How The Musicals Gene Helps Creativity
It’s a weird thing, the musicals gene, it feels unmanly, camp, cheesy – and while it can be truly horrible (I’m no fan of Andrew Lloyd-Webber) there’s something else behind it that no writer should dismiss. As a recent fringe production of the old warhorse ‘Carousel’ proved, there’s grit and truth buried in the best.
You either hear music in your head or you don’t. My partner is tone-deaf and hears rhythm, not harmony. My best friend hears harmony, not rhythm, and when she listens to a song on the radio can instantly sing back the lyrics. I can’t work without music and hear it in my head all day long.
When the Beatles arrived there was outrage from the older generation, wondering what that tuneless noise was – but they had got it completely backwards. We can divide the 20th century into two halves, the first harmonious half and the second beat-driven half. After a decade of beat winning out over harmony the Beatles turned it back, not forward. Paul McCartney had been raised in Liverpool, and if you listen to the hymns he heard in church, you can discern the base of his songs – they’re old forms, not new ones. He returned harmony to a beat generation.
This is the distinction that drives a handful of great musicals. By and large, they return harmonics to music, and couple them with lyrical truth. This latter element is the part that seals the deal for me. I hate glittery Broadway stuff – they have to be tough, smart, witty, brave, often dark and painful. There are shows that can reduce grown men to tears, like ‘Parade’, ‘Titanic’, ‘Kiss Of The Spiderwoman’, ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ and ‘Merrily We Roll Along’. There are ridiculously joyful highs like ‘Mathilda’, ‘Steel Pier’, ‘The Will Rogers Follies’ and ‘The Producers’. And all the really weird ones nobody saw except a handful of my fellow writers, like ‘Superman’, ‘Dear World’ and ‘Bat Boy’.
For me, the greatest musical team was Kander & Ebb for choosing to write about Nazism (‘Cabaret’), racism (‘The Scotsboro Boys’), homophobia (‘Kiss Of The Spider Woman’), anti-Semitism (‘The Visit’), economic depression (‘Steel Pier’), communism (‘Flora The Red Menace’) and other hot-button topics without preaching.
Stephen Sondheim is held up as the peak of lyrical artistry and spiky composition, and I’d agree, but there’s something cold at his core that often encourages admiration rather than passion, although ‘Sweeney Todd’ (the show, not the underpowered, awkward film) hits passionate highs.
I learned a lot of good writing practice from musicals, and it’s not always from the songs. A good book is essential, which is why ‘Showboat’ works so well – it explores miscegenation with the lightest of touches, but makes you think.
The musicals gene is much defied and very easy to make fun of – but without such songs I would never have learned a large part of my craft.