I was in 4th grade at Mt. Vernon Elementary School (VA) when I discovered musicals. Our home on Yacht Haven Drive had a basement with a large unfinished room where the cinder blocks made the sound of our ancient record player sound magical.
Next to the record player was a box of LPs, and as I flipped through them I saw many titles that were completely new to me, such as ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘The King and I,’ and ‘Kismet.’ Naturally they’re were some LPs by Frank Sinatras, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole, given the approximate year of 1958.
My bedroom was in the basement next to a brand new TV-room with couch, chairs, and small box with ‘rabbit ears’ on top — we got three black-and-white stations, if lucky. There I would sometimes feign illness to watch Mickey Mantle hit home runs.
But being all by myself in the basement allowed me to sing away while the musicals played. These would be the first of many musicals I virtually memorized, a feat that has never been appreciated by my friends or families on car trips.
I’m not sure but I think I had a decent baritone voice as I tried to imitate the peerless control of John Raitt or the bravura energy of Alfred Drake. I sang there for over three years until we moved to Ft. Worth where the new home encouraged more baseball and boating and less singing.
Yet, I continued to add musicals to my memory and when the film versions of Broadway hits began to appear I fell in love with the music all over again, falling even harder for the likes of new stars such as Julie Andrews and Gordon McRae. Too bad they never made a film together.
And there were surprises such as ‘Oliver’ with a street scene, Who Will By?, so memorable and spectacular I sometimes insist my friends watch it. Yes, I am like that, but it’s the kind of thing you do when you feel so ardently drawn to something beautiful.
‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ knocked me out in a completely for a different reason than the music: Its dance sequences were episodes of pure joy, the kind that create a smile so instantaneous your face bears its mark for a while after.
Musicals, in retrospect, stamped my imagination and sensibility with aspirations that no doubt are questionable from a philosophical point of view, but the mark on my inner life was already deeply set before I began to scrutinize it.
What did that mark contain? First and foremost, a celebration of love, of falling in love, and romance. I still think that lovers should sing and dance. What’s more natural than that? And the music should be singable with a melodic line whose beauty is irresistible and memorable. My use of should is deliberate and normative in the least offensive way to those who disagree.
Love songs should be capable of being taken home, so to speak; songs that can be sung offstage or offscreen are the heart of great musicals. Musicals without them, those that contain only a form of rhythmic patter or rap speech (like ‘Hamilton’) are fakes.
Sadly, the musicals of the last twenty years have suffered greatly from that problem, the inattention to melody, whether from disinterest or lack of talent I don’t know.
For example, compare two recent musical: the remake of West Side Story by Steven Spielberg and ‘In the Heights’ (2021) directed by
Here the cast lead by Ariana DeBose sings ‘America’ from West Side Story
The cast lead by Anthony Ramos of ‘In the Heights’ sings ‘Fly the Flag,’ a scene similar to the one above.
Both scenes have exceptional dancing, high energy, and appealing visual style, but what’s lacking from ‘In the Heights’ is obvious: the lack of musical value. The viewer could walk to her or his car singing ‘America,” but ‘Fly the Flag’ is unmemorable simply because it is a mishmash of familiar, even to non-Latinos, Latino memes. Both scenes are Latino, but one stays with you, and has stayed with me, for years to come.
When I ask people, say, under forty what musical they like, I am usually met with a blank stare. Perhaps they will say ‘Cats’ or ‘Hamilton,’ but it has become clear to me that several generations have come and gone since the musicals that arrested my imagination, and millions of others, as a boy and young man are important to anyone.
From what I have said above, the reader will already know I consider that regrettable, if only for the loss of genuine melody in their lives. The soul needs the melodic and the multi-melodic or ‘harmonic’; the constant dominance of rhythm alone hardens the heart and creates collectivity. The Ancients knew this, but we Moderns, of course, think we know better, but we don’t.