July 14, 2020

The Musical Conundrum

The Musical Conundrum

5-minutes in and there’s a familiar feeling rising in me. By minute 7 I share that feeling with my wife. “I’m not sure about this.” It’s said in the same way that Han Solo says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” The thing I’m uncertain about is Hamilton, the musical about one of the founding fathers of the USA, Alexander Hamilton. It’s been a Broadway phenomenon and a global sensation.

I only suggested we watch it as it’s on Disney+, which I only got to watch the Star Wars series, Mandalorian. This feeling isn’t unfamiliar.

I first felt it in 1997 while watching Miss Saigon at the Drury Lane Theatre in London. It was my first experience of musical theatre. I didn’t know what to expect but whatever it was, it wasn’t this. It was all a bit much. I found it hard to follow. Why were they singing so much? Couldn’t they just, I don’t know, have a conversation without bursting into song?

Within 10-minutes the story has a hold on me. The fact that they’re singing and not talking is almost lost to me. The production was incredible, highlight being the lowering of an actual ‘Huey’ helicopter. That was unexpected and very cool for someone who has watched more Vietnam War movies than most. As polished as the production was, it was the story that held my attention. By the end I fought back the onset of a surprising late evening bout of hay fever.

This same pattern has existed for every musical I’ve ever seen. Granted I’ve not seen many, but there is a pattern that’s impossible to ignore.

It’s what I’ve christened the MAT.

The Musical Acclimation Time. It’s the time it takes for your brain to move from standard narrative form to the musical variety. I appreciate that others don’t have this, for all I know, I may be the sole sufferer of this affliction.

When we’re not accustomed to something, or it doesn’t tally with our expectations, there’s a kind of resistance that kicks in. It’s strong and hard to break through.

But, that’s what I did with Hamilton.

And, I’m glad I did. It was brilliant and, by the end, I was a convert. In the space of a couple of hours my brain went from ‘I hate this’ to ‘I love this.’

So why did I love it?

Lots of reasons.

  • The production was amazing.
  • The lyrics were clever.
  • The performances were great.
  • It was very funny in places.

All true, but the real reason I love it is for the story it tells. It’s such a powerful story that is so creatively told.

I know that it takes creative license with aspects of history and glosses over key elements. I don’t care. I’ve been entertained for 2 hours 50 minutes. I’ve felt happy at the moments of triumph. I’ve felt sad at the moments of tragedy. But, I’ve felt something and isn’t that what any story is meant to do?

Lots of people won’t go beyond their knee-jerk feelings and the resistance will be permanent. They’ll cast immediate judgement on something they’ve not seen. And that’s a shame, but it would be a dull world if we were all the same.

At the heart of my own temporary resistance, of my MAT, is the fact that musicals are harder work. You have to listen to the lyrics to understand the story. You have to watch with good peripheral vision to not only see what one character is feeling but how others are reacting.

It is deliberately hard. Yet, stick with it, decode it, understand it, and embrace it and what you’re left with is an indelible memory of a story very well told.