On Monday I was lucky enough to go to the 30th Anniversary Gala Performance of The Phantom of the Opera. The tickets were an anniversary present from my boyfriend – I told him I’d bought them and he said he’d pay me back, my favourite type of gift-giving. I’d wanted to see the show in London for years, and I was not disappointed. From the costumes and set, to the music and performers, the whole thing was breath-taking. It’s a show full of drama and romance along with some of the most memorable tunes in theatre. Added to all of that was the bonus of it being a gala with Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Michael Ball and other greats of musical theatre making an appreance. Plus there was free champagne. All in all, it was an amazing evening and I’m so glad I got to be part of the celebrations for such a classic musical.
On the long, long train journey back to Falmouth I started thinking about the appeal of musicals. I was brought up watching them on stage and screen – my mum loves them and my dad’s a musician outside of his 9-5 job, so they’ve always been a part of my life. I have laughed and cried and clapped until my hands hurt, and on the journeys down to uni I like to honour my lucky dad with one-woman shows as I sing along to every part of a soundtrack in the car. But why do so many of us find joy in watching people sing and dance their way through a story?
Like books, films, music, plays and art, musicals provide a way to escape. They allow you to put all your focus into something removed from your own life; you can put yourself into the shoes of a character or just invest yourself in them while the story lasts. However your own life is going at the time, it’s revitalising to step away from it for a few hours, and you can have a cathartic cry over people and events that you know aren’t real, even feel the sheer delight of a happy ending. Musicals range from the historical and Biblical, to the fantastical and frankly ridiculous (Rocky Horror, anyone?), but while they transport you away from your everyday life you will always find relatable struggles, relationships and emotions. With thanks to shows like Billy Elliot, Hairspray, Wicked and Hamilton, musicals show that you are fine just how you are, and that anyone can be that person who gets to come out last in the bows to huge applause; whatever shape, colour, ability or talent, there is a place for you.
Obviously a big appeal of musicals is the singing and dancing aspect. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I love a good story and I love watching talented dancers (Gene Kelly makes me teary he’s so wonderful), so a combination of the two is ideal; if it’s done right, the dance can add another dimension to the story or simply add an extra element of entertainment. As Victor Hugo once said (and West End actress and Youtuber Carrie Hope Fletcher quoted the other day in a video), “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent”, and I think that’s one of the reasons musical theatre songs are so well-loved. Not only are they usually written in a particularly catchy and beautiful way, but there’s also an established story and set of emotions behind each one. They’re already-brilliant tunes being sung by characters that people care about, or wish they were, or love to hate. Everyone loves reciting a good movie quote, but it’s arguably more fun learning a whole song that you can belt out in your room when everyone else is out.
Finally, musicals present beautiful, fun, silly and sad stories in a unique way. People dressed up as cats or trains would seem ridiculous in a film, and lots of people wouldn’t sit through a 3 hour movie or play about the French Revolution, the feud between Americans and Puerto Ricans or the Vietnam War. A combination of the staging, music, performance and storytelling make people care and keep them spellbound in their seats.
Perhaps it is the fact that they are so unashamedly unrealistic – of course in ‘real life’ a random group of people wouldn’t all know the same dance routine, and cars and nannies don’t fly – that makes them so attractive; they are first and foremost for entertainment. If they educate you or make you feel a certain way then that’s a bonus (all of my knowledge of Argentinian politics comes from Evita), but ultimately to watch a musical is to be taken to a different time or place by a group of wonderfully (and somewhat annoyingly) talented people for several hours, and I can’t see anything wrong with that.