It’s funny how the mind works sometimes. Yesterday, it decided to dip into my memory safe hold and pull out a blog I’d written almost a year ago; I could almost see it inside my head as a physical presence, waving excitedly and calling out, “Coo-ee! Remember me?” The blog was Why Can’t Life Be More Like A Musical? and was a light-hearted lamenting of how wonderful the World would be if we were all spontaneously breaking into song throughout the day. One part of it read:
“In a musical, everything is on such a grand scale, with every emotion amplified and every event more dramatic and high-impact. Where else can a simple walk in the rain end with you swinging around lamp posts, umbrella in hand? Where else can a surprise reunion with your ex turn into lyrical reminiscing over a secret fumble on a dark night? Where else can a colourful coat lead to such jealousy that your brothers sell you as a slave and fake your death (in song, of course)?
Life would surely be more fun if you danced your way through it, and infinitely easier if everybody just sang whatever they were thinking. Stepping out of the house in the morning and seeing a group of suits jete-ing their way to work, followed by a line of mums with prams trilling in unison about the school run – wouldn’t that give you more of a wake-up call than a kick of caffeine in a mug?”
The musical theatre geek inside me still thinks this would be a pretty terrific way to live – if only to finally have a voice that doesn’t cause even cats to cover their ears as, after all, everyone knows that you can sing if you’re living in a musical. The recollection of this particular blog set those cogs in my mind turning again though and I ended up looking at The Musical in an altogether different light.
I’ve often talked about escape being one of the best qualities a musical can offer its audience. How many people go to the theatre to be able to leave any problems they may have back in Real Life for a few hours whilst they escape into a fantastic world of make-believe? I know its something I’ve certainly done before. Losing yourself in this world can be a very therapeutic experience as you return home with your mind full of other people’s stories and no room left to dwell on your own. Is this as good as it sounds though? As I wrote in that previous blog, musicals are less about the truth of everyday life and more about grandiose drama – the problem this carries is that when you go back to that everyday life, it may appear a little pale in comparison.
Failed expectations can crush a person’s spirit beyond the hope of repair: rejection, heartbreak, loss…all these things and more have taken down even the strongest of us. Theatre works in much the same way as books and films do, in that they show you an idealised view of life that is almost impossible to achieve. Finding your soulmate, changing the world, getting that ‘happy ever after’ ending… can these happen to you? Yes of course. Are they rare occurrences though? Sadly for the most part, yes, they are.
In a musical, these things are par for the course; it’s just what happens. Outside of the land of song and dance though, they’re what you might call the exception to the rule. If you’re enough of a realist to know that life will try to knock you down more often than it will help you up, then you’ll be just fine. If you expect life to be like a musical though, then you can also expect to find disappointment around the corner instead of your happy ending.
In a world where people constantly fall in and out of love, the kind of epic, passionate, ‘written-in-the-stars’ love seen in musicals and so forth is something that is often fantasised about. As a single gal, I’ve imagined meeting that one person who can look into your eyes and see exactly who you are, who can make you feel safe and defenceless at the same time and sets your soul on fire with just one look or touch. It’s why I adore The Phantom of the Opera so much. Everything about it is filled with such passion and longing, and the draw between the characters of ‘The Phantom’ and ‘Christine’ is so powerfully compelling that it’s hard to not desire a relationship that encompasses that same intensity – minus the murderous rampages and numerous kidnappings of course. Finding someone you can love enough to get married, buy the house and have the 2.4 kids with – that’s dime a dozen love and its plenty enough for most people, who are quite content to have someone they can snuggle up to on the sofa while they talk about their day. Finding the one person who you connect with soul to soul is the kind of deep, life-changing love that only the very lucky few ever manage. The Phantom of the Opera is another of those heart-rending stories which make you want it though.
If you look at any musical, you’ll find that same idealised romanticism running through each and every one. Sometimes it will be to do with love, as with Phantom, but sometimes not. Mamma Mia for example, is all about a young bride’s need to find her father before she gets married, which a lot of other people out there in similar situations can identify with. The three contenders that ‘Sophie’ finds are handsome, successful men who, as it turns out, all want to be a part of her life and end up deciding to share the role of dad between them. Of course in Real Life, daddy dearest is more likely to be a bit of a loser, who perhaps ran away from fatherhood or chose a pretty blonde over it. Maybe he’s a jobless drunk, maybe he’s more interested in the new family he now has, or maybe he’s sowed his seeds all around the country and never bothered to look back to see what became of any of them. People searching for long-lost parents do sometimes have their hope rewarded, but more often than not, they’re just left disappointed by what they find. How about Matilda then? A child, neglected and unloved by her family, who discovers she has a way to change things and eventually gets the happy life she dreamed about. I’m a parent myself and I love my daughter to the point where I would absolutely lay down my life for hers. Not all parents love their children like that though. There are thousands of unhappy children out there, being beaten and abused and made to feel like nothing but a burden. Nobody is bestowing powers of telekinesis on them however, and while some do escape their situation, many more fall through the net and are left with a lifetime of issues that shape their future selves and can never quite be left behind. I’m sure they dream of that white knight in shining army coming to rescue them from their unhappiness, but only a few are actually saved.
I don’t think musicals such as these are a bad thing at all – if anything, they offer hope to people who are looking for just that. Everyone needs hope in their life, but you shouldn’t expect to be able to live out the life of a character in a musical. Is a night down the pub with your mates, grumbling about the current state of out country going to lead to you all banding together to stand up to the power-hungry corruption of a greedy government? No, you’re probably going to carry on drinking, go home and pass out, waking up with a blurry recollection of the night before and continue moaning about life without actually doing anything to change it. Is a girl who is plain or different likely to find a handsome Prince declaring his undying love for her? No, because we sadly live in a shallow World where appearance is everything, and despite the mantra of “it’s what inside that counts”, our faces are what we are first judged by. Don’t take me to mean that a girl who is not conventionally attractive will never find love – I don’t want to start receiving hate mail or find photos of myself with eyes stubbed out by cigarette ends – as that is of course untrue, but it’s probably going to be easier for the gorgeous blonde with the big breasts and tiny waist to find than the overweight girl with glasses, frizzy hair and bad breath.
It’s all very well and good to disappear into the fantasy of the musical for a while, but care should be taken not to fall down that rabbit hole. Musicals exist to entertain. What people take from them is unique to each individual, but wistful yearning for what is after all a fantasy, should not be it. I’ve imagined myself as a ‘Christine’ or ‘Elphaba’ or ‘Cosette’…who hasn’t? I’ve never wanted to replace my life with theirs though. Real Life is as much about the bad things which happen to you as the good, it all shapes us into the people we are and leads us to where we’re supposed to go. If you embrace that, instead of desperately clinging to romantic dreams of the perfect life, then you’re much more likely to find your Happy Ever After. So go and enjoy the wonderful experience that theatre offers you, then return to your own life with hope in your heart and a big ol’ smile on your face.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)