Partly inspired by watching several episodes of meta-musical Schmigadoon!, partly by a couple mornings of random-generating notes and words in the shower, I’ve been rolling over the perennial critique about the ‘artificiality’ of musicals. Sing along if you know it: “No one just bursts out in song and dance!” Schmigadoon! trots out the familiar refrain as soon as the musical numbers start. I’m of two minds on this, to be honest.
First: Yes. They do. Lots of us do it all the time. Some of us are musical fans, some of us are spontaneous creative sorts, but one of the reasons music appeals to people in general is because we’re often finding resonance (and in my case, obviously, puns) in our lives. The out-of-nowhere music of Real Life™ isn’t perfectly metered and rhymed, but that brings us to…
Second: dialogue is artificial. Your favorite clip from a “realistic” movie or TV show is largely guaranteed to be nothing of the sort. Most people don’t answer a question about the present by launching into the compelling backstory of their childhood and here this is the moment that explains my entire character. Most of us don’t manage extended arguments where each person makes painfully well-constructed points that dismantle the other side and / or find a way to exactly push the emotional buttons of our opponent to shake them out of the debate at its most crucial moment.
Most conversations don’t last very long. Those that do tend to start on one topic, drift to a second, careen left into a random tangent, stutter with the half-stated cue word for an inside joke you’d never be able to explain to anyone watching the conversation, and eventually end because some external force — dinner, pee break, weird-ass noise from outside — cuts things off. We don’t talk in complete sentences. We talk over each other and interrupt without allowing for an observer to tell where the interrupted party was going. We mumble, mutter, and mis-speak in ways that are rarely exciting psychological slips that expose the secret we’ve been hiding, and instead just expose the way we trip over similar vocabulary.
Even so-called naturalistic dialogue generally isn’t. Liberal verbal pauses and half-sentences may increase verisimilitude, but at the end of the day, it’s still constructed to serve the purposes of the narrative. Or, better: dialogue is composed, like a song, to stir the longing of a ballad or the titter of an upbeat comedy break or the unease of a dissonant refrain.
In before “That’s why I hate drama and go for action.” Sorry, no. Fights are just as erratic in reality as dialogue. Combat that makes any kind of visual sense to you has been choreographed. Yes, just like a dance. Throwing the hero through a plate glass window to land next to the crowbar they need to turn the tide isn’t any less artificial than managing a complicated lift in a dream ballet.
I’m not here to say that folks who don’t enjoy musicals must needs bow down and worship at the altar or be declared heretical assholes. I do think it’s worth recognizing that the level of ‘artificiality’ in musicals is only outsized because we’ve internalized other artificial tools of narrative as ‘real.’
It’s more than okay not to like things, or to like a narrower band of a thing. We all have tastes. We also have our Thing(s) about which we cannot willingly suspend disbelief. Criticism benefits by owning up to those biases, though, instead of, well, doing a song and dance pretending otherwise.