First Date: Why Musicals Rock

This weekend, I attended my first Broadway show as a real New Yorker. It’s a new musical starring Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez, and it is an hour and a half of one couple’s awkward first date.

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, then you know my love of realism. As I waited for the show to begin, I started asking myself what it is about musicals that I love so much. After all, how much farther from realism can you get than people breaking into song and dance in the middle of a scene?

Even more than that, because of the songs, Broadway dialogue tends to be sweeping and unrealistic, the kind of dialogue that I would strike out with a big red pen if I saw it written in a novel.

One, simple-yet-complex answer to my question is that music is powerful enough to carry the shows through their other, weaker moments.

On top of that, though, I think there is something to be said for different media being able to achieve different things. A play cannot have the same observations that a novel does because it is bound by different rules. It is a collaboration of many artists; it cannot use narration in the same way because it is using acting; its rules of story telling are often different. Similarly, a novel is restricted in ways that plays cannot: novels aren’t musicals because they can’t break into song and dance (but maybe in the future e-books will?).

In fact, a comment I often make on manuscripts I’m editing is that the writer is being too cinematic. We all watch television and movies, and so we are schooled to record our stories as if they were being watched. Particularly in first person narrations, this means relying too heavily on recording gestures of the narrator or of other characters that the point-of-view character would never actually notice; it means having the narrator guess at another character’s emotions because in a movie, we could intuit something that in the writing, we can’t. Usually, being too cinematic means barely scratching the surface of your scene or story because you are trying too hard to turn it into a medium that it is not.

I loved First Date, just like I love almost every musical I’ve seen, but I would probably have found it trite as a novel. Not all art is the same, and not all art can do the same thing, but when it is true to the medium it is, art is amazing.

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