I detested musicals as a child. I remember being dragged to watch Les Miserables and Miss Saigon while on vacation in Toronto, and loathing every moment. I needed action. There had to be some kind of contest (preferably a fight with swords or guns) going on, and in absence of that at least an exciting plot. That characters would stop every five or six minutes to sing a song drove me crazy; it seemed so affected and pointless.
But I was kind of missing the point, wasn’t I? Of the classic American musicals, from Oklahoma to West Side Story to Grease, I can’t think of a single one whose story fulfills my basic dramatic expectations (i.e., if any of the musicals were stripped of the music, the plots wouldn’t satisfy me in a normal play or movie). West Side Story probably comes closest by following the Romeo-Juliet plot to the letter, but if I were to try to sum up my feelings about Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s musical, how I felt about Maria and Tony’s love affair not working out would probably not factor at all. All I remember are scenes and musical numbers: the Jets snapping their fingers and engaging in not-very-intimidating shows of force, Tony repeating ‘Maria’ over and over again with a look of beatific idiocy on his face, hemlines snapping in every which direction during ‘America.’ Many great musicals, like Grease and Oklahoma, have fairly interesting conflicts which capture our interest in the middle sections, but inevitably they end things in abrupt fashion—Sandy abandons her goody-two-shoes-ness and struts on stage in a tight leather skirt with almost no explanation; Jud conveniently just dies in an accident.
Once I thought dissatisfying plots was a limitation of the form, but I’m starting to think maybe I was wrong about that, too. Maybe musicals shouldn’t have overly interesting plots.
The best musical plots are in animated Disney movies, especially the ones that came out in the late 80s through the 90s. But because those are cartoons, I think they encompass more possibilities. There are also examples of non-animated Disney movies with musical numbers—the most recent I can think of is Enchanted. But is Enchanted really a musical? I think there are three full-blown songs, all sung by the same character.
I think musicals have to be fun. There’s no getting around it. What I hated about them when I was little was that the songs seemed to break the continuity—I was waiting for something exciting to actually happen, and grew frustrated when a song delayed the event. But musicals all have a performance aspect which doesn’t necessarily want the audience to be thinking too much, connecting plot point A to plot point B. They want us to get caught up in the moment, and enjoy ourselves.
Rock of Ages is the type of project I am inclined to be prejudiced towards. It recycles ‘80s glam rock songs as musical numbers and shoehorns them and their not-too-specific lyrics into an entirely pointless plot (something about a bar closing on the Sunset Strip, and making it in showbiz). This is a (hugely successful) marketing ploy, just like using Green Day’s catalogue for American Idiot is a marketing ploy and using Billy Joel’s catalogue for Movin’ Out was a marketing ploy. Hundreds of songwriters and lyricists get reminded, again, that any little bit of audience recognition is more valuable to producers than whatever original talent they may possess.
But oh boy is it fun. I’m not quite sure why. The plot, like I said, is not worth a second’s contemplation. I don’t even happen to like many of the songs they use. But somehow the cast (bringing it, even on a Sunday evening performance) turn it into a gigantic party. The mash-ups of two or three different songs, with multiple voice parts continuously upping the ante and the volume on each other, are particularly effective. And when the entire cast comes out to do the super-popular numbers like ‘Don’t Stop Believin,’ the party mood is beyond infectious; it’s irresistible.
I saw it at the Helen Hayes Theatre, (240 W. 44th St) which is an incredibly intimate setting, with less than 600 seats. You can drink booze during the performance. People sing along.
I’m still waiting to see a musical which seamlessly integrates music and plot into a dramatically satisfying whole (Next to Normal, maybe?). Rock of Ages is definitely not it. And its utter lack of ideas probably disqualifies it as anything but pulpy, sudsy entertainment. But I got to watch it in the eighteenth row for sixty-nine bucks–and that, my friends, was a great deal.