The other day a friend of mine went to see Sessions. I asked her how she liked it and she said, “I didn’t expect it to be so heavy. I guess when I saw “musical” I expected “light”. Huh.
As a life long devotee to Sondheim, who’s every musical (even the deceptively named Follies) is filled with some combination of longing, regret, despair, confusion, anger, revenge, lethargy, emptiness, callousness, greed, murder, mental illness, and scorn, the last thing I tend to expect from a musical is “light”. Even the first song from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (“Comedy Tonight”) takes the time to tell you what you will NOT see: NO ROYAL CURSE, // NO TROJAN HORSE, // AND A HAPPY ENDING, OF COURSE! // GOODNESS AND BADNESS, // MAN IN HIS MADNESS, // THIS TIME IT ALL TURNS OUT ALL RIGHT! // TRAGEDY TOMORROW! // COMEDY TONIGHT! as if to caution “If you’ve come here for the typical Sondheim fare you’ll be disappointed by all the jubilation!” Of course Sondheim is brilliant in any mood, so there’ no fear of disappointment, it’s just rarely does a musical start off with the disclaimer WARNING … HAPPY ENDING AHEAD!
When musicals first started out they were long on musical numbers and short on plot — a hold over from Vaudeville, Burlesque and … dare I say it … Minstrel Shows. It wasn’t until around the 20s when composers like George and Ira Gershwin, (Richard) Rogers & (Lorenz) Hart and Cole Porter burst onto the scene that Broadway Musicals took a giant step forward. And as quaint as we like to paint early shows such as Of Thee I Sing now, they were written in direct response to the times as a way to distract everyone from what was happening. Filled with Busby Berkeley numbers where beautiful girls kaleidoscoped their way through hopeful tunes before the boy got the girl in the end. As the saying goes … That’s Entertainment!
So how did all of THAT lead to musicals now that almost come with a warning label: Caution: May lead to depression or thoughts of suicide? When did Oh What A Beautiful Morning! (Oklahoma!), Confidence In Me (Sound of Music) and Happy Talk (South Pacific) turn into Ugly Boy (Bat Boy), The Bitch of Living (Spring Awakening), and It Sucks to be Me (Avenue Q)?
Well, I’ll tell you when. When Broadway Musicals started reflecting life realistically as opposed to showing it sorta realistically and then distracting you with a pretty song. Take a closer look at all those fluffy musicals that were the standard and you’ll see they hid just as much double crossing, adultery, murderous intent and skulduggery as anything thing from today, but they couched it all in soaring tunes that had swells of violins and the occasional harp flutter thrown in.
Obfuscated Plot #1: A lonely widow takes herself and her kid halfway round the world to a strange culture to work in a job where she’s treated like a second class citizen by her boss, constantly reminded that she’s inferior, and when she finally starts feeling good about things her boss dies. There’s a stable of women who are considered his gifts or property, and when they fall in love with anyone but the king, it’s literally life-threatening.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: I Whistle a Happy Tune, Shall We Dance?, Something Wonderful.
Obfuscated Plot #2: A poor woman doing what she can to survive in the dirty streets of London is made an example of when a snotty man makes a bet on her future. He verbally abuses her, constantly reminds her that she’s inferior, and takes total credit for her transformation when she finally DOES re-invent herself. He denies all feelings for her, though he has them. When she leaves, he lets her … and just when you’re saying “good for her!” she comes crawling back to him.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: I Could Have Danced All Night, You Did It.
Obfuscated Plot #3: A young girl is being trained to be some random man’s high priced whore because that is her lot in life. She’s encouraged to learn how to please a man and forget her own wants and desires. Her old aunt (who was also a high priced whore) constantly reminds her that she’s inferior and shouldn’t be thinking thoughts of her own. When she’s finally taken for a test drive by the rich man who, up till now, was just like a brother to her, he doesn’t like how she’s “all grown up” and not the silly little girl she used to be. He treats her rudely, take her home, and when she begs him to take her on as his mistress he spurns her again. Eventually he takes her back but only if he can do the right thing and marry her … making her an “honest woman”.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: Thank Heaven for Little Girls, The Night They Invented Champagne.
Obfuscated Plot #4: A young nurse is sent far away to tend to soldiers during the war. Among some of the other people who are there is a soldier who’s having lots and lots and lots of sex with an island girl, despite the fact that he’s a racist and constantly reminded that she’s inferior. When cornered, he refuses to make an honest woman of her. Meanwhile the nurse has fallen for some rich guy but when she finds out his kids are not 100% Caucasian she throws all her racists paranoia at him and runs away. She comes back, but only because she thought he might be dead.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: A Cockeyed Optimist, Honey Bun, Some Enchanted Evening, I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.
Obfuscated Plot #5: A young woman is married to a king but finds she’s desperately in love with someone else whom she can’t be with. She’s bored, under utilized, and constantly reminded that she’s inferior. When she tries to run away with her true love, they wind up ruining the whole kingdom. She’s forced to become a nun, which is better than the burning at the steak deal that was supposed to be her lot.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: Lusty Month of May, Then You May take Me To The Fair
Obfuscated Plot #6: A young woman works in a factory, toiling away at the looms. She falls in love with a bad boy who’s rough and abusive and doing so makes everyone in the town treat her as if she’s inferior. He marries her, but still can’t shape up, and is rude and violent. When she tells him she’s pregnant he considers “doing the right thing” by going out and stealing so he can provide for his baby. He winds up botching the job and dying mid-robbery, leaving his widow to raise the child by herself. The child herself is shunned and constantly reminded she’s inferior. When the dead dad visits his daughter as a ghost he winds up slapping her.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: A Real Nice Clambake, Because it’s June, When the Children Are Asleep.
Obfuscated Plot #7: A young woman from another country comes to NYC with her family and her brother joins a gang of street thugs who are in a war with another gang of street thugs. She meets a guy who seems to like her but when everyone finds out he’s in the other gang, she’s told to keep away from him. The boy is told to keep away from her kind too … as they are all inferior. The boy winds up killing the girl’s brother and then gets killed himself in a street fight. The girl cradles his bloody body and tries to kill everyone else there with a gun.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: Tonight, I Feel Pretty, America.
Obfuscated Plot #8: A young girl has a sister who is beautiful and talented … and spoiled. The young girl is starving for attention but is ignored by everyone, especially her mother, who only bothers to talk to her when she’s reminding her that she’s inferior. When the beautiful sister runs away with the boy the girl has had a crush on this whole time, the girl’s mother forces her to take up stripping in order to support the family. The girl is mortified but the mother literately pushes her on to the stage in front of a group of lecherous men. The girl learns how to be a better stripper and after she gains some self esteem tells her mom to stay out of her life. The narcissistic mother takes this moment to tell the world that it was SHE who was the big star all along anyway, despite the fact that she’s talking to herself in an empty dressing room and no one actually gives a damn about her.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: Mr. Goldstone I Love You, Little Lamb, All I Need Now is the Girl.
And last but not least:
Obfuscated Plot #9: A young woman is trying to become a nun but keeps bumbling her way through it. She goes to a mean man’s house and tries to raise his kids for him, but they play tricks on her. The man back up his rotten kids, and constantly reminders her that she’s inferior. Eventually he realizes he loves this woman and leaves his (more age-appropriate) fiancee behind in order to marry her. Just when everyone is happy the worst happens and the Nazis force them across the boarder – they lose everything.
Catchy Tunes with Sunny Titles Intended To Distract You From Horrifying Plot Developments: The Hills are Alive, The Lonely Goatherd, So Long, Farewell … heck … ALL OF THEM!
While there’ll always be a place in my heart for these classics which I was weaned on, these days I expect my musical to be dark bullets of reality that nick my shoulder and drop me to the ground … allowing me to bleed out slowly. These days I’d rather have my reality served up modern-day-musical style, where people stop singing in the middle of the song for an AZT break and the curtain only comes down when most of the main characters are dead.