Random Straight Guy Symbolizes Musical Theatre’s Branding Problem

This great caricature of a caricature was created at Michigan State in 1989 in honor of the Spartans as the musical Les Miserables rolled into town.
This caricature of a caricature was created at Michigan State in 1989 in honor of the Spartans as the Broadway musical Les Misérables rolled into town.

A lot of people dislike musical theatre. This isn’t news but it’s worth restating for reasons that shall soon be apparent. And we warn you that some of what we’re going to discuss here trades on stereotypes-uncomfortable stereotypes, as all of them are; stereotypes we wish weren’t stereotypes but nonetheless are. So take a deep breath. Keep reading.

A lot of people think it’s ridiculous that a person, in the middle of dialogue, would suddenly sing. Now, forget dance-dance is a lost cause unless it’s Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Shlep. Singing somehow strikes a lot of people as the height of improbability. Something in musical theatre embarrasses them. Like maybe the musical-ness of it.

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Never mind all the scholarly research on the history of the musical, the history of opera, the history of recitative and the history of religion. The bottom line is our popular culture makes a hagiography of the super-real, and the popular arts are now expected to reflect the real at every opportunity and to amplify it. Film, by its very definition, reflects the real-that is a real person on the screen really doing something real, even if it’s Tom Cruise leaping off a skyscraper in the middle of the Middle East or Peter Griffin’s latest Family Guy frolic. Spider-man, Spider-man, does whatever a spider can-in a comic book or animated cartoon, not on stage, where a live actor can bounce all over the theatre but no one really thinks he’s flying. The technology of 3D and green screens and God knows what else is all in the service of ensuring, ultimately, that the real appears realer. Ditto TV (and no, we’re not talking about reality TV, which everyone knows is mostly fiction). Video games are notoriously real-obsessed-if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be in the middle of a national dialogue about whether violence in video games leads to mass murder. At the end of the day, a person doesn’t stop and sing. And people sure don’t spontaneously sing together. For these people, Glee is, like, so gay.

It would be one thing if people merely disliked musical theatre and didn’t trust it to entertain or enlighten them. But people like to bash musical theatre. And heterosexual men do it well. Heterosexual men, with some exceptions, are not the musical theatre’s target market.

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(Straight dudes, we’ll give you a second to put your Hello, Dolly! CD on. Or Dear World if you prefer. Great! Ready to continue?)

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When we noticed on All That Chat, the quaintly old-style TalkinBroadway.com chat-board, a string referencing a blog post by a fellow named Matt Walsh-specifically, when we read the headline, Les Miserables Taught Me How to Hate Again-one word came up: Ugh.

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It wasn’t Ugh because Walsh has a bias against accent marks, thereby reducing Les Misérables to a condiment for Freedom Fries. But if you read the post itself, it’s clear the guy hates musicals and he admits that he saw Les Mis under spouse- and family-inflicted duress:

Last night I went to a showing of Les Miserables. And when I say “went to” I mean “hogtied and dragged at gun point by my wife, her sister and her mom”. By the looks of many of the other men in that crowded overheated theater, I was not the only hostage victim in attendance. In fact I saw one dude commit Hara-kiri while shouting “death before dishonor” in the parking lot prior to the screening. At first I thought he was slightly overreacting. And then the movie started.

Walsh’s review-and it was a review, don’t mistake it for anything else-is really just musical theatre bashing. Maybe he’d have been as cutting if his wife dragged him to ballet or pushed him to the opera or hogtied him to watch the 119th How Stella Got Her Groove Back sequel. But Walsh’s unleashed bitterness, cloaked in humor, tells us a lot about why musical theatre has a branding problem.

People are in one of two camps: those who think Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation, starring Hugh Jackman, is brilliant and will sweep the Oscars, solve all of the world’s ills and reinvent the movie-musical genre in a way that Chicago, which won the 2002 Oscar for Best Picture, never quite did. And then there are those in Walsh’s camp (caps are his):

Les Miserables apparently holds the Guinness world record for longest musical about a minor parole violation. It tells the utterly pointless tale of an ex-con as he tries to elude a bumbling parole officer for 20 years. This is also, it should be mentioned, the first film to show two decades pass by in real time. So if you’re heading to the theater tonight make sure to pack a change of clothes. My wife told me afterward that the movie, despite its torturous running time, actually CUT OUT several scenes from the original play. Too bad they didn’t cut out more scenes. Like every scene. Of course it didn’t have to be that long. Hugh Jackman, the criminal guy, could have just, you know, MOVED OUT OF THE FREAKING CITY IF HE DIDN’T WANT TO BE CAUGHT. Instead this whole game of cat-and-mouse between Jackman and Russell Crowe takes place in one neighborhood. The dumbest criminal of the millennium vs. a law enforcement officer that makes every Leslie Nielsen character look like Sherlock Holmes in comparison.

Oh. But it gets worse. Much worse. They sing. Dear God do they sing. They sing EVERYTHING. Look, I know it’s a musical. I get it. I’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound of Music and West Side Story. They sing in those films/plays also. But then they break up the musical numbers with normal dialogue. But that’s just too simple and not nearly irritating enough, according to the maniac who wrote this tornado of crap. Every single line in the movie is sung. It doesn’t matter how pedestrian the dialogue, they have to put it to music: “Pass the salt”, “Hang on I gotta take a leak”, etc. All put to song. My sister-in-law cried throughout the whole movie. I cried tears of blissful joy when Russell Crowe threw himself off a bridge at the end because it meant he’d finally stop singing. BUT EVEN THAT DIDN’T STOP HIM. All the dead people had to come back before the credits for one last encore. By the way, Crowe, you’re the guy who played the gladiator but now you will live in infamy as the most awkward casting decision in Hollywood history. You reminded me of someone’s dad who was tossed into the school play at the last minute after his son came down with laryngitis on opening night.

Walsh is a radio DJ in Louisville, not the Chief Drama Critic of the New York Times, fine. And no, we can’t imagine hordes of film geeks seeing or not seeing Les Mis based on his kvetching and bitching and moaning and whining. But what’s the point of writing pissy crap? If you know you don’t like Indian food, why have curry for dinner? Actually, why review the restaurant?

Clearly the guy despises musical theatre. Clearly he knows little of it-his three go-to musical theatre citations poop out in 1964 (and we do mean poop). Maybe this seems picky, but Walsh he doesn’t know a play from a musical; more than likely, he doesn’t give a shit. If a yapping dog isn’t your thing, why adopt a toy poodle? Why is it better to beat up the dog instead?

Read this:

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But let’s talk about the “big” musical numbers. You don’t need to buy the soundtrack. I’ll sum up every song in the movie. Here you go: “I’m so lonely, I’m so alone, look at me my life is hard, I’m alone, I’m on my own, there’s this empty chair here, it’s empty because I’m alone, I’m lonely, all this bad stuff has happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices, I’m alone, I feel so alone, on my own, on my own, on my own, did I mention I’m on my oooooowwwwwn?”

And this:

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To make matters worse we’re all supposed to be super impressed because the songs (and by “songs” I mean “every single word uttered during the course of the entire picture”) are performed live instead of being recorded in a studio and dubbed into the film. “GEE WOW I’M SO ENAMORED WITH YOUR ARTISTIC INTEGRITY”. Is that the reaction I’m supposed to have? I don’t know because my initial reaction was something like “Man, this sounds awful”. Instead of lip syncing pre-recorded songs, the actors sputtered out of key while choking back tears and gasping for breath. It was like listening to someone sing karaoke while being chased by a swarm of African killer bees. Coincidentally, that is the actual premise of a reality show on TruTV. Except that show likely has more depth and intelligence. I don’t care if the “let’s do it live” move was “revolutionary”. Not all revolutions are good. Just ask France.

At the end of Walsh’s post is information on how, now that’s suffered through Les Mis, he’ll make his wife watch ” four mob movies, three war movies and two History Channel documentaries” that she’ll presumably hate. What a trouper.

Maybe Walsh is otherwise a nice guy-he has a blog with some interesting writing, although his pox-on-both-houses brand of politics are as plum-tired as stereotypes about straight guys and musical theatre. At the end of the day, and really through no fault of his own, Walsh encapsulates the branding problem that the musical theatre has. Straight guys, with some exceptions, just don’t get it.