It is never going to be cool to like musicals, however much Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse they try to ram into Glee. But whilst this and High School Musical might have enough smiling and scat in them to make you want to do something drastic, like switch off and actually make a start on that essay, it would be a massive shame for us to dismiss all musicals as saccharine exhibitionism.
A common complaint is that it is just not realistic to suddenly burst into song. But why do we insist upon ‘realism’ in the cinema? Naturalist playwrights in the 19th century claimed to be portraying a true slice of life in their work but theatre audiences were soon forced to accept that there is always going to be a limit to ‘realism’ in a work of art or piece of entertainment. For example, presenting a story convincingly and engagingly in real time is near impossible. ‘Realism’ is just one of many possible styles of theatre but also of cinema, and ‘realist’ works are just as illusory and artificial as the most outlandish and over-stylised pieces.
If musicals are unrealistic, at least they are unabashedly so. The importance of all-singing, all-dancing escapism is too easily overlooked. As the film industry becomes increasingly earnest and worthy in its output (read: grim), with acclaimed ‘gritty’ films Biutiful and Blue Valentine playing in cinemas this month, it is hard not to look back with a certain longing to the sheer entertainment value of High Society or The Sound of Music. Even Cabaret, one of the least whimsical musicals to date, winks at its audience and refuses to take itself too seriously.
If you do not like the songs which the characters suddenly burst into, then that is of course your prerogative. But do not switch off simply because they have burst into song. After all, what could be more ‘real’ than the black humour in ‘Officer Krupke’ (West Side Story) or the poignant stoicism in ‘It’s a Fine Life’ (Oliver!)?