Following the 71st Tony Awards that were held on June 11th, 2017 my social media pages exploded. My friends and family were quick to share the news that singer Ben Platt had won a Tony Award for his Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. I was surprised to see so many of my friends excited about this because I hadn’t even heard of this musical. I assumed that this was a blip on Facebook and Twitter, and that they were just moving the most trending topics to the top of my feed. But then I arrived at work the following morning to hear my co-workers just as enthusiastic.
Don’t be mistaken, I’m fairly cultured and I love musicals, so it was odd that I hadn’t heard of Dear Evan Hansen.
As the week continued, I realized that people seemed to just be in a tizzy about this musical. I had flashbacks to when Hamilton first hit my sleepy little town. Everyone was talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda, listening to his groundbreaking music, and buying the book the musical was based on. I felt like I was missing something. I don’t live in New York, so I knew that people hadn’t gone to see it overnight, so I couldn’t figure out what the deal was.
Needless to say, when the popularity of Hamilton soared in 2016, I was completely puzzled. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that it’s a beautiful musical and I hope to see it performed one day, but it seems odd to me when people develop a fascination with musicals and stories that they’ve not even seen performed.
In college I spent a good deal of my time studying film. I took several classes in order to understand the reasoning for particular movements, lighting, sets, and music. These classes taught me that nearly everything in a film is done for a reason. Even the slightest change in a camera angle or in a shadow of a characters face can completely alter the feel of a film. These things are chosen purposefully and meticulously. Directors choose a particular lighting or angle not just to make the film look aesthetically pleasing, but also to convey a certain feeling to the audience.
The same goes for plays and musicals. Yes, music is obviously the focus of musicals, but that’s not all that goes into the production of one.
There are songs I’ve heard all my life that don’t particularly move me. But I’ve been lucky enough to see some of those same songs performed live, and it conveys a completely different feeling. And that’s because of the added emotion portrayed through the characters, the context created by the story, and the lighting.
For example, I was recently in London and I got to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Now, I’ve listened to Carole King’s music all my life (I’m convinced my mom raised me to be a hippie) and I have always enjoyed it, but I can’t necessarily say that I was ever moved by it. After seeing this production, I can’t say that anymore. There are songs that I hear now that immediately send me back to that little theater in London. There are songs that sends chills down my spine because I can’t help but visualize the characters and the joy or pain they conveyed in their performance. Seeing that musical has changed the way I listen to Carole King. Some songs I like more and others I like less, simply because of the way they were presented.
This pattern can also be seen in other musicals. “Masquerade” (The Phantom of the Opera) is a gorgeous song, but it has so much more meaning when you’re engrossed in the Phantom’s story. “For Good” (Wicked) is another stunning song, but it’s so moving to listen to it after you’ve watched the friendship of Elphaba and Glinda in its entirety. The same goes for “Bring Him Home” (Les Miserablés). Isn’t that song more powerful if you know who Valjean is singing about?
Musicals aren’t just about the music. Musicals are stories and in stories you get different angles and character building, depth and expression. Songs in musicals are beautiful, but when they’re paired with the musical they were created for, they become awe-inspiring.