Musicals and me

“Heart and Music” is the title of a William Finn song, written for his marvelous show A New Brain, and I can’t think of a more succint way to describe what this blog will be about.

Musicals have been a passion of mine since childhood. It all started with Disney songs, and the way they seemed to evoke characters and moments in the movies that went beyond what was shown on screen. I have memories of my obsession with those songs and how I learnt them and sung them in Spanish at the time as if they were some kind of fetish, as if they could actually¬†do something to me. Of course they did. In time, when my mates started to develop a taste for pop or rock and buy records, I discovered soundtrack albums. After Disney, the earliest records I listened to, obsessively, were the sountracks to My Fair Lady and West Side Story (in English) and The Sound of Music (in Spanish) as well as the concept albums of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. And it was a very queer thing to feel they did things to me that other kinds of music did not. Also I soon realised that musicals were not other people’s favourite music. Indeed they had a terrible reputation among cool people. Which did not weaken my obsession.

I did try, I really did, to listen to other kinds of music. And it was not all bad. I enjoyed the occasional opera. And some Spanish songwriters, and pop singers like Karina or Dusty Springfield, Motown and Doo Wop. I felt there was something deep in Simon and Garfunkel and learnt the lyrics of The Beatles by heart. I seem to recall forcing me to listen to Dire Straits in my early twenties and even dancing to Aztec Camera, but never really became hooked. Somehow I always came back to musicals. Aztec Camera made me dance, but “Summer Nights” from Grease¬† or “I Got Life” from Hair, I danced to joyfully and almost obsessively. In many ways I was the boy in the basement D A Miller recalls in his illuminating essay Place For Us, a key influence in this blog¬†At first I tried to communicate my enthusiasm, but as my teenage years progressed I realised that in terms of musical taste, as well as in emotional attachments, I would just have to admit I was part of a minority. Soon there was jazz: Ella, Nina, Sarah, Louis and, finally, Billie, the greatest.

Then somehow around 20 I discovered The Broadway Musical. Of course by then I had already developed an insane obsession by the movies, and they had the advantage of being there, on TV, in the cinemas. But the Broadway musical slowly became something of a specialism. I started to collect cast albums at that time, and soon I found, as I was always meant to, the work of Stephen Sondheim. I always say no writer has influenced me as much as Sondheim, no body of work seems to go to the heart of things like his, or illuminates my worldview in the same way or to the same extent. For over thirty years, no less, I have been going back to Sondheim, his words, his music, his characters have helped me to identify narrative strands, to put my experiences into words. Still after so much time, I find a Sondheim lyric that says something I had not understood before, I listen, for instance to something like “Alone is alone not alive” and suddenly it clicks. Yes it is. Why had I not noticed before?

It is of course dangerous to have passion as the basis for a blog. One tends to wander, one becomes solipsistic. I will, however, try to explain, analyze, communicate passion as well as I can. I will also try to deal with the more objective aspects of the musicals: the meanings of songs, the conventions of the genre, the oddities and the masterpieces. Yes, this is about heart, but it is also about critical analysis. One strand will be a current project on pop musicals, and there will be overlaps with my interest in the Seventies as developed in my blog The Age of Jane Fonda. And there will be a lot of Sondheim, of course.