Tag Archives: musicals

To Tell The Truth

How do you tell the truth? Saying “Alice and Bob broke up” may be what happened, but is it the truth of it all? Breakups are messy business; did Alice break up with Bob or Bob break up with Alice? Did Bob break up with Alice for Charlie? Suddenly there’s a narrative attached to the happening, which in turn colors our perception of what happened. It may be less accurate, but it could be closer to the truth. Maybe the truth is Bob feels like his heart’s been ripped out. But there’s gotta be a better way to say it.

Enter fiction. And writing in general, actually, since trying to capture that elusive truth is one of the things poetry does so well. When Matthew Dickman describes the act of a dance in “Slow Dance” as “The my body // is talking to your body slow dance” it’s decidedly not factual (bodies, um, don’t talk). Heck, it’s not even strictly grammatically correct. But, what it does do – along with the rest of the poem – is describe the truth of that dance “with really exquisite strangers.” Throughout “Slow Dance” Dickman invites you into a space where he paints a picture of all those thoughts and feelings that accompany dancing with someone. He’s crafting an experience for you to be a part of, letting you know how it feels to be there. The truth of it all.

It really is poetry’s modus operandi, that, sharing a truth. For all the silliness of Lewis Carrol’s “Jaberwocky,” it vividly places you where it was brillig; in “False Security,” Sir John Betjeman makes you feel like a child again, where going to someone else’s house at night is an adventurous quest in and of itself. It’s not enough to tell you what’s happening, it’s about telling you the truth of what happened.

But poetry does it through image-heavy words, how do you show it? Take a look at musical Fun Home, which I recently saw before it closed (thank you, Nathan). Towards the end the narrator, Alison Bechdel, expresses how she wants so badly to remember how things were doing a pivotal point in her youth, but how does memories fade quicker than she can remember them. The play illustrates it beautifully, with the furniture that’s made up the set of her home (where her memories have played out) receding into the stage as she chases after them just moments too late. Again, not ‘realistic,’ but heartbreakingly true. How better to communicate the realness of memories fading away? It works.

Which brings me to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because a lot of my thoughts and ramblings have been pointing towards that show lately. The show’s musical numbers are largely born out of a heightened emotional state, be it feeling excluded at a group hang or the stress of a parent coming to visit. These songs sometimes serve as a culmination of a sequence and let us into the singer’s mind. A striking example is the song “You Stupid Bitch,” wherein Rebecca finds herself at one of her lowest points — everything she’s been striving for has blown up in her face. So she sings this song rife with self-loathing, this incredibly harsh, unflinchingly brutal song — a song that she has the imaginary crowd join in on. Now, in the real world, people don’t get a musical number when their depression closes in on them. But, that feeling of despair with a crowd in your head singing your ills is absolutely true.

I talk a lot about how fiction’s all a lie. But it’s a lie that tells the truth. Because sometimes the lie of fiction tells the truth better than a factual account. Least that’s the best way to explain Bob’s really sad poetry about the breakup.

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Performing Truth

Twelve years ago I went to the Grand Canyon. While in a town nearby, a couple of guys dressed as cowboys did a shootout. Blank firing guns and all; twelve year old me thought it was real cool. This past Thursday, part of my school trip here in South Africa had us watch a group doing a collection of traditional dances. Also cool. Were they authentic? A cowboy shootout isn’t particularly typical of modern Arizona and Tribal dances celebrating a good hunt aren’t exactly common in South Africa anymore. But it’s what we expect of these places,


There’s this concept of performance, which, put simply, is when we do something we are performing what it should be. We perform politeness, which looks different in the United States compared to China. And we perform culture, which is part who we are and part what’s expected of us. So those cowboys in Arizona and the dancers in South Africa were both, in some way, performing culture. The dance the other night, for example, had a piece of choreography ripped right from Marty McFly’s concert at the end of Back To The Future. Air guitars were probably not a thing when these dances were first done, but contextually it makes plenty of celebratory sense. Authentic or not, it’s true.

Which brings me to Hamilton, the broadway musical about the titular American Founding Father. It’s biographical, but unlike many other biographies it chooses to dispense wholesale with any concerns of historical accuracy. Not to say that the play  takes egregious liberties with Alexander Hamilton’s life, but rather decides to play fast and loose with exact way of presenting this truth. For starters, Hamilton himself is played by a Latino actor. And Aaron Burr is black. And not only is there singing, but there’s rapping; these showtunes are hiphop anthems. Even if we can forgive the presence of songs — which all musicals do —, the racelift and music genre is a fairly egregious bastardization of ‘authenticity’ that essentially throws out any semblance of an accepted interpretation of reality. But it makes the story of Hamilton’s life surprisingly accessible and relatable. The spirit is preserved. Like a man dressed as a Zulu warrior strumming an air guitar, Alexander Hamilton rapping about not throwing away his shot mayn’t be accurate, but it’s true. Hamilton performs a subversive version of the truth that allows it to better capture the youthful energy of revolution.

Fiction is inherently a lie. There’s no such thing as hobbits, magic rings, or Mount Doom. We don’t have superheroes, and we don’t have spaceships. But a show like Firefly [is able to better capture the feeling of life on a ship than anything else. The Lord of The Rings speaks beautifully about the indomitable nature of hope. Sex Criminals contains the best discussion of depression and intimacy I’ve ever seen. A good storyteller is full of crap; anyone who says otherwise is wrong (or writing a different essay). In story, as Tim O’Brien puts it in The Things They Carried: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” We don’t need things to be accurate — Hamilton being a white dude or an African not strumming an air guitar — but we need things to be true. When Hamilton raps we don’t think about the factual inaccuracies, instead we get lost in the feeling of excitement and energy of it all. The truth of a strong story lies not in it perfectly matching reality, but rather in it moving the audience. The truth of a story lies in its emotional core; we’ll willingly swallow the most boldfaced lie about the world so long as deeper within the lie is a truth of being.

There was a thrill to watching those guys dance the other day. An excitement[?] that overruled any care about the question of authenticity. They may not have performed a reflection of reality, but they performed the truth. We don’t need a factual blow by blow for a story to bury itself into our heart, we just need it to be true.

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Old Made New

So y’know how Les Misérables came out over Christmas? Of course you do: your neighbor’s been singing it incessantly since (which song? All of them, duh). While musicals are nothing new, Les Misérables was special because they recorded the actors singing live on set and added the orchestration in post-production. Usually, the songs are recorded beforehand and lip-synched to during filming. The route Les Mis took allowed them to try the songs several different ways on set. The result is a fantastic musical and a radical breakthrough in the production process.

Only, well, it’s been done before. Several times, in fact. A quick wikipedia check reveals that some early talkies as well as a couple movies I’ve never seen used it. So why the hullabaloo?

Well, when was the last time a massive musical people were this excited about came out? It seems almost as if musicals fell out of fashion a while back and suddenly we have this daringly massive new one (based on a stage production based on a book) coming out. People are excited. And rightfully so, it’s a great movie, one that might remind us that musicals are viable films. Even though Les Mis really didn’t revolutionize anything, the film has an impact and will now be the one people think of with regards to recording the songs live.

Quick! Think of a comicbook/superhero movie before X-Men came out in 2000! Besides Tim Burton’s Batman and Superman and the sequels. Unless you cheated and used wikipedia, none should really come to mind. Sure, there were quite a handful of rather crappy b-movies that came out, but no one really cared about them. Then along came X-Men and Spider-Man and suddenly superhero movies mattered. Well, not immediately, but look at the movies coming out now.

Within the span of a little over a decade superhero movies went from being absolute rubbish (Batman & Robin) to a viable economic investment (Spider-Man 2) to a legitimate dramatic form of storytelling (The Dark Knight) to an incredibly enjoyable piece of cinema (The Avengers). Was superhero movies a new idea? Nope: the first Captain America serial came out in 1944. But it took proof that it was worth it to give us this new slew of movies. Which I’m certainly not complaining about.

We like to clamber over movies as being new and revolutionary for pioneering old techniques. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s not a big deal, and I’m not saying it isn’t revolutionary. Just because something’s been done to death and cast off as being a waste of time (see: Batman & Robin) doesn’t mean it can’t be done differently (Batman Begins). Good reboots are this: old things made new, done right. We can complain all we want about a lack of originality, but Star Trek and Captain America: The First Avenger are the movies we want to see.

So go see Les Misérables, go enjoy a superhero movie. Never mind it’s not entirely new or revolutionary; they’re trying on old hats, enjoying something new.

And who knows; maybe Les Mis will spark a new offering of cinematic musicals.

Writer’s Note: Apologies for the shorter/lackluster post; I’m in Spain on a school trip. Yes. That is my excuse. Now let me go get tapas.

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