Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Every Story is a Love Story: The Great Romantic Musicals

Originally published in two parts, these are my thoughts on what makes for a romantic musical. Most musicals have love stories to some extent, but not every love story is a romance.

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.

And now I present Broadway Mouth’s Top Ten Most Romantic Broadway Musicals.

10. Parade—Even though they are married, Leo and Lucille’s journey forces their awkward relationship to change. She can no longer be a weak Southern Belle, and he can no longer be completely self-sufficient. Through their incredible life circumstances, they both come to love each other passionately. Because of this “All the Wasted Time” is a beautiful expression of their newly re-discovered love.

9. Bells are Ringing—There’s something irresistible about Ella Peterson. She’s extremely cute in how she wants to help everyone and manages win over everyone no matter what she does. While Jeff Moss is falling madly in love with her, it’s hard for us not to as well.

There is also a firm foundation in their relationship. They both need each other. Jeff needs her to help him write his plays, and Ella needs him to have someone to love.

Bells are Ringing has what is probably the most romantic line in any musical, when Jeff says to Ella, “You’re a girl with a lot of love to give. Instead of spreading it around all over the place, give it to me. I need it. I want it.”

That’s like “You complete me” long before Tom Cruise.

8. The Sound of Music—The film adaptation is the quintessential romantic story (and my favorite movie since childhood), and it is also the only case where the movie actually improved upon the Broadway show. But just because the film improves upon the romantic factor by adding location scenes (as well as additional material and re-organizing the songs) which helps create a stronger bond between the children and Maria as well as strengthening the bond between Maria and the Georg, it doesn’t mean that the original stage version doesn’t succeed independently.

There is something incredibly romantic about a love story that includes incredible children. It’s probably part of the happily ever after factor (or in love forever factor) which is so important for a romantic story because here we have one giant happy family when all is said and done. It’s beautiful.

7. Fiddler on the Roof—In our society, we value the concept of love and romance, and yet, we have a huge percentage of love-based relationships ending in divorce. I love in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye presses Golda to answer, “Do you love me?”

Her response sums it up quite well. She sings, “Do I love him? / For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, / Fought with him, starved with him. / Twenty-five years my bed is his. / If that’s not love, what is?” Despite my postulations on what makes for a great romantic story, Golda has pretty much summed it up—It’s the daily expressions and motions, the shared experiences, and the drawing closer together that is really what love is about.

The romantic story is also augmented by the experiences of the three daughters. While they are young, they each make severe choices in following their loves, choices rooted in cause and purpose, rather than emotion and whims. You can safely assume that each of these daughters will live with a measure of struggle but also with a life companion to share her pains.

6. The Music Man—You have a conman wanting to take advantage of a seemingly simple small-town woman, even going so far as to praise Hester Prynne for her scarlet letter. However in attempting to woo her in order to deceive her, he falls head-over-heels for her Irish imagination, her Iowa stubbornness, and her library full of books.

Marion is no foolish small town chickie, so when she accepts him for what he’s done for the community in spite of his con, she’s making a conscious decision and not one rooted in romantic notions. It is only when he changes that she really falls for him.

Above all, we love Harold Hill despite his con, and we love Marion for her stubbornness. You can help but cheer for them in the end.

5. Kiss Me, Kate—Here are two titanic personalities who clearly love each other deeply but can’t risk the gamble to admit it. Because of their mutual hard-headedness (or maybe their mutual insecurities), they almost miss out on their chance to have each other forever. Their song “Wunderbar” is beautiful for what it develops, their relationship when they have their guard down. “So In Love” then becomes icing on the cake.

4. Aida—Opposites attract, and when those opposites become not-very-opposite and fall deeply in love, it’s romantic.

Like many great love stories, it starts with the characters. Aida is a wonderful character, and her strength and determination is sexier than however the woman may look who is playing her. Though Radames starts out a jerk, his change is heart makes him a respectable guy (also, we need to remember his kindness to a young Mereb which attests to his inner nice-guys beginnings).

Because we are presented with these two characters we inherently like, we root for their love. It begins as something physical, but it becomes a union of similar personalities, a one-in-a-kind sort of love. Their love is deep, which is defined through several songs, most powerfully “Written in the Stars,” which is passionate even though it is about parting forever.

And yes, I can hardly resist the ending in which they die in each others’ arms.

3. 1776—Here we have a peripheral love story of a married couple separated by many miles, and yet, Edwards and Stone give us several very romantic moments.

John and Abigail Adams have a relationship firmly founded on mutual love and respect, which is always sexy. He huffs and fumes, and she picks on him; it’s a relationship that can only be formed through years of marriage and love. And theirs is a love that has survived separation and strife, only to grow stronger. It’s beautiful when Abigail asks John about the women in Virginia, obviously troubled by the months apart, and, knowing his wife so well, he basically says, “Don’t worry. These women can’t hold a candle to you.” Similarly, when he is in his moment of desperation and everything seems to be caving in, she is there to build him up as well. When she ends the reprise of “Yours, Yours, Yours” with the sending of saltpetre, the subtext of the action is “I love you and believe in you.” That’s more romantic than a kiss or a touch.

If most stories with romance portray the much-desired search for love, then 1776 gives us the love we hope to have forever.

2. Guys and Dolls—While it’s not written as a love song, “Luck Be a Lady” is probably one of the most romantic songs ever to appear on a Broadway stage.

First of all, there’s a romance that develops from dishonorable circumstances which could forever split apart the lovers (and almost does). Sarah Brown is a very sweet and passionate woman who sincerely intends to go great things. I would argue that she is a very modern character. Sky Masterson, while a gambler, is a respectable and honorable fellow. He does take Miss Sarah to Havana and even gets her drunk (unintentionally I believe), but he never intends for it to be harmful. After he realizes that she has downed too many drinks, he takes care of her and keeps her from harm or embarrassment.

When Sarah thinks that Sky has used her and leaves him once they’ve both fallen in love, the audience’s heart aches for these two who people who earnestly love each other but could be forever parted because of a misunderstanding.

That’s why “Luck Be a Lady” is such a romantic song, because of the desperation in which it is sung. Sky realizes he has screwed things up (with Nathan’s help), and this is his one chance to fix things up and get her back.

Jane Eyre Broadway Maral Schaffel James Barbour Paul Gordon
1. Jane Eyre—I know this’ll be controversial, but I can’t think of a more romantic story ever (and I saw the stage version before I ever picked up the novel, so I didn’t enter the Brooks Atkinson with any novel-based expectations).

It starts with two strong characters. Jane may be ugly, but she is one of the most beautiful women in all literature. I love how strong Jane is. I admire greatly how she refuses to give in to her passions because she realizes that it would betray her conscience and her sense of self-worth. I stand in awe of how she refuses the Rochester family jewels as a sign of her independence and her refusal to lose herself in the signs of wealth. I also adore Jane for her love of knowledge and learning and how that has shaped her view of the world.

Rochester, while certainly flawed, is also a very endearing character in how he treats his women. This complex topic could be discussed in a multi-page analysis, which I’ll forgo, but the fact that he has done his best to take care of Bertha Mason and to honor his wedding vows despite the difficult circumstances in a time when the insane were discarded and locked up under cruel circumstances is very honorable. And while he does attempt the dishonorable by wedding two women, his intentions are pure in his desire to keep both respectable (in a “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” way) and in violating only his own soul.

There’s also romance at the heart of how they meet and live. They both deeply love each other but cannot express it out of fear—Jane’s fear for her appearance and lowly position and Rochester’s fear of his dark secret and Jane’s youth. Then when they finally cross that hurdle, they are almost torn apart forever—each still singularly attached to the other—until a Providential intercession unites them forever. Their love for each other is rich and rooted. Even when circumstances change—Rochester is disfigured and Jane inherits great wealth—their love survives because it springs from their equality in spirit and intellect, their enjoyment of the company of the other.

It doesn’t get much better than this. It really doesn’t.

the Broadway Mouth
October 6 and 10, 2007


Madley said...

Thanks for the terrific list of what makes a romantic story -- I know I will refer to it often for my writing AND in my own romantic life!

Broadway Mouth Blog said...

The love doctor is IN.


Cassie said...

when was this song first written?