Synchronicity is a hell of a thing. I’ve been behind on my Be the Serpent listening, so I was oblivious to the fact they had an episode about musicals in the pipe when I wrote this little ditty. Just assume I’m making a pun about harmonizing, though, when I say that episode did help give shape to the ramble you’re ostensibly about to read.
One of the things the Serpents talked about were the ways things like a recurring orchestral theme played in the background can inform the storytelling, which sent your friendly neighborhood process wonk on a mini tour of structure as narrative.
Sing a Song
Since musicals started us off down this trail, let’s begin by skipping with the fellow we came in with. Schmigadoon! is the latest musical to comment on musicals, so it’s no surprise to find a lot of its characters call back to their inspirational sources: Kristin Chenoweth’s Mildred Layton is clearly poured from the town scold mold of Eulalie Shinn (The Music Man). In a late-season turn, Mildred decides to make a bid to take over the town from the current mayor. No songs in the show are exact mirrors, but one of the thing the show trades on is an audience composed (ha!) at least partially of folks who are themselves familiar with the shows from which they’re drawing inspiration / in conversation with.
So when Mildred starts singing “Tribulation,” and the patter number she’s using bears an uncanny resemblance to “(Ya Got) Trouble” from the self-same show that’s home to one of her iconic predecessors, it calls back to the show, but it also offers extra commentary to those who are familiar with it. Because “(Ya Got) Trouble” is Harold Hill’s biggest flim flam number. It’s the means by which he convinces the town they need him to avoid the horrible (and entirely fabricated) moral decay soon to beset them.
His aid is to sell them on the redemption of a town band and then skip town with the money, of course. Hill, as the ‘hero’ of a musical, eventually reforms, but what’s important about the musical call-back here is that it calls back to the point at which Hill is completely insincere and full of it. He’s inventing scandal to profit from it.
And if that weren’t enough, when “Tribulation” modulates into something that makes more use of Chenoweth’s vocal chops, the tune feels like nothing so much as “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls. Show of hands from folks surprised to hear this is also a flim-flam number, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson invents an inspirational dream to help save Miss Sarah’s Save-A-Soul branch.
Underscoring Mildred with not one, but two songs is obvious in this moment, insofar as she’s manipulating image for her eventual power grab. But it may also tell us just how sincere her concern about ‘values’ actually is. In a dialogue break for “Tribulation,” Mildred invokes her ancestor who founded the town, whose words when ‘discovering’ it were “they’ll never find us here.” So, the patter makes a pattern (Oh stop groaning. Have you met me?).
Similar structure-as-story moments pepper the show. “Suddenly,” a heartfelt love song duet, sees main characters Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) each ostensibly in their own duet with other people. In point of fact, neither Josh nor Melissa is singing. Their townie paramours, Emma Tate (Ariana DeBose) and Doc Lopez (Jaime Camil), each take over singing when the duet switches sides. More significantly, Lopez and Tate both respond as if Melissa and Josh are singing. At any other time when one of the two don’t sing on ‘their verse’ in the show, the Schmigadoon-ians have always noticed. This time, they don’t. Is that because their partners are proxies? Is it because, as long as you ‘go through the motions’ in Schmigadoon, folks will respond to you as if you’re singing? Is it, possibly, because in this moment, neither of the singers sees their partner as a real person, so they don’t recognize when that partner doesn’t sing?
And, given Melissa’s told us the rules of musicals are that you sing when you feel too much emotion to speak, and when you’re too pent up even to sing, you dance: what’s our takeaway from the fact that the silent Josh and Melissa are taking part in the dance that accompanies the song?
Blah blah musical theory blah, there are plenty of other places where careful application of structure feeds into a story. Take another recent grabbed-my-brain: WandaVision, which quite literally shapes its story. Yes, I’m talking about those wacky aspect ratios, among other things.
We open in ‘old timey’ black and white at a 4:3 ratio, a more-or-less square screen. It’s a palpable boundary, an intentional limitation on what the viewer sees. Important to this trip down my babbling brook is that it happens while Wanda’s understanding of the world is at its most limited, as well. Just as Wanda has boxed herself and the citizens of Westview into the ‘look we managed to get the name of her comics powers in here’ Hex, the creators have boxed in the narrative.
The transition to color at the end of the second episode happens in conjunction with the first intentional change Wanda makes after wiping her own memory. She’s still fenced in via aspect ratio, but she’s at least partially aware that the world isn’t, well, as black and white as she thought.
The end of episode 3 sees Wanda act more than instinctively. She realizes Monica’s an intruder. Throwing her out breaks a whole lot of walls and, anachronistically, sees the end of 4:3. The continuing journey through 80s and 90s TV templates happens via wide screen.
Interestingly, episode 4, ostensibly our glimpse into the “real world,” uses the letterboxing of modern film. Things are wider, things are real-er, but I think it’s interesting that there’s still a border to be had in this ratio. The ‘real world’ has a broader canvas, but it still has limits. And, when Wanda enters it, those limitations, those dark spaces, define her in a way she didn’t admit before. They aren’t cut ins from the side, they define the top and bottom. It’s probably too much to make some sort of correlation to the acceptable highs and lows Wanda has had to restrain in herself — like that’s ever stopped me.
Coming back to WandaVision in episode 5, we’re in 16:9, even though that wasn’t yet the standard aspect for the shows on which this episode draws its aesthetics. Wanda’s world has widened, as well, but the differing aspect ratio speaks to the fact that the two worlds don’t follow the same rules. We could make a case she’s ‘unlimited,’ I suppose, but she’s still viewed on a screen, right? It’s a false lack of limits. Wanda thinks she’s in control of it all, but she isn’t, not really. She’s still ‘programmed’ insofar as she’s scripted herself, and by this point, the people in her life aren’t following the script she’s set for them.
That’s Not All!
In more happy synergies that tickle my structure wonk, John Wiswell has an excellent essay analyzing the ways in which the structure of filmmaking / storytelling in The Blair Witch Project is integral to the effectiveness of its horror, as well.
As Wiswell points out in discussing the struggle of Blair Witch follow-ups, structure as story can be both a powerful tool and an elevated risk. An architectural mistake could collapse the whole thing. Take this essay, for example. With references to musicals, super-hero stories, and a horror essay, now I’m stuck on the horns of a dilemma: I could wrap things up with a musical pun about harmony and dissonance, a super-hero pun about how team-ups can turn into mistaken identity slugfests, or a pun that uses ambiguity and a cliff-hanger ending.