When I was about 14 my family moved from Auckland to Wellington, and in the first few months that we were back, before school had started, I had a certain amount of free time – no homework, only a handful of friends, no hobbies, no money. I began watching the Saturday and Sunday matinee showings of classic films – in fact, the first one I saw was The Maltese Falcon. As a wise teenager, I happened to switch on as the opening scroll was, um, scrolling, and I watched it as a kind of ironic joke to myself. It was a revelation, and sparked a lengthy period of digging out all the references dropped in Remington Steele and hence getting a real film education for the price of a few rentals and a bit of sunk time. A couple of years later we got cable, and in spare hours I’d binge TNT and in time, TCM. It was in this period that I discovered musicals – for the obvious reasons really. The first musical I can recall seeing, in some vague way, was a Christmas screening of My Fair Lady when I was about school-starting age. It’s remained a particular favourite of mine, but my relationship has changed over time as I’ve come to recognise and appreciate the depth of the irony in the music even in the small details – when Higgins sings “she aught to be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue”, he of course means “hanged”, and nothing in the music and lyrics is less ironic than that. It paints a complex picture of human relationships and gender politics. It’s never quite settled down in my mind – while other perennial high school productions of Joseph or subsequent viewings of Mary Poppins haven’t ever prompted a thought even in my over-worked cerebrum.
The first time I really engaged critically with the genre was Camelot, which was a matinee screening with a friend. I remember turning to him at the end and asking “what did you think of that?” expecting him to be as bowled-over as I was. A feather could have knocked me down when he said, quite seriously, “well, it wasn’t very realistic. I mean, who starts singing?” It had never really occurred to me before to question the defining characteristic of the genre, and it’s both as profound and difficult as asking why a murder mystery must have a corpse. I’d probably listened to Cake’s best album, Comfort Eagle about a million times before one of my friends commented that the Buffy Musical episode must rank as one of the most densely revelatory episodes of the show and joined the dot. The point of musicals is to sing what can’t be said. A certain amount of shear entertainment gets chucked in too, but the essence of what makes the Buffy Musical work is that principle in action, and that’s the design idea behind all of the great songs in Camelot. “I wonder what the king is doing tonight” is a soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare, while “C’est Moi!” could hardly reveal the problem of Lancelot better, and of course, my favourite song “The Seven Deadly Virtues” which allows Mordred to explain his villainy to Arthur and the audience in a complete contrast to the way most iterations of the character strive to present themselves, but which is true.
What I love about Chicago is that it’s almost the opposite which is true for most of the characters – they openly say what they shouldn’t, and music is their retreat to fantasy. The opening number, “And All That Jazz” nails it – ‘I’m no-one’s wife, but I love my life’ – which is a patent fantasy from someone who’s only not married because she’s just murdered her husband, and who was obviously chronically unhappy beforehand. There’s a kind of emotional reality behind the songs, so that perhaps the six murderesses really believe their victims “had it coming”, but the facts as related hardly lead the audience to the same conclusion. The film culminates in the ultimate fantasy – that these hot-blooded, manipulative, and dangerous women, caught red-handed, could get away with everything. The fantasy of their real lives actually supersedes and exceeds the fantasies they portray in song. There isn’t a single villainous act in the whole show that doesn’t go unrewarded, quite the opposite of the remainder of the genre with its tendency to a hopeful earnestness and good-hearted happy ending.
The film version of Chicago is one of the few aesthetic points of disagreement between myself and Tog42. He’s always maintained that the film is an awful travesty that poorly judges the cinematic potential of the base material, with confusing inter-cutting between scenes of only semi-realism (I mean, even the jail is clearly a set!) and the pseudo-cabaret of the musical numbers. All of that actually worked well for me, bridging the gap between the basic nature of a “musical” and the realism automatically implied by film. I’ve often wondered whether he’d have liked the live version I saw at the Porirua Little Theatre shortly after the film came out. It was an amateur production, but it’s stuck in my mind as being surprising and hugely enjoyable. Chicago as a concept works at least in part by explicitly trading on the sexual allure of its leads – compared to the deliberate naivety of 42nd Street – and my strong recollection of the leads was as women far larger than the accepted norm for ‘sex kittens’ but who nevertheless oozed sex appeal. The staging of a musical as a cabaret performance inherently distorts the fourth wall, because cabarets always feel like you’re as much part of the show as an observer. Who knows – but next time it’s on stage with us both in a city, I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.