I adore plays and musicals, but after a five-hour bus ride to Ashland, I was lethargic and wished that we could just stay in our hotel rooms the first evening. Walking around the town woke me up but made me much less willing to sit through a play. That night I was seeing “My Fair Lady,” a musical based on the play “Pygmalion.” I had read the play twice, read the musical once, and seen the movie one-and-a-half times. I liked it, but not enough to look forward to another three hours of the same story.
Minutes after the production started, I had completely changed my mind. And by the end, I was mentally preparing to squelch my indignation when my friends told me how stupid musicals were.
I was surprised when I realized how many people I know dislike musicals, but I understand why they would feel that way. It’s a waste of time to repeat the same thought over and over in song form rather than move on with the plot. It’s ridiculous when characters break into song and dance, especially in a serious scene.
When I was younger, I, too, preferred my stories without embellishments. The first time I saw an opera, I told my mom that it was very good, except for all the singing. (It was quite bad, but my parents still find that comment funny.) I had no patience with books that rhymed. A book should be interesting; who cares if it sounds good? And I certainly hadn’t developed the love I have now for musicals. Although I did like “The Sound of Music” and “Mary Poppins” the music was a hurdle that impeded the story.
I got over my distaste for musicals years ago, but if I hadn’t, I think seeing “My Fair Lady” in Ashland would have forced a change of heart. Everything about the staging of the play was an encouragement to suspend one’s disbelief and simply enjoy it. The singers were accompanied by two pianos placed conspicuously in the center of the stage. The chorus sat in seats raised slightly above the stage, viewing the whole play, interacting with the other characters, and reacting to whatever was happening. I thought this was incredibly clever. Not only was it fun to watch the pianists and background singers, but their presence drove home the point that musicals are not meant to be scrutinized for realism. They are meant to be enjoyed.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “My Fair Lady” perfectly illustrated why I no longer think of songs as distracting from or delaying the plot. Who cares if the songs seem out of place to those caught up on practicality? Of all art, music is the most evocative. A couple sentences spoken by a character can get a point across, but a good song is much more moving, forcing the audience to appreciate what the characters are feeling. Yes, it can be incredibly cheesy and unrealistic, but I’m not convinced that that’s a bad thing.
I know I’m biased in favor of musicals; I enjoy even the worst of them. However, I’ve learned to withhold my vexation when people tell me that they dislike them. Musicals are definitely not for everyone. But please, don’t call them stupid.