“When Exigence of Rhyme Compels”*: The Inherent Weirdness of Musicals
You know, there was a time when I hated musicals. That was before I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. Their plays technically aren’t musicals, but operettas. But they are similar enough that after that, I came to like musicals. Well, the good ones, anyway.
What bothered me for a long time about the genre was how strange it was that the characters sometimes speak like normal people for a time and then burst into song at key points. This was actually kind of immersion-breaking for me. I still wonder about how this genre was originally created: how did it ever even occur to a dramatist to try this?
Have you ever seen the Monty Python skit that is purportedly a trailer for an upcoming film entitled “The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights”? It also includes “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Morse Code” and other things like this. It’s very funny, but in a way, that’s how musicals can seem: like introducing a strange new form of communication into a story.
Musicals do have a major advantage over other genres in that they can be more memorable, because rhyme and music make it easier for people to commit lines to memory. I still wonder at how it’s not an inherently audience-distancing device, though, because it’s very weird if you think about it.
*The title comes from a line in what is probably my very favorite Gilbert & Sullivan song, “About a Century Since”, from The Grand Duke.