I just finished reading Adam Lenson’s Breaking Into Song: Why you shouldn’t hate musicals and it sparked quite a few thoughts, so here we go. In the book, Lenson asks us to challenge the parameters people set on the form of musical theatre. To consider its limitless possibilities, rather than only thinking of one type. Upon hearing the word musical, people have a certain idea in their head of what that is, but actually, musicals are as variable as other forms; film, books, video games, whatever, with many different genres to suit many different tastes. When people say that they hate musical theatre, it comes from their idea of what a musical is, but maybe they just haven’t come across the right type of musical for them. I don’t think it’s possible to hate the combination of music and storytelling because both are so vital to our lives.
Breaking Into Song was an enjoyable read and I agree with most of what Lenson proposes. I think it’s helpful to broaden the way we think about musical theatre, and rather than assigning a binary ‘good’ or ‘bad’ label, considering what stands in the way of a show becoming fully developed. I particularly liked Lenson’s concept of The Triangle – with three points that need to be balanced; musical theatre as the form, the chronic (or the big picture, universal themes), and autobiography (the smaller picture, the personal story being told). He suggests that when we don’t like a musical, or think that it’s ‘bad’, it’s more likely that something in this triangle is out of balance. I thought through some examples in my head and that theory seems to track. I’ll definitely be returning to that idea when putting together my thoughts on musicals going forward.
Lenson words really nicely a lot of the ideas that have run through my head for years. I found myself urged to highlight, underline and dog-ear often. What particularly resonated with me was how he describes what it is that makes musical theatre so special.
What sets musical theatre apart from other types of theatre is its ability to layer many different types of communication at the same time. The lyrics, the music, the dialogue, the body language, the movement, the acting, the lighting and more all get presented at once. Not singing in unison but in harmony.
Lenson quotes Somewhere Over The Rainbow lyricist Yip Harburg who said ‘Words let you think a thought, music lets you feel a feeling’ and so musicals let us feel thoughts.
Nowadays our brains are trained to do a million things at once and we require multiple stimuli to keep them entertained. From all this multitasking our brains have become very quick at taking in many types of information in quick succession, which has also resulted in our brains being easily distracted when there’s not enough going on.
What musical theatre can do, with all its layers of information, is create calibrated overwhelm. It presents far too many things for us to process in one moment so we either embrace the broader chaos or choose to focus in on certain elements. There’s a joy to be found in the mastery of decoding complex shows and in enjoying the simultaneity.
In that moment of overwhelm, there’s no space for a distracted mind and we can fully immerse and escape for that period of time. It requires our undivided attention, it requires us to be present in that moment, it gives us more to explore later down the line because we can’t possibly take it all in at once. It communicates in different ways to so many different parts of our brain. Each moment contains a multitude of moments and for that reason their scale is unmatchable. The layered experience of musical theatre gives so much that it lights up our whole beings.
I’ve always been hungry for stories. Through stories we learn so much about the world, we gain empathy for other people and we reflect on our lives and our places in the wider context. There are so many huge feelings and ideas that musical theatre helps us think about and feel. Lenson said that in musical theatre he found ‘a shared language where I felt my brain fizzing with emotions, ideas, philosophies, and a greater understanding of the world’ when I read that I was like Yes! That’s it!
And finally, what makes it special is the gathering of humans. Musical theatre is about togetherness, all these theatrical elements combined with all these people working towards the same goal. Audiences gather and surrender themselves to being overwhelmed, their responses become a conversation with the performers, creatives and crew in a shared moment. We get to share something immediate. Nothing makes me feel so full of emotion as a group of people singing in harmony with a full orchestra. I feel it in my core and it fills my chest with vibrations. It’s too much which is why I keep going back for more.