Why We Do/n’t Need Musicals


It’s boilerplate in the 21st century for guys to hate on musicals. I have one male acquaintance who — his girlfriend complains — prefaces every musical they watch together with his natural prejudice against it, only to have his biases debunked by every Sound of Music or Singin’ in the Rain that TCM dredges up. But straight men who say they’ll submit to the genre for the sake of not pissing off their girlfriends could not account for all the haters out there. If they did, we’d have more Broadway shows that aren’t just cribbed from the tried-and-true jukebox, and more of those would make their way to the silver screen — where people of all genders and orientations would pay for more tickets. Sure, there was probably some date-accommodation at play back when Fred Astaire was still twirling, but straight men like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen happily devoured musicals as children. Since the ’60s, though, the form has been on the outs; even Disney doesn’t foist songs on children anymore. We’ve become either too cool or tone deaf.

Honestly, I accepted my own apathy toward the genre as a given until recently, when I popped my Les Mis cherry at the local cineplex. No, I wasn’t bowled over by it — but I was surprised, being a so-called movie buff and all, that watching it was like watching a foreign film without subtitles. One thing just led to another — linked, maybe, by little recitatives pulled out of Russell Crowe like teeth. And everyone just kinda said what was on their mind. That probably isn’t the way they talked “back then,” but it certainly isn’t the way we talk now. The late-60s end date is relevant: We haven’t really gone in for Big Emotions since then. Millennials can’t shake the persistent rap that we say everything in air quotes; and when we try to buck the trend, our Feelings still have an asterisk appended to them. They have to be qualified — as they are by Lena Dunham’s character on Girls. Self-doubt is a healthy byproduct of a liberal education, and getting rid of it is about as easy as getting your virginity back. (You left the receipt WHERE?!?) Unfortunately, these nuances don’t translate well to big musical numbers.

I’m not nostalgic for ignorance — nor for Javert and Astaire. But let’s walk the tap shoe one step back. Bear with me, as I’m generalizing, but who was it that was primarily responsible for writing, directing, and starring in musicals? Gay people! And why? Because they gave gay men a socially acceptable way to be gay in public. Singing in the shower is one thing; but those of us who’ve sung before an audience — even those of us who didn’t sing on a musical-theater stage — know it’s a way to liberate emotions that get congealed in plain speech or wrap around your organs like cancer when they’re stuck inside. Musicals offer chances to be straightforward that older generations of gay men, especially as teens doing theater in high school, didn’t otherwise enjoy. But the birth of irony — the afterbirth of cool — approximately coincides with the Stonewall riots of 1969. Gay people started to be gay on the national stage. And that’s a good thing.

…except in the case of musical theater. Sure, I’ve gleefully ignored the obvious counter-trend. To be honest, I’ve given the show alluded to the benefit of my eyeballs only once; but by the time the kids took to celebrating the continuance of their club’s funding with an acoustic-guitar rendition of the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” / “Wonderful World” mashup, the vomit had risen to my molars. I had to turn the TV off before I flung the remote at it. It left me with the impression that Glee is the bastard child of hipster-insider irony, an unholy marriage of air quote and pom-pom. It’s not like Les Mis, which has made bank on its resolute squareness. The question is: Will it make enough to inspire a full-on reunion of song with screen? I’m down with giving up the musical as long as we don’t compromise our ability to sing.

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image – Les Misérables