Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why Musical Theater is a Failed Art

 This is written with a few grounding assumptions in mind:
  • The main purpose of art is to aid in the acquiring of self-knowledge, spiritual understanding, and ethical development.
  • Poor (or cheap) art does this less than great art.
The musical (whether performed on stage or in film) is certainly "cheap art" as it does not convincingly represent the human condition in a way that creates catharsis or new understanding. This failure is a consequence of its irrationality, ineptitude, and inconsistency.

The Irrational Musical

Plato thought that almost all poetry and drama was worthless-- he felt that they were merely flawed imitations that
distanced men even further from the pure "form" of things. Aristotle disagrees with his teacher, and felt that imitation can help people to learn otherwise difficult or unapparent truths. In his "Poetics," he categorizes the different types of poetry (or drama), their purpose, and how they best accomplish that purpose. He writes:

"...For we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents" (Poetics, Part XIV).

According to this quote, a work of drama ought to work through an audience's deep emotions to leave an impression. Aristotle felt drama only does this if it is believable. We are only sympathetic with situations that seem reasonable to us. Who hasn't seen a terrible horror movie that only provokes laughter? Contrast that with a Hitchcock classic like Rear Window, whose plot is completely conceivable, allowing it to create genuine feelings of intensity.

This doesn't mean that good art is confined to strict realism. Great stories like the Lord of the Rings are certainly not rational. But while that story (and its representation in film) is not scientifically realistic, it is spiritually and experientially so. We may not each battle armies of orcs or trolls, but we certainly encounter feelings of inadequacy, fear, and subsequent hope.

Now to the musical. The defining aspect of a musical is, of course, the presence of music that originates from characters in the story. Ironically, there are only a few instances in musicals where a song is appropriate or believable. (There are even fewer times when one is welcome.) For example, in the Sound of Music, it is justifiable for the Von Trapps to sing frequently. That's their thing-- it's been established by the plot. For the majority of musical productions, though, the song is inappropriate. Look at West Side Story-- the instant rival street gangs break into song and dance, they are immediately unbelievable and discredited.

Why? Well what would be our natural reaction to these actions in real life? Someone who spontaneously poured his heart out through song at work, school, or any public setting would be psychologically ostracized. They would not be taken seriously, which is why they would never inspire any sort of cathartic experience for the audience. The same thing happens, though maybe to a lesser extent, in musicals.

The Inept Musical

To say the majority of songs in musicals are lyrically cheap is an understatement. Great dramatists see lyrics and poetic form as an opportunity to strengthen distinctions or amplify sentiment. A great example is found in Act 4, Scene I of Shakespeare's Macbeth. 

The witches speak almost entirely in trochees (emphasis on the first syllable in the foot):

Double,/ double/ toil and/ trouble;
Fire/ burn and/ cauldron/ bubble.

Macbeth, on the other hand, in iambs (emphasis on the second syllable):

I con/jure you,/ by that/ which you/ profess,
Howe'er/ you come/ to know/ it, ans/wer me

This juxtaposition of poetic meter lends itself to the presentation of its characters. 

The Original 'Cats,' and still the best.
Poetic methods are too often ignored in musicals. It's a shame when great literary works like Les Miserables are burdened down by songs with cheap, predictable lyrics that feel even more out of place when they claim to coincide with, or even add to,  the genius of Victor Hugo. It seems ignorant of Andrew Lloyd Webber to put to music the poems of T. S. Eliot in Cats, when Eliot is ironically more musical in poetry than Webber is in his score. 

The mistake Cats, Les Miserables, and nearly all other musicals make is that they are what German philosopher Immanuel Kant would call "overwrought." From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Kant's aesthetics:

"Kant notices that we have a problem with the overwrought-- that which draws attention to itself as precisely an artificial object or event. 'Over-the-top' acting is a good example. Kant expresses this point by saying that, in viewing a work of art we must be aware of it as art, but it must never-the-less appear natural."

This concept of course extends the arguments that musicals are both irrational and inconsistent, but also that they are inept. By re-rendering great literary works and dragging them into a cheaper form of "entertainment" (a dirty word to use when describing Hugo's and Eliot's works) the producers of the musical display a tragic misunderstanding of the original art. By presenting it in an "overwrought" manner, they castrate it.

The Inconsistent Musical

More from Aristotle:

"As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable" (Poetics, Part XV).

There are certain characters for whom music is appropriate, like the aforementioned Von Trapps. Another instance of great character development through song is in the first Hobbit movie, in which the dwarves sing one of their traditional songs around a fire before beginning their journey. That song reveals more about their culture and increases the viewer's understanding of their situation. 

Unfortunately, most musicals neglect the fact that a tendency towards song is, in itself, a character trait. Characters that are given this trait when it isn't consistent with the rest of their other behaviors are aesthetically self-destructive. It's an even bigger problem when every character is given this trait. Hero and villain. King and tramp. When you attempt to create contrasting characters and then have them both sing, the effect is entirely ruined. In order for a drama to satisfy the classification of "musical," it immediately fails to create characters that are built on the "necessary or the probable."

I'm not saying that music has no place in these productions-- it certainly is valuable for its unexplained ability to reach mankind's emotions and spirits. However, for Aristotle and a lot of the great early dramatists, the "song" of the presentation almost always comes from a third party, such as the chorus. Such is the case with a lot of modern films-- the soundtrack, while nearly always present, does not originate from any of the characters and therefore enhances, not interrupts, the presentation of plot.

Aesthetic Responsibility

"The Artist is the antennae of the Race"-- Ezra Pound

I had a drama teacher in Junior High that was convinced that the Roman Empire collapsed because they stopped loving drama and instead favored gladiatorial spectacle. This is obviously not the case, but I think the point is important. Like Pound says, the artist's responsibility to his race is to measure where his race is going and help in its direction or re-direction. Because musical theater is aesthetically and morally deficient, it ought to be exorcised from our culture and replaced by genuine art that demands more from itself and its audience.



  1. Interesting read.... I agree with most of what you said here. Now when you say Les Miserables was "overwrought" are you saying that they over did it with all the singing and lyrics. (because pretty much they sing the whole time!) So if that is what you mean by overwrought then yes I agree, but I do enjoy the story behind Les Miserables and a few songs though.

    I enjoy musicals for the most part because as you said above "...valuable for it's unexplained ability to reach mankind's emotions and spirits." The musicals that come to mind for me are My Fair Lady, and Sweeney Todd I like them for several reasons but comparing them to Les Miserables is they had actual more talking in them, rather then having everyone sing the entire time. (I'm comparing them in movie form since I have never been to a play.)

    To say though that they distance " even further from the pure form of things." I disagree... I don't see if you have a musical that is overwrought and unbelievable that it will in a sense decay society. I do believe that culture does dictate where we as a people will go more so then politicians and leaders. So I believe as long as the message behind the musical, art, play or whatever it is inspires and uplifts men. Then we as the human race will get raised to a higher level of existence. With the alternative being if the art form degrades, demoralizes, and bring men down to a lower level of thought then society will in fact implode.
    So to sum up what I think is message and meaning before overwrought and believable.
    Hopefully this made sense.

  2. Though I find your argument extremely persuasive, I would have to respectfully disagree.
    One of the major points you make is that in most musicals, it is unnatural for the characters to burst into song at a moment's notice. Because it is unrealistic, the art is "cheapened" by the poor portrayal. However, in my mind, I would encourage you to view musicals as just outside the real world. Just as you said we can still enjoy fantasy novels even if they go beyond the boundaries of reality, because we can relate to the main ideas: the conflicts and emotion. We don't declare The Hobbit worthless because of its incorporation of fictional creatures like dwarves and dragons. Similarly, we should judge the scores of musicals not for their lack of practicality, but for how they add to the story, and the reactions they inspire. We should treat music in the world of theatre as a new element, a new dimension, and judge it for its own merits instead of tearing it down for not conforming to the laws of authenticity. As you said yourself, music inspires emotion in ways nothing else can. Where words fail us, music bridges the chasm.
    You also complain of great literary works that are adapted into musicals as being "burdened down by songs". I can't help but ask how, exactly, are these great works affected? The original text is not changed. The books aren't pulled from the shelves and replaced with compilations of song lyrics. The resonance of the original text will always remain, even if a “cheapened” version of it becomes more popular. More people may be familiar with the musical than the book, but you shouldn’t blame the musical for that. It's human nature. Some people simply cannot appreciate greatness in such abundant quantities as lie in Hugo's masterpiece. Even if the musical did not exist, there would still be people seeking out an abridged version, a synopsis, a movie—something a little easier to digest. At the very least, even if it’s in the form of a musical, the ignorant masses can absorb some glimmer of the original work's brilliance.