Shut Up, You’re Welcome
Dear Musical Theater,
Let me be frank: I do not understand you.
I do not “get it.”
I’m deeply confused and possibly offended.
Theoretically, musical theater is something I should understand. For one thing, I understand music. As you know, I play in an indie rock band that’s so indie and so edgy, we haven’t even heard of ourselves. I’m also classically trained in piano and flute as well as a traditional Korean instrument called a gayageum. Its strings are thick and tough, and whenever I played too much, I got blood blisters. Question: How many people do you know who can shred on an instrument that dates back to the sixth century? Answer: Only one. That’d be me. So, really, I understand music. One might even say I’m a connoisseur; just check out my Deep Purple collection. In case you didn’t know, Deep Purple wrote songs about trucks. In space.
I, of course, understand theater. Someone talks and then someone else talks back. Then one of them yells or sobs. Most of the time, they do both. One of my friends has been involved with a number of avant-garde plays that explore different topics but always feature nudity. Those have been pretty good, I guess. They would’ve been better had they starred Captain Jean-Luc Picard (fully clothed). I know that if the play is by Shakespeare, there are a lot of words like “thine” and “hast” and questions like “Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?” If it’s by Mamet, there are questions like “You think this is abuse, you cocksucker?” I enjoy theater because it asks the questions we ask ourselves every day.
So yes, I understand music and I understand theater. But put them together and it becomes a riddle wrapped in a mystery stuffed inside an enigma, served with a side of trombones. Seventy-six of them to be exact.
I’m not sure why I don’t get it. It all seems so simple in concept: Something happens, something else happens, then another thing happens, and then curtains close, applause, applause. Then we get out of our seats and wonder if we should take a cab home or take the subway. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, their families don’t approve, the families fight, blah blah blah. Oh no! There is death! Sad face. The end. Taxi! It’s all very classic. You can’t go wrong with classic—that’s why I have four black sweaters. But the problem is the singing. And the sheer amount of it.
It’s not subtle singing either. The entire cast belts it out; their vocal cords are practically bursting through their O-shaped mouths. And the voices! They’re piercing or booming or breathy or deep or nasal or raspy, and with plenty of vibrato. Words are so annunciated that every syllable gets its own solo, its own spotlight: “Oak-ka-la-ho-ma, oh-kay!” The high notes last forever. And ever. And they keep going until the audience starts clapping. They wipe tears from their eyes—oh, that was so magical! I’d like to remind you that there’s no such thing as magic.
But wait! There’s more! There’s dancing that goes along with this singing. There are jazz hands and spirit fingers. There are pirouettes and tap-dancing, shuffle-ball-change, ta-da! There is skipping, sashaying, swooning. At some point someone leaps and does the splits in the air and touches his toes. It’s almost always a guy, because it’s impressive when a guy can touch his toes. The ladies get twirled around and lifted up. Sometimes by the crotch.
Let’s not forget the acting. There are big, fake grins and wide, gleaming eyes. There are gaping mouths to show horror! Surprise! Disgust! Flailing arms to show humor! Frustration! Outrage! There are plenty of overzealous jumps for joy with overzealous cheering, hip-hip-hooray! Who even says that anymore?
Perhaps what’s most confusing is the combination of dialogue with singing and dancing. There’s talking and talking and then you feel the conversation build up to something and then slowly the music sneaks in and there’s this sense of Oh my God, everyone, we are about to sing a rousing number, get ready for a kick line, and then soon people are singing while falling in love or dying or teaching a valuable lesson about life or wondering how to solve a problem like Maria, which is quite an awful thing to say, especially when it comes from a bunch of nuns. Nuns. A musical starring nuns. You can see why I might be puzzled. Why sing when you can talk? Why dance when you can just wave your hand once or twice?
What I simply can’t get over are the ridiculous segues into songs: “Well, partner, let me tell you a little story, and it goes a little something like this . . .” (cue music). No, no, this won’t do. Any writer, editor, teacher, or lover of English will tell you that the transition doesn’t work; it’s clunky and lazy. Plus in real life, no one ever introduces a little story that goes something like this—and then sings. There are rules and conventions we all follow. Without them it’s chaos, which is why at this very second there’s a pompous ass named Joseph singing about how his coat has so many amazing colors.
I do know people who enjoy musicals. I even know people who star in them. They’re all upbeat and enthusiastic and kindhearted, and they’re the people who show up to every
performance, reading, or event I’ve ever been involved with, no matter how painful it is. I’m going to generalize here and say they are among the most loyal people I know and perhaps have the highest pain threshold. But I just don’t feel the way these people feel about song and dance. Maybe something is dead inside of me.
Listen, if a guy came up to me wearing a white mask and wanted us to be lovers, I would Mace him. I would kick him while he was down, steal his wallet, and make fun of his cape. Oh yes, I would do all of this. Here’s what I wouldn’t do: break into song.
If an absurdly wealthy and very bald man wanted to adopt an adorable redheaded girl, I would say, “Good for you, ace! That’s great. But please, don’t sing about it.” Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have adopted at least a hundred children, but they never sing about it. I think we can all agree that this is a good thing.
If a group of cats were whining in an alley and prancing around the garbage cans, I’d have them spayed or neutered. I like cats, I really do. So imagine what I’d do if I didn’t like them.
I am 99 percent positive that Eva and Juan Perón did not sing to the people of Argentina.
What I’m trying to say here is that I’m confused. And perhaps this confusion is leading to some stronger emotions. Like rage. But I want to understand. When I watch a musical, I want to think, Oh, this is what it’s all about. I do not want to feel hate. Or disgust. I want the pain to go away.
So please explain yourself. You can start by answering this question: What the fuck?