What are musicals for: A Study in Contrasts

This weekend I had the opportunity to see both Spider-Man, Turn Off The Dark, Julie Taymor/Bono’s Busch Gardens entertainment homage, and Pitch Perfect, an ode to collegiate acapella starring Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick. As someone who counts musical theater as one of my first languages, I had Many Thoughts and Feelings about them both.

For what it’s worth, the fragments of Julie Taymor’s vision I could see added up to a musical I would have watched, little as it had to do with Spider-Man. The rest of it, the presumably signed-off-on-by-Marvel part, was no better than what I remember from years of amusement park stunt shows.

Because the makers didn’t seem to know what anybody liked about:

  • Comics
  • Musicals
  • Stunt shows and/or the circus
  • Words

In comics, we draw to express what we see and what we can’t say. In musicals, we sing to expose the raw emotional subtext of what we can’t say. In stunt shows, you want to see people trained to do cool things actually do cool things. The show’s makers were in a tug of war over whether to go for stylization (with comic-drawn backdrops and lots of posing) or emotional realism (MJ’s 2 minutes of backstory) and the result had neither. I expected comic book dialogue. What I didn’t expect was songs that were so aware of their irrelevant and meaningless lyrics or a book confused about its place and time. You may either have cell phone and facebook jokes OR you can put your steno pool in the 40s. You may not do both. We use words to EXPRESS THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS in ways that are resonant to ourselves and others! Not to fill up time, copy-and-paste from pop culture, or populate our power-ballads with vowels.


And then I saw Pitch Perfect, which got middling reviews, had mediocre dialogue (acascuse me?) and a Final Draft Screenplay Template Plot, but still gave me goosebumps more than once. I watched it the same way I often watch Glee, doing something else until the musical numbers came on. What it did, and what I liked about Stomp the Yard, Center Stage, Dance Academy (Aussie series of awesome schlock and excellent young ballet) etc, is use its musical content to tell a story, to show an evolution. In this case it was the introduction of mashup technology into college acapella groups…which actually probably predates the technology of mashing-up, but w’evs. There is just something about the texture of close harmony and vocal percussion and pop music that connects somewhere inside my rib cage.

Plus the goal of the movie was clearly to get high school choir nerds excited about playing college ball (evidence: HS-level vomit humor, the culmination of the heroine’s romantic relationship in a kiss). The performances were the most dynamic part, and the movie passed the Bechdel Test over and over because the leading ladies were way more interested in their actual interests (whether DJing or singing), than in hooking up with dudes. Anything that reassures kids who might feel like outsiders that they are actually on the inside of a much cooler crowd (and has a beat you can dance to) I am down with.

And the thing is, that’s supposed to be the point of Spider-man too (at least in its reboot incarnations), that Peter Parker, Scrawny Nerd, Photography Enthusiast, became magically stronger and cooler. But the opening bullying scenes were so cardboardy and hollow, the song was even called “bullying by numbers”. Having a high school boy who gives a presentation on spiders and chemistry (that actually is boring if you’re not privy to the airborne Arachne) and gets called a “loser” a bunch of times before one of the saddest dance fights I’ve ever seen….there’s nothing to hold on to, nothing to identify with. We don’t even learn anyone’s name other than the head bully.

Becca, the heroine of Pitch Perfect, is into DJing. Her romantic counterpart wants to score movies, and accepts his TurboNerd roommate. Fat Amy calls herself fat so “thin bitches” don’t do it behind her back. The movie had some unfortunate token POC/LGBT casting (one Asian girl, one Black lesbian, and one Indian dude who raps do not diversity make) and all the white tenors with brown hair were hard to tell apart, but ultimately it was trying to promote acceptance, and it was able to do it in a relevant way.

The makers of Pitch Perfect knew what people like about college rom-coms, about Glee-style musical numbers, and about girl-powered competition flicks. So I liked it. The makers of Spider-man only know what people like to see when they’ve sought air conditioning to escape the heat. So once I cooled off, I had nothing to hold on to.

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