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Does anything truly "defy musicalization"?

Jennifer Lynn
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joined:12/29/03
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Recently I flipped through Ken Mandelbaum's Not Since Carrie. (Strangely enough, even he admits that much of Carrie's score was quite good, but the ridiculous costuming and staging sank the show.) One of his admonitions is, "if you don't want to have a flop, don't try to musicalize a book (movie, play) that defies musicalization."

This gave me pause. We've had musicals about a murderous throat-slitting barber, a passel of presidential assassins, the lead-up to the Declaration of Independence, and one that came from a very thick and complex French novel about a former convict and his redemption. And all of them were superb. So in light of these, can we say that anything truly "defies musicalization"?

Now, maybe there are some things that do. There was talk--I don't know if there still is--about Ahrens and Flaherty doing a stage musical of Rocky. As much as I love Ahrens and Flaherty, I'd have a hard time visualizing a Rocky musical--because boxing is not exactly a sport that lends itself to music, and because the character of Rocky is so rough of speech that I can't imagine him singing. But even then, I could be wrong.

The thing is...too often, when people scoff at turning something into a musical, they're going on what I call the "Springtime for Hitler Fallacy." Meaning they're going on the assumption that all musicals are light, frothy affairs with splashy chorus numbers and kick lines, and that to musicalize something is to trivialize it. Regarding the aforementioned Assassins, Sondheim was baffled when people were upset about the idea of a musical about presidential assassination, saying that if it were a straight play, no one would think twice about it. And there were those who were horrified at the idea of a musical about the Titanic's sinking (and I do love the score of that show), whereas if it were an *opera* about the Titanic, no one would have complained.

So what do you think would have to be in a property that "defies musicalization"?
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Not Barker, Todd.
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It would have to be non-existent (and even then it can always be created for the stage). I am a firm believer that anything could be adapted for a musical. Now it is true that not everything will work when created, and some things may present many varied challenges. But I believe that if we want the musical to grow as an art form, we have to be incredibly optimistic about its possibilities.
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Updated On: 3/31/08 at 01:46 PM
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After performing in a regional drama of Masada, I thought that subject material was unapproachable. That is until I saw Masada the Musical headed for NY. It nearly blew my mind! Who wants to see a musical about a mass suicide? I think the Jim Jones horrors would also be off limits. If musicals about Menopause, or Slashers could run, I guess just about anything could.
puppetman2
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Certain sport related themes wouldn't work as a musical. Example the skiing film "Down Hill Runner". I also doubt that a musicfal about Jack the Ripper would work unless it would be done as an opera.
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InfiniteTheaterFrenzy
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To be fair to Mandelbaum, I don't think he's inferring that the musicals that defy musicalization do so because of unlikely, unconventional subject matter. His reasons are more intricate than that. For example, doesn't he say that Cyrano already has musical language and musical passion in the dialogue, that renders an actual score unnecessary to add to the story? That's quite different than claiming a subject defies musicalization because it's strange or offbeat. I didn't think he was inferring that at all.
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FIERCEY516
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there are never any bad ideas, just poor execution.

also. just because a concept might seem absurd or "stupid" to some, does not mean it's a bad idea.

much different
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acrocksyo
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agreed with fiercey, you can have the most weird off the wall idea, and if you do a good job with it, then it will work, it's all in the execution.

Anything can be turned into a musical, anything! I have even seen good ideas that were musicalized but were terrible and didn't work at all.
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broadwayrules
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I don't believe that anything truly "defys musicalization." Of course there are things that I believe should not be made into musicals, but if they are written and preformed with respect to the subject matter they can work.
Gothampc
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"because boxing is not exactly a sport that lends itself to music, and because the character of Rocky is so rough of speech that I can't imagine him singing."

The play "Golden Boy" was turned into a musical about boxing. Also, there have been many characters that were rough that have been musicalized: gang members in "West Side Story", gangsters in "Guys & Dolls", prostitutes in "Sweet Charity" and "The Life", a carnival barker and sailors in "Carousel" etc.

Someone once said that a character should only sing a song when dialogue is not enough to convey the thought or emotion. A song elevates the moment to a higher plane. By adding music, the creative team needs to find the moment(s) that should be elevated and leave alone the moments that don't warrant that.

I think anything can be musicalized, but a lot depends on how gifted the writer, composer, lyricist and director are. If the story truly warrants telling, then what are the moments that are worth elevating?
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A Director
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I would just love to see musical about the Shoah.
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JRybka
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gothampc... to even further your comments. Look at Side Show which many on this board think is brilliant (myself included...)
It had siamese twins, a bearded lady, and others...Not traditional musical fare and yet it was such a great show.


I also think if they had gone in one direction or the other (camp versus Gothic) with CARRIE it wouuld have been better received.

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WOSQ
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As has been said before, there are several works that while they don't defy musicalization, the addition of song (and dance) does not tell the story better or clarify the work better.

I just saw Juno last night and the original script is so tight that the music, while literate and intelligent, often just got in the way. Others that are very tight scripts are The Man Who Came To Dinner (Sherry) and All About Eve (Applause). Zorba would work extremely well as an opera, but not a musical.

Some plays already sing. There just isn't any music. Cyrano is the best example and was already cited. Cyrano is a trap because of all that poetry except none of the characters are poetic except the title role, and he can't sing a whole score (or can he?). Of the plays that are already musical, the adaptation that works the best is Mame, but if you get a chance to read the script to Auntie Mame, it is far better than the musical which isn't bad mind you, it is just that the play is better.

Sweet Smell of Success is a prime example of characters who have nothing to sing about. Watch the film and ask yourself why any of these people would sing about anything.
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Prisoner 24601
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I would agree that the nature of the work, not necessarily the subject matter, is what would most impact the effectiveness of a musicalization. All language has music and rhythm, it's all poetry. It can be set to music. Where it loses effectiveness is when the original intent and meaning is lost when a line is forced into a lyric that must rhyme or fit a stanza. Authors choose their words extremely carefully, they pay attention to rhythm, it creates character in dialogue and impacts meaning in narration. I don't think anything defies musicalization, but I think many musicalizations turn out poorly because the adapter loses sight of the author's intent with language.
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Weez
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As I have long said: with the right creative team, ANYTHING can be turned into a musical. We've had the crucifixion, Eva Peron, a man getting stuck in a cave and dying, they've even done Anne Frank. NOTHING is beyond musicalisation.

I'd even see a Jack the Ripper musical; I don't see it being too far removed from 'Sweeney Todd' or 'Jekyll & Hyde'. :3
husk_charmer
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There was at least one Jack the Ripper musical. It closed in previews in London in the 70s (I think)
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FIERCEY516
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were you alive in the 70's?
jagfkb
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Mel Brooks. no wait...