Once more with feeling – Fionnuala Ward on musicals

An Irishwoman’s Diary

We’re not post-pandemic just yet. Not when the mention of “numbers” can still be slipped into conversation with no need for context. And yet there is a kind of euphoria out there, what with the packed pubs and bustling restaurants and three-hour queues at the airport. And then there’s that other indicator when it comes to sheer exuberance – the return of the touring musical.

Musicals are not to everyone’s taste. But that argument about it being so very unrealistic to have people bursting into song when strolling down the street or buying veggies in the local supermarket or queuing up in the bank is so very silly.

Scenarios involving superheroes or storm troopers or wand-wielding wizards aren’t exactly at the forefront of street-smart edginess either. And anyway there are times when backing away from that edge is by far the most sensible, practical and street-smart thing to do.

But then I've been a fan of musicals for as long as I can remember. Well, right back to the memories of the record player that resided in my granny's house in Dundalk. Record players resided in very few houses back then, and this particular specimen belonged to my Aunty Ann and my siblings and I spent many a glorious Sunday morning scraping its needle back and forth across the vinyl surfaces of Westside Story and the Sound of Music and Oklahoma and South Pacific.

My aunt would be off singing in the local choir, giving us free rein. We could raid her musicals’ collection while Granny filled Mam and Dad in on who had died during the week over tea and apple tart in the back room.

And so oblivious to all and any social, political and sexual agendas at play, we’d bounce around the room to the likes of “I have confidence” and “When you’re a Jet”, “I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair” and “The farmers and the cowmen should be friends”.

American tunes from American musicals. But then they invented the genre and imbued it with that toe-tapping quality of how wonderful life was and sure even if it wasn’t that wonderful, a song gave a character, major or minor, the opportunity to comment on what was happening or figure out what was going on or at the very least move things along at a nifty enough pace.

But for all of their energy and loopiness, a lot of those earlier American musicals have not dated well.

There's a song in Oklahoma which actively encourages one of its characters to do themselves in, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers involves kidnapping, followed by what would now be viewed as a great big dollop of Stockholm syndrome. And then there's "Make 'Em Laugh", an incredible song in Singin' in the Rain where Donald O'Connor dances up a wall but which also involves unwanted hands on knees and a tryst at the back of a sofa where the whole joke seems to be that the "woman" (a mannequin being seduced by O'Connor) is trying to get away.

Some years ago, I ended up in an Italian restaurant with friends. The place was packed and the food delicious.

It was the restaurant’s first night up and running and the owner, overwhelmed by the buzz of it all, launched into a spontaneous, spirited rendition of Volare, cajoling us all to join in for those “uh-oh” and “oh-oh-oh-oh” bits. Which we duly did.

Now, I fully accept that this slice-of-life had little in common with a scene from a musical. Our singing didn’t make reference to why we were there or how we felt about the pasta we were in the throes of consuming. It didn’t acknowledge anyone’s narrative journey or progress it in any way. And needless to say, nobody leapt on a chair and the restaurant remained a twirl-free zone.

But there we were, a bunch of complete strangers doing our “uh-ohs” and “oh-oh-oh-ohs” together as one. And this was happening in a sensible, rational city centre location in the early evening light.

The children present sat open-mouthed. I can still picture a young boy at the table beside us staring in bewilderment as the adults in his family moved their hands from side to side for special emphasis.

Chances are, of course, that these kids had never bounced around a room to chirpy Broadway tunes or even chirpy Broadway tunes that, in truth, were not that chirpy.

Their loss.

Maybe in years to come, someone, somewhere will do a musical about the pandemic. It’ll be a tough topic to cover.

But if any genre can do it justice, it’s the one that involves characters staring straight out into the audience, finding a note and just going for it.