Some brief things about my life before getting into the topic I really want to comment on: I started my graduate studies this week. It's going to waste me, it's so much work already. I have a job in addition to my studies, which are work-heavy this semester. I have a short story due every other day for one class, and in another I will complete a novel by the final. Not to mention that my classmates are stupendous writers, so I'll learn a lot but my grade will likely suffer when my professors compare me to them. Oh, well. I'm here to learn my craft as well as I can. As long as I pass.
On to lighter things. I wanted to talk about musicals today. I know I'm the story fanatic, and I generally deal with the verbal elements of storytelling like dialogue and plot, but I feel like something needs to be said in defense of using music to tell parts of a story. I hear way to many people call musicals "gay" or "lame" because the characters break into song and dance to express their emotions. I don't think that's fair; it's kind of like bashing a fantasy novel because dragons don't really riddle with hobbits.
No one really, truly, actually in real life starts singing and dancing in an elaborate musical number with a bunch of people who know the same song and choreography - here's a good example of that from Disney. I get that. I want to talk about why the writers would have chosen to include music and dance in their storytelling. First off, I'm sure a lot do it because it's entertaining. It's amusing to see people dancing on stage, and song is beautiful to human ears. It's not me saying this, it's generations of proof. We like rhythm, and we like spectacle.
However, music and dance can be powerful non-verbal means of showing emotion. I think of songs in musicals as soliloquies, often set apart from the movement of the plot and meant to allow the audience to see deeper into a character. The character has a problem. Does he view it with humor or concern? Well, is the song upbeat and bouncy, or is it heavy and in a minor key? The words can be exactly the same, but the two different tones can color our impression of who the character is. Imagine, for a moment, that in a scary part of a thriller movie the music wasn't the intense, suspense-building kind normally used but the optimistic, swelling strains of a romantic comedy. How would that change your impression of that scene?
Dance is the physical movement of emotions, in a musical. The same rules apply - are they leaping with happiness or trudging along?
I feel like allowing music to carry some of the weight of characterization frees musicals to not place as much emphasis on the words. I love words, don't get me wrong, but when 90% of human communication is non-verbal, maybe we get things more when we see and hear the story in other places than just the words.