Just the Right Amount of Stoned

Or, how you too can learn to love musicals

Stop saying that musicals suck. I mean it. Saying that musicals suck is trite and predictable and overly dramatic and self-aggrandizing and dorky—precisely what's suckiest about musicals. Saying that musicals suck is as cliché as that moment when the young lovers are about to share their first kiss, only at the last second the girl steps into a spotlight and the guy freezes, then fades into darkness while she spends the next few minutes head-tripping in a fluttering soprano, ultimately returning to find the guy still stuck in his pucker, at which point she either goes through with the kiss or doesn't, but whatever she does provides an important pivot in the plot . . . and cues some eye-rolling crank to say that musicals suck. For years, that crank has been me. This year, I stopped.

Not because musicals don't suck, because they kinda do. Not because it's unfair to generalize, although I'm really not. I happen to love Damn Yankees, and furthermore believe that everybody should be allowed to like one musical, preferably one about baseball. Even furtherermore, I once started to compile a list of musicals that are permissible to like—it included titles like Singin' in the Rain, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, West Side Storyand Sunset Boulevard, as well as a friend's hybrid of Grease and The Wall, in which she puts the John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John movie on mute, turns up the Pink Floyd album and proceeds to get "just the right amount of stoned."

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of OCPAC
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of OCPAC

Saying that musicals suck has just gotten very tired—and to get a sense of how very, go ahead and Google the phrase "musicals suck." Here's a sampling of what comes back:

•musicals suck ass. i saw one the other day, and guess what? it sucked ass. surprised? i wasn't.

•Anyone who writes or even likes musicals should be banned from contributing to society in any shape or form. For ever.

•all musicals suck because there is no bloodd,gore,cussing,and dying. it is boring. you shoud just take your 3 year old kid to see history of violence. i like lava lamps. there is a guy having a seizure on tv.

Most people say musicals suck because the propensity for characters to suddenly break into song doesn't resemble real life. Well, circumstances have recently landed me in the audience at several Orange County musicals, and so I believe I am speaking with some authority when I say right back: of course musicals don't resemble real life.

Except for when they do . . . and I don't know about you, but I've just about always got a song in my head, if not my heart, and it's usually driving me nuts, not to mention what it does to others when one of those songs suddenly escapes my lips. And I hate it when people sing along with the car radio. So it turns out that musicals are very much like a part of real life. It's just a part I don't tend to like very much.

Except for those times when I do . . . and, okay, here's the thing: lately I've been liking musical theater more and more often. I liked Reefer Madness at Stages, A Marvelous Party at the Laguna Playhouse and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Segerstrom Hall. Realizing this feels very strange and admitting it feels rather embarrassing—and again, see what I mean about musicals resembling real life?

What's weirdest is that the musicals I liked looked liked recipes for everything I hate:

Reefer Madnesstook a smug and campy premise, churned it through a succession of over-the-top song-and-dance numbers performed by a cast that could barely fit into the small venue and emerged with an incisive dark comedy.

A Marvelous Party assembled a collection of showbizzy old songs and smartasseries from long-dead Noel Coward, channeled them through an anonymous trio—two singing and dancing male pianists and a plain but inexplicably magnetic woman—and produced a series of vignettes that revived for a night a particular kind of people and elegance that has nearly passed into history.

Putnam County Spelling Bee held the odious prospect of a bunch of adult actors portraying precocious elementary school kids, but by focusing on nuance rather than slapstick and playing against stereotypes rather than indulging them, it was actually very funny and even thought-provoking.

It got to the point that I was almost relieved when I didn't care for The Threepenny Opera at Hunger Artists—but not quite, because if I was going to like any musical it probably should have been Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's indictment of capitalistic hedonism, which also includes "Mac the Knife."

Then again, maybe musicals seem like they are sucking less because I am sucking more. But don't start saying that. I mean it.

 
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