought-provoking musicals that evolve our minds to new perspectives. I found this debate startling because I always thought the answer to this question was obvious. It surprised me to see how many people were dismissing the value of the lighthearted musical comedy. Of course, musicals that transport and musicals that transform are equally essential to the world of musical theatre and it all depends on what you need and when you need it.
"Ah, hold on" you say, wondering how I could give escapist musicals equal weight with more cerebral theatrical experiences. This argument is as old as the West Side Story losing the Best Musical Tony Award to The Music Man debate that rouses everyone's ire. Musicals that take us out of our reality and transport us into escapist fun are the very foundations of how this art form started. Early musical hits were entertainment first, a reason for people to get out of the house and forget about life for a while. In fact, during the Great Depression, musical comedy evolved to be the most popular form of musical theatre entertainment, eventually besting the crowd-pleasing pageantry of operetta. When people are feeling lousy, poor, depressed, or life is just handing them lemon after lemon, the escapism brought about by musicals such as Anything Goes, Me and My Girl, Kiss Me, Kate, Crazy For You, Hello, Dolly!, Spamalot, or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a justified value. It's putting joy into the world where (and sometimes when) people need it the most. It really depends on what your mind and your heart are looking for, or needing from, your theatre experience. I think it is fair to say that not everyone attends a musical to be educated or put in the position of examining troubling subject matter.
On the reverse of the coin, there is a great deal to admire in a musical that realigns our thinking, encouraging us to look at the world in a new way. The musical theatre form would have remained stagnant if pieces like Porgy & Bess, Show Boat, Carousel, West Side Story, Gypsy or Sweeney Todd hadn't come along to awaken our psyches and challenge our perceptions of the world. The visceral response we feel when we are gutted by a musical and its message is a special brand of emotional dialysis that cannot be equivocated with any other entertainment experience. It cleanses, purifies, and sometimes it even steels us against the harshness of the world. It is easy to see how some might debate the superiority of musicals that can achieve this eye-opening magic.
So, as this debate goes on, I will remain a fence-sitter as I recall how a performance of Mame transported me away from the depression I felt by my parent's ugly divorce, just as Into the Woods came into that same scenario a month later and gave me the clarity to understand my parent's imperfections and humanity. Neither one outweighs the other in my mind and I am truly grateful for both. Their inherent values are as much about what we, as an audience, bring to the art form of the Broadway musical and we assign transportation and transformation their gravitas when and where we need to. I find it impossible to dismiss a musical as inferior just because it succeeds with humor, joy and levity where others cast their spell with irony, introspection and unique perspectives.