Saturday, October 6, 2007

Every Story is a Love Story: The Great Romantic Musicals (Part 1 of 2)

As Tim Rice says, “Every story is a love story.” However, not every love story is a romantic one. Love exists in many forms—the love between parent and child (The Rink), siblings (Side Show), ruler and country (Camelot), and friends (Wicked) to name just a few. And just because a story features a romantic love story between a couple of marriageable status doesn’t mean that their story is romantic. Fanny, for example, features a touching story of love an older man has for the young Fanny, even though she is emotionally devoted to the wayward father of her child. These are surely romantic notions, but the situation itself is hardly romantic. Hello, Dolly! is another prime example. It features two highly satisfying and endearing love stories, though ultimately neither of them sends flutters of romantic sentiment through the heart (and I don’t believe they were ever intended to).

Even as a man, I appreciate a good love story. I think as women read Danielle Steele novels to be swept away by a man of her dreams, I love a good Jane Austen novel because of its depiction of noble and honorable men finding an intelligent and independent woman in a pack if ninnies (and it helps that Austen’s characters are psychologically complex and are featured in fascinating stories of life in Edwardian England). I would go as far as to say there are very few great romantic stories, at least in comparison to the number of them which are created. Perhaps this is because I’m too cynical or approach romantic comedies with too masculine a perspective and find corny Kate Hudson movies to be lacking in true romance that doesn’t induce dry heaves.

So what makes for great romantic stories?

Well, first of all, there has to be some substance to the characters. Character types and cardboard lovers fall flat. In college I had to read a section of a romance novel in a literature class, and it was actually laughably funny (of course, I am a man, so . . . no offense, ladies). The characters should have a psychology and live a plot that rise above the been-there-done-that a hundred times normalcy.

The characters have to meet and fall in love in a reasonably realistic way. This is crucial because you have to believe that these characters are going to “make it.” People need to know each other before it can be believed that they will live happily ever after. There are more than a handful of musicals where the characters meet and fall madly in love in one scene, which is completely fine. It just makes for a love story rather than a truly romantic one.

There should be a clear reason why the characters love each other. Because she’s pretty and he’s strapping doesn’t work for a truly romantic story. I think of Wicked as a great example. Fiyero falls for Elphaba because he gets to know her. Because of this substance, “As Long as Your Mine” becomes a very romantic expression of mature love.

The conflict should be romantic in nature. Romantic conflicts include, but are not limited to, two powerful personalities who clash despite (or because of) their strong feelings, stories where there are roots to connect the lovers (like the woman loves for the man’s children too), love separated by circumstances, horrible misunderstandings that keep lovers apart, situations where one of the lovers almost makes a drastic and life-changing decision, stories where the lovers change because of knowing the other, and stories where two people have been together for years and are still (or are just realizing they are) madly in love.

There are several situations that can inherently sink a story from being romantic. If the characters are too young to really end up happily ever after beyond the end of the show, then it’s difficult to be too emotionally involved (unless the story is of another time or culture where youth equates into lasting relationships). Obsession is also inherently unromantic. It looks like love, but it comes from an emotional void that can probably only be patched in other ways. Stories that depict the main character being intimate with other characters is also not very romantic. Also, stories that are couched in insincerity lack romantic sentiment.

Above all, the story can’t be corny. I can’t think of any corny romantic musicals, but other genres that tell romantic stories are often corny, such as Hugh Grant winning Drew Barrymore’s heart by surprising her with a love song at a concert in Music and Lyrics or Ryan Gosling climbing a Ferris Wheel to woo Rachel McAdams in The Notebook.

That is not to say that there aren’t exceptions to rules. It’s always about how something is done. A musical about a barber who kills people and a woman who then bakes them into meat pies sounds gag-inducing, but the execution (forgive me) is so expertly done, it rises above all musical rules about not writing musicals about barbers who kill people and women who then bake them into meat pies.

So, now that the criteria have been established, in my next blog entry, I’ll take a look at the ten most romantic Broadway musicals.

the Broadway Mouth
October 6, 2007

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