Classic musicals are pretty damn great. The music is moving, the lyrics are sharp, the dancing is impressive, and the costumes are swoon-worthy. Theatre is built on tradition and many (most?) of the great stories told there are retellings and adaptations of very old stories. This traditionalism adds a heaping dose of nostalgia to the act of watching musicals, and an appreciation for the format is often passed on through generations. My love of The Music Man comes as much from the good memories I have of watching it with my family when I was young as it does from Robert Preston’s energetic performance and killer old Hollywood hair.
My love of My Fair Lady really comes from my mom, who believes that Audrey Hepburn was a living embodiment of perfection during her time here (and who am I to argue with that?). I can distinctly remember watching MFL with my mom as a kid and thinking, man, this is dull. But I also remember thinking, I’m going to sit here and enjoy it because my mom loves it so much. Only on later viewings as an adult did I understand how hilarious Henry Higgins’ wearing of a brown tweed suit to the Ascot Racecourse was, or how Pickering and he were just a couple of gay dudes dressing up a doll of a woman. Combining my nostalgic feelings with my adult understanding of the context has turned an enjoyment of musicals into a life-long love of the format.
So, as you can see, I have blinders already in place when watching musicals, but it’s important to note that old musicals are commonly very problematic. The agency of women in the stories is often non-existent. Rape and sexual aggression are prevalent. The treatment of characters of colour (if there are any) is frequently stereotypical (at best) or overtly offensive. So how does the modern viewer get around this? Is it ok to still enjoy these outdated pieces of art? Should we still watch old musicals?
You Must Face Your Problems, Head On
Of course we should still watch them! They’re great (see above). One of the best things to do is to openly acknowledge the problems you are seeing. Talk about it with your viewing companions (or just admit it to yourself if you prefer an alone experience). It is pretty effed up that Professor Higgins buys Eliza Doolittle from her father for five pounds, so don’t pretend that isn’t a problem. Be loud about it. If you recommend it to a friend, warn them about the issues and take the moment to acknowledge how things have improved and how they haven’t. Having these conversations is a first step in raising awareness about these issues, and it will certainly help your enjoyment of the musical.
Call Dibs on the Clothing
Cards on the table here, most old musicals have a number or series of numbers that drag the momentum of the show to a near stand-still. In Hello, Dolly! it’s “It Only Takes a Moment.” In The Sound of Music (which I love to death), it’s everything after the intermission and before the hiding behind huge tombstones at the end. In Singin’ in the Rain, it’s the never-ending “Broadway Ballet.” Given these lulls, it’s important to have back up activities in place to keep yourself and your viewing companions engaged. This is where the time-honoured game of calling dibs on the clothes comes in. Your task is to call the outfits (and hats) that you would most like to own.
Above are a few of the outfits that I have a lifetime claim to, based on successfully calling them over years of viewing these movies. If you’re watching these musicals with a standard viewing buddy (hi, Taryn!), you’ll develop a sense of what kinds of clothes each of you should have, and react accordingly. If you’re watching with a new friend, this activity can help you learn new things about each other, so everybody wins. Plus, millinery is a dying art and in praising the work of the hat-makers on these old films, you’ll be keeping their legacies alive.
Learn the Dances
This tip is really for those musicals that you watch again and again. If you’ve committed the songs to heart and called dibs on all of the clothing in the production, you’re ready to level up. The bonus of trying to learn musical choreography is that the multiple viewings it accords will often lead to new discoveries about the characters or clothing that you didn’t think to call before. Learning the choreography for one of your favourite numbers is just another way to express your true love of the work, and here you can create a gender and racially-blind casting experience in your own home. I myself have played the role of Georg Von Trapp dancing the Landler in my living room, long before Hamilton made such things cool.
Find New Productions That Improve on the Original
And speaking of Hamilton, the blowout success of that musical and its use of racially-blind casting has made this practice an increasingly accepted and lauded trend. Musicals are constantly restaged and recast, so be sure to seek out newer productions that turn the story on its head and invite new perspectives, and then compare. From black Hermoine in a London stage version of The Cursed Child, to Fox’s Grease: Live bringing characters of colour into their production, there are modern retellings of traditionally very white stories just waiting for you. Making Marty Maraschino a black woman in the new Grease: Live production adds dimension to a pretty flat character, and that kind of change can add a spark to any production.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Donna Lynn Champlin did a great interview recently where she talked about her participation in an all-female production of Taming of the Shrew and how the gender-blind casting gave that problematic, misogynistic play new life. These revivals that ask specific questions of the classic version are an important part of an ongoing conversation between musical theatre history and contemporary life. Delving deeper into the musical and interacting with it as a living, changing piece of art will only enhance your experience.
So there you have it, just a few fail-safe ways to improve your classic musical viewing experience. I have a hunch that readers here might have their own tips and tricks for enjoying old musicals, and I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Or better yet, send me a video of you doing the choreography to “I Can’t Do It Alone” from Chicago. I’m here for that, too.