Eight months behind the rest of London, we got to see Legally Blonde
at the Savoy last week. My word, it’s a wonderful musical. And the
reason it’s a wonderful musical is that it’s dumb and fun and stupid.
There’s a sort of mythological history
of the musical that tells a tale of gradual artistic unification and
sophistication. From the compendium of specialty acts in the nineteenth
century to the monodramas of George M Cohan, past the strong books of
the Princess shows and the historical-cultural ambitions of Showboat,
into the greatly widened subject matter discovered in the 1930s, through
the absolute integration of book, song and dance in the Rodgers and
Hammerstein shows, into the narrative and lyrical sophistication of
Sondheim, to the quasi-operatic through-sung musicals of Andrew Lloyd
Webber. I’m simplifying but not very much.
It’s a terrible story. Not because any
of these moments weren’t good. I adore those Rodgers and Hammerstein
shows. What I know of the Princess shows seem to be exuberant fun. I
yield to no one in my appreciation of Showboat and I concur with the
common view that Sondheim wrote some of the most brilliant musicals of
the century. But it’s the teleology of it all that annoys me. The idea
that a musical being more integrated means it’s more artistic and means
Musicals aren’t meant to be
artistically-integrated sophisticated experiences, goddammit. Musicals,
more than any other genre in theatre histories, are pleasure-machines,
intricate mechanisms for giving delight of the most intense and joyful
kind. Better than any other form of entertainment I know, they are
devoted to offering pleasure. The intense, ecstatic pleasures of the
musical are in brilliant lyrics, memorable tunes, human virtuosity, fun
stories, extraordinary dancing and preposterous sets. And the pleasure
is having a free-playing abundance of them all. Brilliant though
Carousel is, the enslavement of all other elements to narrative is not
the joy of the musical.
In The Pleasure of the Text,
Roland Barthes proposes a distinction between pleasures: plaisir which
is the pleasure of familiarity, of having your expectations exactly met,
of orderliness and neatness and fulfilment - and jouissance
the pleasure that comes for disorderliness, the unexpected, everything
that overflows conventional boundaries and limits, the uncategorizable,
the signifier somehow loosed from structure. The musical - despite its
reputation for conservatism and conventionality - is about jouissance not plaisir...
unless you try to integrate it at which point it actually becomes about
narrative expectations and linearity and moral convention.
When the musical was still pretty unintegrated, in the thirties, all the elements jostled with each other. I wrote an article
about this.) There was pleasure in the disunity. When Cole Porter wrote
his 30s musicals, he would allow the plot to be interrupted by a great
song. If performers had a particular skill, the show would accommodate
them. The plots didn’t have to make sense, because the pleasure was not
about the confirmation of narrative expectation; it was about plot
development and turn and the intensity of that pleasure. The end was not
meant to justify the means. The means were the end.
Janice Radway in Reading the Romance
studied mid-western American housewives and their habits when reading
romantic novels. Perhaps we might think that is the exemplary instance
of the conservative, ideologically-interpolated, dumbed-down audience;
the absurd fantasies of taming are there to mentally enslave the women
who read them. Instead, Radway found many extraordinary things. First,
many women, when choosing these books, would read the last page first to
be sure of the ending. So the ending was not a surprise, was not a
sneakily introduced narrative sealant. Instead, these women read these
books for the content., Perhaps the pleasure was in the rebellion, the
feistiness before the heroine finds her prince. Second, these women read
these books as an interruption of their daily life. These books weren’t
continuous with their life as housewives, they disrupted it. Women
turned off the hoover, delayed doing the washing-up, to have 15 minutes
of the book.
The musical is the same. First of all,
the effect of narrative convention is that you know the ending. That’s
how they work. The endings are happy. And that means you can discount
them; they are laughably obvious, enjoyably obvious. When you watch Calamity Jane, who honestly feels that the ending is a logical conclusion to the story? In fact, who even remembers
the ending? The fact is that she ends up betrothed to Wild Bill, and
wearing a feminised version of her buckskins. But what’s the first thing
you think of from that musical? ‘Secret Love’? I bet not. I’l bet you
$50 it’s her in the leathers singing the Deadwood Stage or in the bar
bragging about her experiences in the Windy City. The narrative is
inoperative as a force of teleology and substitution.
And secondly, it’s interesting the
musicals are often attended by women taking a break from their husbands?
Coach trips down the that London, where the kids or the house and the
dinner and the washing have to be looked after by someone else. Musicals
interrupt possibly oppressed lives. And if musicals didn’t - if they
were to advertise their importance and tame their pleasures in the
service of artistic statement - they wouldn’t give us an opportunity to
experience a life of sheer pleasure. And that’s not an unradical thing.
Imagining a word of sheer pleasurable flow, both differentiated and
undifferentiated (okay, I’m sounding like one of those crazy Deleuzians
now), respecting no order or structure or boundary, expressed purely in
delight and joy, is that not something worth developing as an
experience, building up a bank of feeling that might act as a
counterweight to a world where the structures may not work for us?
Which brings me to Legally Blonde.
It’s dumb. It’s fun. It’s hugely skilled. There are wonderful dances
and crazy songs. The story is trashy and the sentiments are knowingly
shallow. All of this allows us to enjoy the many systems of creativity
at work. The plot takes a back seat when we need to hear a satirical
song about Ireland. It delves into the Broadway songbook to find the
buck-me-up song at the end of the first half. It scandalously turns teen
slang into musical form for ‘Oh My God You Guys’. It’s magnificent. And
Sheridan Smith is particularly excellent; sassy, funny, full of song,
pretty, dumb and marvellous.
I loved it. And if you haven’t seen it, go and forget all that stuff about the clever musical. This is musical theatre at its very cleverest - fully thoughtful, utterly, dangerously pleasurable.