Musicals are hitting the right note

Oh, come on now. Nobody, but nobody came out of Chicago thinking: "Wow! That was the most amazing cinematic experience I can possibly conceive of having this entire year." In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests most people came out saying: "Gosh, doesn’t Catherine Zeta Jones dance like a heavy-hoofed horse?" She does the complete stage-school-pushy-mother-dancing-and-singing throughout the whole thing.

As an expos of ruthless ambition, it was perfect casting. That’s not Oscar worthy, it’s documentary. Give her the Oscar for pretending to sleep with Michael Douglas and changing her accent with each country, not for playing someone who over-emotes in court.

But the musical is definitely back. Moulin Rouge! (women: "wow, it’s fab"; straight men: "Jesus Christ, how long does this go on for? Kill me! Kill me! Kill me now!") started it all recently, and the high-kicking fishnetted ones have now taken over the world.

At least it’s a move on from disability, the most recent Oscar trend, which counted among its worst offenders Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks , Dustin Hoffman and Russell Crowe, although the success of The Pianist (question: if Jonathan King was a famous film-maker rather than an obvious idiot, would he still be in prison?) proves that another incontestable Oscar rule - anything touching on the Holocaust will win - remains intact.

However, is the resurgence of the musical a symptom of a desperate desire for levity in a country that’s lost its way, is wobbling economically and heading into a war with a country 200 years behind them and one they couldn’t pick out on a map? Or is it because they’re about the only level of movie George Dubya can understand?

The war-torn 1940s are traditionally considered the golden age of the musical, as people forgot their troubles to go watch, Kiss Me Kate and Carousel, all the way through Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Sound of Music, and finishing with the stunning, West Side Story, in 1961. West Side Story could piss all over Chicago from a very great height, but that’s another story. As prosperity grew along with the power of teenagers, I am Sixteen Going on Seventeen turned into "she was just 17, well you know what I mean", turned into teenage kicks, turned into the only people going to musicals were coachloads of old ladies from Derby who think Stephen Gately is just adorable in his Technicoloured dreamcoat. Andrew Lloyd Webber gave an entire generation the musical hebeegeebies - when you think back to the 1980s, all you can remember is the terrifying Sarah Brightman baring her hamster teeth and screaming at you.

Personally, I can’t stick the damn things anyway. There’s a timbre to the "musical" voice - not properly operatic, nor natural, but a kind of mid-Atlantic honking sound trained for volume - that I can’t listen to without wanting to rip my ears off. In fact, the only two I’ve ever enjoyed have been with non-singers with real voices - Everyone Says I Love You, Woody Allen’s classic take on 1940s songs, where people sing just because they feel like it, sometimes badly and a bit off key, but only because they mean it, and Ed Norton falls off a table attempting to dance.

The other is the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where characters burst into song by mistake, look puzzled (they’re under a spell) and say things such as: "Our number was just a retro-pastiche that’s never going to be a break-away pop hit."

But from Madonna in not-being-totally-crap shocker, Evita, through the lush beauty of Moulin Rouge!, the formal musical style is as back as can be and it seems our need to cling to fishnets and feathers worn in unlikely places has never been higher.

American music theatre expert John Kenrick says the reason musicals are so successful within the gay community is because "they create a world in which talent, style and guts are all you need - plus faith, hope, and a little bit of luck", which just about sums it up. When times are hard and worry weighs heavy on the mind, we need stories which end happily, that aren’t too complicated and are tied up with a neat moral, where everything comes out for the best - and all that jazz.


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