ONCE MORE WITH FEELING
In turbulent times, musicals are having (another) moment. By Meghan McKenna
Iwas six years old the first time I saw Cats. It was both mesmerizing and traumatizing: As Grizabella sang “Memory,” I sobbed so powerfully I’m sure the cats could hear me from my seat in the mezzanine. When my mother asked what was wrong, I had a hard time explaining my tears. I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t sad—I was just overwhelmed with emotion. Since that day 17 years ago, waterworks like that have continued to hit me when I least expect them: watching the fireworks at Magic Kingdom, looking through elementary school yearbooks or, most confusingly considering I wasn’t born until 1995, listening to Bryan Adams’s boomer hit “Summer of ’69.” I’ve found only one way to describe this gut-wrenching, chestcramping, tear-jerking feeling: nostalgia. Grizabella’s “Memory” is an ode to her former self, someone who was young, glamorous, beautiful and gone. As a child, I understood this raw bittersweetness. Musicals are almost inherently nostalgic. No matter how hip some of them become, or how thoroughly they penetrate pop culture, they are still an old-school medium. After all, they are outsized emotions enhanced by song. It’s no wonder, really, that when musicals hit hard (think Rent, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen), they seem to hit hardest among teenagers. Watching someone belt out a perfect E-flat major with tears rolling down their face gives you the same stomach churn you get when you romanticize your past. Musicals are idealistic and inspiring and, like getting lost in an old diary, offer an escape from a reality that, tragically, rarely pauses to give you time to sing.
This is why so few are set in contemporary times. Grease (1978) capitalized on America’s nostalgia for the ’50s, Hairspray (1982) capitalized on America’s nostalgia for the ’60s and Rock
of Ages (2005) capitalized on America’s nostalgia for the ’80s.
But nostalgia isn’t so much a time period as it is a feeling. La La Land, perhaps the most acclaimed movie musical of the past decade, is grounded in this feeling. Damien Chazelle’s Oscarwinning film is set in present-day Los Angeles, but its sweeping waltzes and wistful duets worship Old Hollywood. Its charm—and the core criticism against it—is that it is a guileless escape from America’s unsettling political present. In the age of the resistance, #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, some felt it was irresponsible to ignore the now. But I disagree. I’ll always welcome a feel-good song-and-dance distraction to pull me back to another time—to help me feel emotions other than frustration and angst, if only for an hour or two.