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.

On that elusive muse

Ah, the muse. A topic so many artists of all media have contemplated over the years. Since in Greek mythology, the Muses were actual embodiments of knowledge and the arts, some poets have considered themselves to simply be conduits of art between the Muses and the public. Others believe they can’t produce without inspiration from their muse. There has been plenty of discourses about muses throughout the centuries, including a joke in Dogma and a wonderful novel by my friend Rachel Waxman, so I’m not really going to add to that. But I have had some thoughts about the artist and the muse of late. Continue reading

On drafts, a la Mary Cassatt

Eating lunch at the iconic Schwarzman building branch of the New York library, I have the opportunity to visit their special exhibitions. For the past couple of weeks, they had an exhibit of some of Mary Cassatt’s prints. Here’s a quick summary, courtesy of the free brochure:

“In 1875, after being rejected by the official Paris Salon, where she had been exhibiting her paintings, American artist Mary Cassatt accepted Edgar Degas’s invitation to join the Impressionist group. Cassatt created her earliest surviving prints in 1878, a year before she first showed with the Impressionists. Spanning twenty years of Cassatt’s career as a printmaker, from 1878 to 1898, this exhibition documents her first tentative steps in the medium and culminates with her highly accomplished and technically dazzling color prints.” Continue reading

Much Ado About Nothing

If you’re a fan of Joss Whedon–the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and director of The Avengers–then you’ve probably known about his version of Much Ado About Nothing for a long time. Here’s the scoop: Joss holds Shakespeare readings in his home periodically with all his actor friends, and one day he decided he should make a film of one of these plays. So in 12 days, in his own home, he filmed a modern version of Much Ado About Nothing. Last week, it finally came out in limited release. Since I’m now a New Yorker, I got to be one of the lucky few who could go see it.

It was a brilliant movie. I’m no film critic, so I can’t speak to the lighting or cuts or whatever the proper terminology is, but visually, it was beautiful. The soundtrack was thoughtful and artful. More importantly, the arrangement of the film added so much to Shakespeare’s original story. The play has two main plots: one is the hostility between Lady Beatrice and Signior Benedick, which has a nebulous back story of scorned love and concludes in true love; the other plot is about young Hero and Lord Claudio falling in love. The only problem is that Claudio is led to believe that Hero has been unfaithful, so at their wedding day, he shames her in front of the entire party and leaves her at the altar.

Whedon took this basic story and added visual scenes to make it even deeper. In a scene clearly unscripted by the Bard, the movie opens at the end of a one-night stand between Beatrice and Benedick. This is important for adding extra fire to the war of the wits that goes on between the two; it also leaves no doubt as to the fact that Beatrice is “unchaste.” When Hero is then accused of unchaste, the moment in the movie is all the more potent than what is in the script: Benedick–who is a self-acclaimed ladies’ man and has probably ruined several young women the way Hero has just been accused of–reacts first by looking at Beatrice. Then he is Hero’s champion, even as her own father forsakes her.

Whedon also shook things up by installing one of the evil cronies as a woman. Named Conrad, the character was clearly written as a man, yet Whedon cast it as a woman and even made the relationship between Conrad and her evil master, Don John, highly sexual. This is interesting for a few reasons: it adds to the morality of extramarital sex that is investigated by the Hero-Claudio plot; it adds a layer of depth to the motivations of this particular character; and it reverses the Shakespearean tradition of having males play female parts.

This is not simply a modern transposition of a Shakespearean play. It is artful, it is intelligent, and it has something to say about sexual morality, about love, and about loyalty. I look forward to watching the movie again because I am sure there is more meat to Whedon’s masterpiece. For now, I heartily recommend it to all who can actually find a screening.