What is great about a musical? La La Land seems to think that the most important thing to learn from Singing in the Rain is that things were better in the past. Please remember, however, that the whole point of Singing in the Rain was: “embrace innovation.” La La Land, a movie I’m practically alone in disliking, is about to win a bunch of awards and its director/writer Damien Chazelle will be congratulated for bringing back the movie musical. This is a shame and a misunderstanding of musicals. (I want to recognize Richard Brody’s perfect take down of the film, for which most of this will merely be an extended illustration, plus more references to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend).
La La Land is a musical in form but not in spirit. The tragedy is that we are living in a moment when many excellent things are being made in the spirit of a musical, but not in its classical form.
Here are some things that are actually great about musicals:
- They allow the bravado of GREAT singing and dancing to overwhelm narrative. A superlative voice or body breaks up the momentum of a story and transports you through its sheer excellence.
- Musicals, made often by those outside the mainstream, perform a kind of pathos that is too much for the normal world. In their essence, musicals make space for difference through their weirdness.
- Musicals comment on the world around them (usually with stinging comedy). Singing and dancing are not trans-historical universal art forms, they are the perfect crystallization of what a particular moment feels like.
I’m reverent of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s commitment to the essence of musical theater and its bravery in getting rid of the all the stuff that old people feel nostalgic about when they think of musicals (or when they think they are thinking of musicals). Hey, what if everyone’s not white? What if the music is in the vernacular of the era? What if we use the ability to have fantasy set pieces to emphasize the actual mental illness and unhealthiness of romantic constructs? La La Land’s doubling down on the nostalgia of musicals is not only regressive, it’s not in the spirit of musicals.