Musicals as an art form have a unique problem. For musical fans, it merely falls under Willing Suspension of Disbelief
. For those who dislike musicals, it tends to at least superficially be the reason why.
What's with all the singing?
As we all know, music needs to be composed in advance. Rhyming poetry takes time to piece together. People don't just burst into song and dance in the middle of the street to express their feelings. So how do you make sense of a work of fiction where they do
- The Alternate Universe Hypothesis: The musical is set in an alternate world, or magic has been worked on the ordinary world, in which people really do burst into spontaneous song and dance. If the world has always been this way, singing is simply a normal and commonplace form of human communication, if one that seems a bit odd to those of us living in a less musical world. If the world is not normally this way, expect it to be some sort of an uncontrollable compulsion to sing at emotional moments. Characters may here comment explicitly on the fact they are singing (though where the verb "sing" is just used instead of something like "say" it does not necessarily imply this).
- The All In Their Heads Hypothesis: There is no singing; the songs are an artistic rendering of the characters' fantasies, with the format of song in a way serving to distinguish between what really happens and what is only in the characters' heads. Naturally, this means that no characters are aware of what goes on in another character's song: there may be duets, but then they are of the type where two characters are merely going through similar (or contrasting) emotions unknown to one another.
- The Adaptation Hypothesis: Derives from the Literary Agent Hypothesis: the songs are merely a dramatic reconstruction of what really happened. For instance, if two characters converse in song and come to some sort of conclusion, it is assumed that the characters really just had a normal, non-musical conversation that came to the same conclusion, but for the sake of upping the drama, it has here been adapted into a song.
- The Diegetic Hypothesis: The characters are performing actual songs for one another as they might in Real Life, the songs having been written and practiced beforehand in a realistic way.
Of course, musicals rarely consistently adopt one musical world hypothesis for their entirety: most of the time individual songs employ different hypotheses, with some songs even split into sections that use different ones. It is especially common for All In Their Heads songs to be scattered among other songs that are clearly heard by other characters.
Technically, of course, all musicals are really
examples of the Adaptation Hypothesis: there is a story and the music is added to dramatize it. However, to truly count as a definite Adaptation Hypothesis example, the others must be clearly not applicable: it must be a non-diegetic song during which the singing character clearly communicates with other characters in some form but is still not implied to actually be singing the song.
Is This Tropable?
? I've been thinking about this lately and think it at least makes for an interesting point of analysis for musicals if nothing else.
- Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog seems to largely use the Alternate Universe Hypothesis plus All In Their Heads, but still a bit of the Adaptation Hypothesis:
- Judging from the half-embarrassed way in which Billy stops singing when Moist enters, Freeze Ray seems to imply he really is singing, hence Alternate Universe, though the laundromat scenes are of course All In His Head.
- Both versions of the Bad Horse Chorus are Adaptation Hypothesis: Billy actually is reading the letter, but the singing cowboys are an artistic touch to make the reading of the letter more fun.
- Brand New Day and Everything You Ever are All In Billy's Head, inner monologues that are clearly not heard by the other characters around in the scene.
- My Eyes is an All In Their Heads duet, with no other characters present in the scenes being aware of either Billy or Penny's singing.
- Caring Hands, A Man's Gotta Do, Penny's Song, So They Say, Everyone's a Hero and Slipping are all probably Alternate Universe.
- The Flight of the Conchords TV show is about musicians and thus a lot of the songs are diegetic (e.g. Bret, You've Got It Going On, If You're Into It, Albi the Racist Dragon in the sense of being on a Show Within a Show). However, other songs are All In Their Heads (e.g. She's So Hot, Boom, which stylistically shows the girl it is sung to during it but is still obviously not actually being performed for her, Business Time, Mermaids, Sugarlumps), and others are clearly Adaptation Hypothesis examples (e.g. Most Beautiful Girl in the Room, Hurt Feelings, I Told You I was Freekie). One of relatively few musicals that are explicitly not Alternate Universe at all.
- In the Flight of the Conchords song Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros (feat. the Hiphopopotamus and the Rhymenoceros), which is 'All in Their Heads', one of the muggers asks if they 'were dancing a little bit just then'. They say no, sheepishly.
- RENT is mostly Alternate Universe with some All In Their Heads (e.g. Without You, if I remember correctly, as well as part of The Tango: Maureen, at least in the movie).
- Sweeney Todd is also largely Alternate Universe with some All In Their Heads (e.g. Sweeney's portion of Johanna (Reprise), part of Epiphany) and a couple of seemingly diegetic (Toby's 'advertising jingles' first for Pirelli and then Mrs. Lovett's pie shop).
- One episode of Rocko's Modern Life was a musical that used the Diegetic Hypothesis, where it turns out everyone had actually gone to rehearsals in preparation... everyone except Rocko, who missed the fliers announcing the upcoming musical, and so tends to flounder whenever he tries to sing.
- The Simpsons tends to fall into the Alternate Universe Hypothesis, since when a musical number turns up, there will often be lines like this one:
Homer: He lied to us through song! I hate that.
- The film version of Chicago falls under All In Their Heads. Except for those numbers actually performed on stage, all the songs are the product of Roxie Hart's imagination.
- Deconstructed in the Musical Episode of Scrubs, as the singing was a hallucination of a patient who had a stroke, and in fact her life was in danger.
- 'Enchanted is definitely of the Alternate Universe type. Giselle is from another universe and sometimes has the ability to make our universe act according to her universe's rules. When everyone starts singing in Central Park, Nathaniel wonders where they learned the song.
- The Wedding Singer is of the Diegetic type. Most of the songs are performed by Robbie in his professional capacity. The only other one is when he is trying to win back Julia; many people in Real Life sing when courting a woman.
- The Buffy Musical Episode is an example of the "magic spell" subset of the Alternate Universe Hypothesis. Everyone in Sunnydale starts singing and dancing uncontrollably, as if they're in a musical. They know it's weird, but they can't stop. The culprit turns out to be a demon that Xander accidentally summoned. It makes people sing about their hidden feelings, causing various relationship problems, and in some extreme cases the people with the biggest secrets dance until they literally burn up.
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rare example of a Diegetic stage musical.
- Norm Macdonald Lampshaded this a couple of times on SNL, once in "Evita" and once in a "West Side Story" Expy.
Eva Peron: Don't cry for me, Argentina, The truth is I never left you All through my wild days My mad existence I kept my promise Don't keep your distance.
Juan Peron: What the hell was that?
Eva Peron: What was what?
Juan Peron: You were singing.
Eva Peron: Oh.. I, I, I did, didn't I?
Juan Peron: Yeah, yeah, don't do that!
...and so on; lots of examples to be added, since it basically applies to every musical.