Can Ordinary People Burst Into Song?

I was born the year that the Beatles first came to America and grew up in a society where rock and its offshoots have been pretty much the dominant musical language ever since. So I’m a little too young to remember a time when musicals, both stage and screen, formed the backbone of American popular culture. But I’ve also never completely understood the seemingly vast aesthetic chasm between these two stylistic realms. Despite valiant and sometimes successful attempts to reconcile these two aesthetics over the past almost half century (e.g. Hair, Rent, Spring Awakening, etc.), to this day if you’re a hardcore connoisseur of Broadway’s Golden Age, you probably think that the coming of electric guitars and amplified voices was tantamount to the end of the world. And similarly it seems that if you’re a serious rock aficionado, you probably have little patience for show tunes.

But show tunes have been a welcome obsession for me these past six weeks. As a result of preparing for next month’s Cover, I’ve been completely immersed in the musical oeuvre of our interviewee, John Kander, one of Broadway’s most successful composers and one of the last survivors from that Golden Age whose career and compositional methods are utterly fascinating (stay tuned). Kander’s first blockbuster, Cabaret (1966), happened after the ascent of rock, but in that score and in his subsequent output he has remained firmly rooted in earlier traditions. It works because the plots of his shows typically take place in other eras and locales, so it doesn’t seem in any way unnatural for the characters to sing in earlier styles. But it is in no way an artistic volte-face from the present. According to him, rather, a convincing musical theatre work or opera needs to be at some kind of geographical or generational remove from the audience because, as he correctly points out, “Ordinary people during their ordinary day do not suddenly burst into song.”

I kept thinking of Kander’s comment yesterday as I was watching Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), a beautiful French film from, it turns out coincidentally (or maybe not), that pivotal year of Beatlemania and my birth—1964. In the film, which is a story about the lives and loves of ordinary people in a small town in Brittany, the entire screenplay is sung (to music by Michel Legrand). Although it gets typecast nowadays as a musical, it’s actually an opera since there is no spoken dialogue, although the style is probably more in keeping with the sound world of Hollywood musicals—though on second thought, not quite. If you haven’t seen it you might think it can’t possibly hold together. The idea of people doing everything in song could eventually feel like an irritating affectation. But I thought it was totally compelling from start to finish, and even believable. The fact that they were always singing effectively skirted around Kander’s dictum about ordinary people not bursting into song. There was no bursting. Once I got used to the idea that they were singing, and they always were, I just enjoyed the ride.

Ironically when Cabaret was finally made into a film, Bob Fosse totally rearranged the original stage score so that the songs mostly took place only during the sequences in the night club, in order to give it a greater overall realistic feel. Though Cabaret the film is quite effective, after being completely transported by Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, I began to think that we somehow lost something when we started to be disdainful of the escapism into an unreal world that is the hallmark of the Golden Age musical. Is watching any other type of movie or listening to any other kind of music any less escapist?

4 thoughts on “Can Ordinary People Burst Into Song?

  1. davidwolfson

    It’s not being sung-through that makes the difference between an opera and a musical; there are plenty of through-composed musicals (Les Mis, for example), and plenty of operas with at least some dialogue, particularly comic ones. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is supposed to have said that “it’s a musical if you’re pitching it to a producer, and an opera if you’re applying for a grant.”

    The lines are blurring all the time, and Sweeney Todd, for instance, is done by both opera companies and musical theatre companies. There is a small but noticeable contingent of performers who do both (or have abandoned one for the other.)

    While it’s true that real rock music is still rare enough on the musical theatre stage to be noteworthy when it does appear, it’s an even rarer show whose score doesn’t show rock or pop influences somewhere—at least in a number or two.

    I was born the same year you were, Frank, and while there are rarely any rock or pop references in my concert music (though see this entry on my blog for a recent exception), whenever I write for musical theatre, pop language seems to come to mind most naturally, especially if the characters are contemporary.

    That said, with due respect to John Kander (and I mean a huge amount of respect), I don’t really think the transition from speech to song is really any harder in a contemporary piece than it is in one that’s set at a remove from the audience. One of my day jobs is as a music director for musical theatre, in which this is always one of the meat-and-potatoes challenges, no matter what and where the show is set. After all, many shows that are at a remove now were not when they were written.

    David Wolfson

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  2. Pingback: Close Look: John Kander, 2013 Letter of Distinction Recipient | New Music USA

  3. Cary B Kaplen

    I read your piece ,and watched the interview with Mr Kander.At the ripe old age of 67,and retired,suddenly,I have a great passion for the music of Kander and Ebb.I remember the great musicals of the 40s and 50s,but the work of K and E have overtaken me. I would love to somehow get involved in musical theater.I have a plan to develop a course to teach to fellow retirees at the NYC teachers union,on the work of Kander and Ebb.I wrote to Mr.Kander about this,but I surely doubt I’ll get a response.So much of their work is about passion,and I’m am surely hooked.Thanks for your time–

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  4. Pingback: Close Look: John Kander, 2013 Letter of Distinction Recipient | New Music USA (QA)

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