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A Few Modest Proposals for Staging Musicals

ART TIMES June 2008

After seeing many (possibly too many) productions of musicals (some of them possibly too many times), I have drawn up a short list of modest proposals for any directors of future productions who might just have the imagination and the courage to follow some or all of them.

I say courage, because so many clichés have become attached to staging musicals that I have grown reluctant to see any productions, professional or local, just to avoid squirming in my seat and groaning, “Here we go again.”

The first modest proposal is to consider the show as a straight play in which some of the dialogue is sung. In a production of Shakespeare or Shaw, one does not lower the lights and train a spotlight on the speaker during a long speech. Why then, I ask, should the light dim and a spotlight hit (say) Liza Doolittle when she tells the maids and the world at large that she could have danced all night? This practice merely accents the artificiality of the song as a song—and not as a smoothly flowing part of the dialogue and therefore of the drama.

I cannot emphasize that last word, drama, too strongly. A good musical is not a string of songs separated by dialogue but a steady fusion of both. Of course, when the dancing girls appear in “Cabaret” or “Guys and Dolls,” the lowered lights and spotlight are quite appropriate, since the characters are on a fictional stage on the real main stage performing a detached number. But Sky Masterson’s song telling his Mission Girl that his time of day is the nighttime should flow smoothly from the dialogue before it and into the dialogue after it.

Along the same lines is my second modest proposal. When a song is being addressed to another character on stage, the singer should not stride downstage and deliver the song to the audience—which does not exist within the world of the play. Far too many times have I seen the soloist do just that, while the person to whom the song is addressed languishes awkwardly far upstage, making nonsense of the lyrics and the dramatic situation.

The last time I saw this done, the baritone sang the first stanza directly to the audience, then had to do a very awkward turn upstage to join his female costar, singing over his shoulder as he went. Why SHE did not come down to HIM is beyond my abilities to guess. And why she was not downstage with him from the start is equally a mystery.

Very often, a number must be sung on the apron before a closed curtain to give the crew a chance to change the scenery. What looks more awkward than a single actor warbling to the audience in the absence of anyone else on stage? This is a rough problem for any director, but I recall an incident in a George Gershwin musical when Gertrude Lawrence was having trouble putting over a solo that has since become a classic. The problem was solved –some say by Lawrence, some say by Gershwin—by giving her a little stuffed doll to sing to. The audience loved it, the number was saved, and a lesson might be learned from this.

As my third modest proposal, I offer this. Rather than have the soloist sing to open air or to an audience that (again) does not exist for the singer, perhaps some sort of prop, perhaps even some silent member of the chorus, should be out there with the singer in order to give the latter a focal point and make a dramatic situation out of a static one.

My last modest proposal is perhaps the most radical of them all. If the play is taken seriously and nothing has been sung as if the characters were aware of an audience, then the effect will be utterly destroyed if the finale is done in the usual manner: line them all up with the stars and costars in the center, and belt out “Oh, what a beautiful morning” or “There’s no business like show business,” or “When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky” to the auditorium in an obvious bid for riotous applause when the show is over.

There MUST be a way to make a finale as integral a part of the drama as the dialogue and the musical numbers. Of course, in a show like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the audience is acknowledged in the very first number, “Comedy tonight.” Having established that mood, it would be silly to pretend dramatic detachment for the rest of the show.

“My Fair Lady” has only two people on stage at the end and they speak, not sing—there is no finale. The same is true with that lovely musical that seems doomed never to be revived, “Fanny.” But as long as local groups insist on doing the “big” musicals with lots of chorus numbers (the more people on stage, the more tickets you will sell), there will be elaborate finales—done forever and forever in the same way.

Well, there it is. I would love to hear from any dear readers who have seen some musicals done by local or professional groups that have anticipated my proposals. My e-mail is fbehrens@ne.rr.com. I would be delighted to hear from you and I thank you in advance.

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