Misconceptions are abundant in musical theatre. Many see it as a short-term “high tosh” experience ; an exciting night of meaningless fun and escapism. But even the cheesiest of musicals often offer more than meets the eye. Musicals are filled with socio-political commentary, and many have political undertones.
Most people are bright enough to understand Wicked as a commentary on how people who are “different” are often ostracised. Even those who begrudgingly accept such people into their communities are prepared to vilify them if they do not conform to “normality”. But Wicked is even more political than that – and the book even more so – touching on topics such as race, privilege, and the violence that supposed refined society is capable of.
The musical Mean Girls is certainly a lot of fun and chocked-full of one-liners. It not only offers an insight into not only high school politics, but is also arguably a microcosm for wider society. Some may brush off Legally Blonde as a chick-flick but it is truly an uplifting show that tackles the ways internalised misogyny causes traditionally ‘girly’ attributes to be seen as less than ‘male’ characteristics.
On top of this, there are many musical theatre songs which are misunderstood, not only by the musical-loathing philistines among us, but even by cultured aficionados and connoisseurs of musical theatah!
Most musicals have a signature song: the big moment, the first song you think of when you think of that musical. Take Hairspray’s ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’, Mamma Mia’s titular song, and Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’. Usually, a signature song is easy to understand, at least on the surface – it has to be. This song is the most notable, or even pivotal, moment of the show. But some songs may be more than meets the eye.
Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (Evita)
Evita is a musical about the divisive former First Lady of Argentina, Eva Perón. Argentine acquaintances have told me that Perón is the British equivalent of Margaret Thatcher: loved yet loathed; equally revered and reviled.
Evita as a whole is misunderstood by many: it does not present an entirely flattering portrait of the late First Lady but a more nuanced portrayal of a former actress yearning for public notoriety, and political power. The authors of the book Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón claim that the musical is based on Mary Main’s biography, The Woman with the Whip, a critical portrayal of Perón. Whilst this has never been confirmed publicly, the musical’s co-creator, Tim Rice, has praised the book.
Evita’s signature song is, of course, ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’. The song contains some very emotive lines, with Evita insisting that she did not yearn for fortune and fame, a statement that could not be further from the truth for this actress-turned-wannabe-politician. Rice, himself, has characterised the song as an emotionally intense but empty speech by a “megalomaniac woman” trying to win the favour of her people. These emotive pleas and statements form a “string of meaningless platitudes”.
‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina’ is not a sung inner-monologue of a misunderstood woman; it is a pretentious political speech by a powerful figure who wants her public to cry for her.
The New Girl in Town (Hairspray)
Written exclusively for the film adaptation of Hairspray, this song does not play a big part of the greater story, but is one of many attempts by the writers to highlight racial injustices.
Superficially, the song appears to be comparing and contrasting the fluffy, soulless version of the song by the White girl-group with the fiery, emotional version by the Black girl-group. The Black girl-group sings afterwards, giving the impression that their version is a cover, albeit a superior rendition.
But it is what comes after the song that is important.
As the Black girl group finishes their live performance, the producer of the White-only Corny Collins Show confronts the Black host of “Negro Day” for daring to use the same song. The Black host replies, “They wrote it!”.
This is a brief, but notable, reference to the many instances of Black artists having their music appropriated or even stolen throughout the 20th century. Black people were second-class citizens who had greater hurdles in achieving musical success, so it was not too hard for White artists, producers and executives to deprive them of the credit they deserved.
This forms part of a wider discussion, which includes the issue of White artists singing “Black music” during segregation. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Elvis Presley. Did Elvis become the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ because of his talent? Or was he a White man singing Black music, who White audiences would rather stan than artists he was influenced by?
“Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! I told you so. We have no troubles here. Here life is beautiful.” Certainly the musical Cabaret is an entertaining escape, but the important thing to consider is what the audience are meant to be escaping from.
Cabaret is not simply a musical set in a cabaret; the whole show offers metaphorical and figurative explorations of the early days of Nazi Germany and the eventual Second World War.
The show’s titular song is sung towards the end of the second act by the female lead, Sally, after debating whether to get an abortion. Superficially, the song appears to be Sally admitting her troubles but refusing to be consumed by them. Instead, she chooses to enjoy life – and live it like a cabaret. The song appears to be Sally coming to terms with her circumstances, and the writers telling audiences to do the same.
But this is actually the antithesis of the song’s purpose. The song is Sally’s attempt to mask her troubles, to see only the good. She goes back to the cabaret, a place of escapism and joy – especially when the country has been taken over by the Nazi Party. But as the closing moments of the film adaptation show, even cabarets were infiltrated by Nazis.
In the song, Sally sings about her friend, a prostitute who overdosed. In this moment, she admits the harsh realities of her life, before remembering something that her friend told her – something she would rather focus on instead.
The song could be called ‘Sally’s Turn’ – à la ‘Rose’s Turn’ in Gypsy. It is a near-flawless nervous breakdown, with Sally realising her troubles but preferring to live in denial and just enjoy life whilst she can, with a Hedonistic philosophy of sorts. The lyric “From cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay” is one example of the song’s carpe diem theme, but the song, itself, is not an early example of “YOLO”; instead, it is a portrayal of denial.
In some more recent versions of the musical, actresses have made it clear that Sally is breaking down. The misunderstanding of this song is in large part because of the film version, which was, essentially, a vehicle for Liza Minelli to show off. In the stage version, Sally is not even supposed to be a good singer. This can be forgiven, however, because – well, Liza Minelli!
So, there you have it. I wonder how many other musical theatre songs, and songs in general, we have misunderstood. At least now you know not to cry over ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina’.