Go Deeper

In Defense of Musical Theater: Sorry, Mr. McIlvain

Posted June 22nd, 2011

My supervisor, Mr. McIlvain, is usually a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Even his jokes about my being Canadian–though seemingly hurtful–never sting; they are as hilarious as the hit film Air Bud; I look forward to them every morning.

This afternoon I had my first disagreement with Mr. McIlvain. After stumbling onto the topic of musical theater, Mr. McIlvain went on a rant about the devolution of musical theater from something Gershwinly enjoyable to something Lloyd Webberingly offensive. When he referred to Sondheim as a composer who has destroyed musical theater, I put my foot down.

No, I literally put it down. Because we were walking, and it was my left foot’s turn to take a step.

No, I didn’t metaphorically put my foot down, because Mr. McIlvain doesn’t like attitude. Instead, I continued carrying his scalding coffee and occasionally wiping the sweat from his brow.

But yes, I put my foot down in my head.

Enough. This is my defense of musical theater.

After the jump, Lulu desperately defends her art of choice, and sings!

First of all, let’s start with Mr. McIlvain’s blind hatred of Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story, a modern day Romeo and Juliet, is not only heartbreakingly beautiful, but it is also a heated socio-political piece. The story revolves around an American boy, Tony, and a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, caught in the middle of a 1950s ethnic gang war between the American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Leonard Bernstein composed the iconic music, and who wrote the lyrics? Sondheim.

And let’s not forgot Sondheim’s Into The Woods, during which a witch raps about vegetables. Not cool enough? What about Company, during which people smoke weed, have sex, and drink? Is musical theater really “square?” (Do kids still use that word these days?) Is sex onstage square (Spring Awakening)? Is a twenty-person orgy square (Hair)?

When Mr. McIlvain challenged me to write this article, he stated that I wouldn’t be able to find five other twenty-year-olds who would write a defense of musical theater. With the popularization of the Fox show, Glee, I think I can safely say that Mr. McIlvain is likely wrong. And even without Glee, isn’t there Wicked? It’s been performed in thirty countries, and young girls are still painting themselves green, they are still casting spells, they are still adopting pet goats (thanks for taking Pilgor off my hands, mom).

Let’s flashback to 2007. I stand, sweating, in a high school bathroom, shoving a tofu-salami sandwich down my throat. It is the five-minute break during the SATs. I am about to do the verbal section. I head back into the room. I sit down. First word: automaton.

Oh of course. Automaton: a self-operating machine. I know the word. Why? Because I’ve seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

However corny it sounds, certain musical songs have shaped me. Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza” (The Light in the Piazza), Jacques Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” (Jacques Brel is Alive and Well), Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” (Candide). They are not silly songs. They are not fluff. They have substance and meaning.

No matter how many times I listen to these songs, I discover new musical and lyrical elements–countermelodies that complement, that are dissonant, words that are so simple, but so poignant. And then, there are those moments when some chord progression, some phrase, sparks a realization about myself.

To me, Guettel captured what love sounds like in his score. It pulls at the tempo, pushing it, holding it back. It jumps across octaves, it leaps from major to minor. Whenever I hear Brel, I think of listening to Jacques Brel is Alive and Well on an old record in my living room with my mother. I remember really listening to Brel’s lyrics (though translated from French), being captivated by each story and each character: what really happened to the poor shlub waiting for Madeleine, eager to take her to the picture show? The music in Candide is incredibly complex, but the message in the final song, “Make Our Garden Grow” is so simple, as is the melody: such simplicity runs parallel to the song’s meaning about how fulfilling a simple life, full of love, can be. Anyone can understand the song, anyone can hum it.

Still, I’m sorry about Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s a little obnoxious. But everyone loves an Elvis Presley Egyptian pharaoh now and then (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). Without him, we wouldn’t have “Memory” (Cats).

I’m a musical theater nerd, and maybe I’m arguing for a lost cause. Maybe there’s no hope. But ever since I saw my first musical fifteen years ago, Showboat, I’ve been in love. Now I’m getting mushy. It looks like its time for my power ballad.

–Lulu Krause

Ten very cool twenty-year-olds who would gladly write an article about musical theater:

p.s. Yes, it was Lulu Krause who made a twelve second appearance on the Canadian reality T.V. show Triple Sensation, a nation wide competition for Canada’s best young triple threat.