How The Musicals Gene Helps Creativity

The Arts


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.


5 comments on “How The Musicals Gene Helps Creativity”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    I agree that there is something cold at Sondheim’s core which encourages admiration rather than passion.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    We had both Showboat and Carousel available on tv last night. One could watch one or the other but not both because there is so much emotion in those two that you can easily overload. The songs are wonderful. I’m not going to list my favourites but did you know that “Bill” was written by PG Wodehouse? I’m a words person and that song gets me every time.

  3. Murassaki_1966 says:

    Please, before dismissing Sondheim as cold, please watch “Company” (the 2006 production is lovely, and available both on Youtube and DVD, and there is a concert version with Neil Patrick Harris available), and “Into the Woods” (1990’s version with Bernadette Peters is available on DVD). These are Sondhiem’s most human and humane works. Both address how we interact with the people in our community, and how that shapes us. They are anything but cold.

    Conversely, “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins” are about how society rejects people, and how the reject take their revenge. They, if done right, can be full of a strange warmth.

    The way a Sodheim piece is staged and produced can have a bad effect on how you view the musical. I have never really warmed to “Sunday in the Park with George”, having only seen the 1990’s Broadway production on DVD. I hope to see a stage version one day that changes my mind.

    Please watch “Company”, and if you’re not moved by the end song, then you’re probably right.

  4. RobertR says:

    The need for a good book as the basis of many a shows downfall – there are so many great scores and wonderful, witty & passionate lyrics available on cd (& still some stuck on record) – but then you see the entire show on stage and you just go ‘what were they thinking?’ Shows like ‘Rags’, ‘On A Clear Day’ or ‘The Baker’s Wife’. But when it all comes together on stage it is bliss – and so many of my stage memories are of those moments in musicals where everything comes together, the lyrics, the music, the staging, choreography and cast – so the swings in Matilda’s “When I Grow Up’; or the split screen effect it City of Angels “You Can Always Count On Me’ just thinking about them brings a smile to my face and a chill down my spine.

  5. admin says:

    It feels like ‘Company; has always been in my life. I saw the original cast in London, and many times over the years. The stage version of ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ that ran at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London was the best version ever, as Seurat’s paintings came to life via video projections.

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