A few weeks ago, I wrote about why musicals so rarely have satisfying plots. I wanted to look closer at two iconic musicals, and two characters I’ve always found kind 0f fascinating: Rizzo from Grease and Jud from Oklahoma.
Grease is largely a frothy affair, but if there is tension it’s between the teenage worldviews of Rizzo and Sandra Dee. Sandy’s a prude; Rizzo is, um, more liberal with her affection. The most popular Grease songs are generic, generally mindless, and usually about as fast as Rizzo: ‘You’re the One that I Want,’ (written specifically for the movie version) ‘We Go Together,’ ‘Greased Lightning,’ ‘Summer Nights.’ All enjoyable, but actually rather regressive in comparison to how composers and lyricists like Sondheim and Rogers and Hammerstein melded their music to the visual presentation and the story. All of these songs are set-pieces, and obvious intrusions on what’s happening onstage or onscreen.
The most thought-provoking song in Grease is Rizzo’s ‘There are Worse Things I Could Do.’ I think this song always gets cut in high school productions because its impetus is Rizzo finding out she may be pregnant with Kenickie’s baby, and school district officials know that discussing teenage pregnancy in front of teenagers is a bad idea (I’m trying to be sarcastic—don’t know how well that went over). Another reason officials might blanch at the song is that it seems to be arguing the merits of sleeping around:
There are worse things I could do,
Than go with a boy or two.
Even though the neighborhood thinks I’m trashy,
And no good,
I suppose it could be true,
But there are worse things I could do.
I could flirt with all the guys,
Smile at them and bat my eyes.
Press against them when we dance,
Make them think they stand a chance,
Then refuse to see it through.
That’s a thing I’d never do.
I could stay home every night,
Wait around for Mr. Right.
Take cold showers every day,
And throw my life away,
On a dream that won’t come true.
I could hurt someone like me,
Out of spite or jealousy.
I dont steal and I dont lie,
But I can feel and I can cry.
A fact I’ll bet you never knew.
But to cry in front of you,
That’s the worse thing I could do.
Is it just me, or are those lyrics heartbreaking? Rizzo has demonstrated a dislike of Sandy throughout, which seems mean-spirited at first but resolves itself here into a vindication of her own life. The ‘worse things’ Rizzo could do (and which she implies Sandy does, knowingly or not) really do seem much, much worse than being promiscuous. The idea of finding Mr. Right, which seems so all-important most of the time in the stories we tell, gets a severe dressing-down from someone who wonders why it’s so trashy to settle for Mr. Right Now. Now is all the time we get, after all—the rest is just a “dream that won’t come true.” The song takes on an even slightly darker tone in the last stanza, when Rizzo sings that she could “hurt someone like me/ Out of spite or jealousy.” Who is she talking about? I think it’s the boys who, like Rizzo, treat desire as something normal; who acknowledge what they feel and what they want, and don’t temper their desires to satisfy public opinion or their own vanity. It’s a lonely song for a girl who has to watch guys fall over themselves trying to get to the Sandra Dees of the world—and the Sandra Dees have no idea what is driving these helpless suitors. Rizzo does.
I feel a little foolish giving the song such serious consideration, when apparently the writers of Grease themselves didn’t take it seriously at all. This is how they resolve Rizzo’s situation: she shows up in the last scene and says “I’m not pregnant!” and leaps into Kenickie’s arms—yay! Time for the group dance number! And Sandy, if her reprise of ‘Look at Me (I’m Sandra Dee)’ is to be taken literally, is basically submitting to peer pressure when she puts on a pair of slutty black tights and presents herself to Danny Zuko.
Something similar happens in Oklahoma, which presents to us Jud, one of the strangest characters ever to grace an American musical. That the two leads, Curly and Laurey, are meant for each other is a foregone conclusion ten minutes into the opening act. But they insist on playing games with each other, and the jokes reach a point where Laurey flies off in a huff after refusing to attend the upcoming dance with Curly, and instead agrees to go with the farm hand Jud, whom Laurey obviously has no feelings for, and fears deeply. For the rest of the play Jud alternately broods in his filthy one-room shack, has rude exchanges with Curly which continually approach violence, and scares the bejeebies out of Laurey, whom he deeply loves in his own twisted, obsessed way. This is possibly the least compelling love triangle in the history of American theatre; nonetheless it forms the backbone for almost the entirety of the main plot, until Jud tries to attack Curley and accidentally kills himself by falling on his own knife (at least Rizzo didn’t get that treatment).
Jud is compelling in his own way, especially contrasted with Curly and Laurey. The romantic leads are (and in this respect they are not dissimilar to Danny Zuko and Sandy) exceptionally bland characters, all things considered. The requirements to play them aren’t too different—good looking, likable, can carry a tune. The utter futility of Jud’s affection for someone like Laurey is (and in this respect it is not dissimilar to Rizzo’s lament over girls like Sandy) an intrusion of the real into the fantasy of American musical theatre. Jud’s despair certainly must feel more real to us than Curly and Laurey not getting to the point with each other.
I think the best musicals have such intrusions. But inevitably, we’re not allowed to explore them to a satisfactory conclusion. To do so would challenge the very premise of singing and dancing your way through life. The music would have to come to a screeching halt somewhere in the middle.
In the context of blithe happiness triumphing over our very real concerns about the quality and relatively brief duration of our lives, singing is a kind of forgetting—at least in the moment the song is being sung, and perhaps the two or three moments afterward. Jud and Rizzo remind us of what we’re forgetting, before being swept under the rug so everyone can have a good time. Maybe they get a raw deal. But who doesn’t, right?