Mamma Mia! from Glee Across the Universe to Rock of Ages

That was not an attempt to jam as many titles into one sentence as possible.  Okay, maybe I was playing a bit but that’s not all I was attempting…

I am sitting watching Glee as I write this.  When the show first appeared I cringed at the publicity, the pictures I’d seen of Sue (Jane Lynch) in the “L” for loser posture.

I didn’t get it.  How could I? at least not without having a look.  And if you haven’t seen it, I hope this essay makes some sense.   But I had heard the buzz, especially through my music-theatre friends on Facebook.  And so I had a look, and just from one episode succumbed to the fascination.

It’s odd.  I don’t watch television, except when I want to check the weather report.  No that’s a lie.  I always make time for special events: operas, championship sporting events, election debates, walks on the moon.  And to that list let’s add Glee.

The show is a double threat (and all you triple threats out there, please hear me out).

The plot is a loosely constructed premise for a series of songs, confronting us with the eternal balancing act of the musical, and come to think of it, opera as well.  The best operas or musicals do not struggle to find that balance, because they seem to flow organically.  And their songs don’t remind us of the arbitrariness of the form.

That’s what’s different in Glee, and come to think of it, a whole series of recent musicals, including Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia and Across the Universe.

If I am watching West Side Story, and Tony begins to sing Tonight, he is singing a song that was written for Tony by Leonard Bernstein, a song –at least as far as I know –with no prior life before West Side Story.  When I encountered I Feel Pretty during the film Anger Management, on the other hand, I had to mentally filter the song’s previous life –in that same 1950s musical West Side Story—with the more recent comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler.  It’s a curious mix of the two.

Linda Hutcheon, the celebrated Canadian literary theorist & scholar, described this effect when we encounter an adaptation.  She used the analogy of the palimpsest, a page where we can see one text written over top of another; the point of the analogy is that with this kind of adaptation it’s as if we’re looking through layers, seeing both the original version and the newer one.  And so for example, the experience in Anger Management is enriched by our ability to see these two very different moments simultaneously, remembering for example, that a room full of Latinas sing the original song, not two churlish men in a car.  It’s curious that it doesn’t really matter whether Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler sing the song with skill.  The shy tentative start from Sandler’s character is a perfect mirror to our own doubt about the suitability of the song, which seems so unlikely in this situation.

I believe that’s what we’re working with in Glee.  For example, there was an episode with Brittney Spears as guest, whereby the plot contrived to give three different characters dreams each starring Brittney singing one of her songs in an ensemble with a cast member.  The awkwardness of that combination –the highschool students in Glee and, oh my, Brittney Spears?—was precisely what made it jarring, and meant that whether it was well-sung or not, we’d accept the mashup. It’s a hybrid, a remix, and no longer like either of the things we had before, and definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Rock of Ages and Mamma Mia are similar, in taking songs that we already know, and giving them new life in a dramatic treatment.  It doesn’t matter that the story is obviously constructed for the express purpose of connecting the songs.  It’s clear that we’re there to hear the songs, no matter how the plot turns out.  This is easy enough to confirm by asking anyone who has seen the plays the following loaded question. What do you remember better: the characters and contours of the plot on the one hand? or the songs?

Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is a film musical cut from the same cloth.  While Taymor does manage to cobble a skilful story connecting some of the best known songs of the last half-century – in other words, songs so central to our sensibilities as to resist the comparatively weak pull of the story—the effect is largely the same as for Rock of Ages or Mamma Mia.  We emerge from the theatre remembering a few great moments.

I find that operas constructed of obvious segments, that are not as through-composed, seem to invite us to a similar GLEE-full space, where we are aware of the aria and the performer, and also aware of the sometimes weak connective tissue contrived to get us from one glorious aria to the next.  When the musical form successfully integrates the elements into an organic unit that isn’t obviously just a loose collection of songs, we start to have a different relationship to the show and its performers.   Chances are a musical or opera that is a loose collection of songs can be an excellent star vehicle; and therefore the stars singing those songs (or arias) are the selling point.   When the form matures — for example, when the opera or musical is a more accomplished composition, we start noticing the composer as well as the singers, and that person also becomes the selling point.

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