My nieces are visiting me this weekend. The girls, ages 10 and 11, are both musically inclined. While living with me last summer, they both began studying the piano. Since that time, they have left the instrument behind and pursued other endeavors. Kristian, the oldest, plays the trumpet while Sara, her sister, is a budding vocalist with quite a nice sound.
After a busy day of activity, we sat down to watch some television last evening. Kristian browsed the many music DVDs that are on top of the entertainment center that I use in my music appreciation class. One movie caught her eye, however; she and Sara wanted to watch Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music.
I must admit that I was flabbergasted at the request. In my mind, I expected that they merely wanted to hear a couple of the more famous numbers and would quickly lose interest. To my surprise (and great pleasure), the girls quickly became enthralled in the plot and found themselves humming along with the memorable melodies.
I began to ponder the appeal of musical theater. When we first look at the form, it doesn't sound like something that should really work. How often do we find ourselves in conversation and then suddenly break into song? If you do break into song, people tend to look at you as though you are INSANE rather than as though they are falling in love with you! Even more rare is for the other person to enter into the conversation by joining you in a second verse of the song.
I think there are a few reasons that the American musical works and continues to be a thriving art form. First, the characters and themes are universal. Whether the story is set in Oklahoma, Siam, or a French barricade, we all understand what it is like to be in love, misunderstood, and unsure of ourselves. We can identify with Annie's longing to be a part of a family or Oliver's search for unconditional love.
Second, music can express emotions more effectively than words alone. The example that is currently on my mind is from The Sound of Music. The lyrics of "Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good" are beautiful alone; once they are paired with a simple, yet passionate melody, however, they take on a life of their own and clearly express the growing love between Maria and Captain von Trapp. Need a few more examples? Think about "Memory" from Cats, Les Miserables' "Bring Him Home", and "He Had It Coming" from Chicago for more examples of emotionally explicit music.
Finally, the musical's power is found in its ability to transport us into the story in a way that movies cannot. While the musical uses the same ingredients as the modern movie -- specifically plot, scenery, and score -- the musical magically draws the audience deep into the action and makes them an active observer in the powerful drama. While I can't explain the "why" behind the phenomenon, I know it occurs based upon my personal experience. It is this quality that makes the American musical attractive to young and old alike, as demonstrated last night in my home.
I have had the joy of watching a classic movie musical with Kristian and Sara. Last summer, they had their first experience with a live show: the national touring production of Wicked. I think it's time to have a return visit to the theater with these girls and see if I can insure that they are bitten by the musical theater bug....it's an adventure that I hope they will continue to enjoy for the rest of their lives.