So I just finished Scott McMillin's very amazing book, The Musical as Drama, on what was my first venture into a critical analysis of musical theater. One of McMillin's main points is that musicals have a subversive multiplicity to them because they operate on two orders of time: number time and book time. Which is to say that the time that passes during song is almost like a parallel dimension to the narrative action of the book. He emphasizes that, because of these two orders of time, the characters in musicals necessarily "double" themselves, and become two separate versions. This doubling uniquely enables a multiplicity and a sort of Brechtian alienation from a singular dramatic momentum.
"There is always a bit of cheek in the musical's revision of its sources." p. 52
"The heart of the musical is the projection of musical ability, which takes the performers into the second order of time, lyric time, and lets them extend their characters musically....The larger characters are capable of living in two worlds as though they were real and normal...They aren't, but we are glad to think they are" p.67
He says that the old imperative for an "integration" of the book and music is really a red herring, and that "coherence" is a better suited term for the form.
"Integration means the blending of difference into similarity...Coherence means things stick together, different things, without losing their difference. Most musicals are not political, but all musicals depend on conventions that translate into political terms. The political implication comes from the conventions of the musical itself, which establish a groundwork of doubled time and character, source stories reformulated into the routines of the show business, raids on private motives, most of us keep to ourselves in normal life, a delight in throwing authority off balance, and a desire to maintain song-and-dance formats that go back to Harlem and the Lower East Side. It is an illegitimate drama that disturbs the managers of our affairs the more it remains true to its roots in popular entertainment. Its aesthetic is radical, and that means its political potential is always there, as a matter of form. " p. 209
"I think the new shows will have what we have been talking about: a power of reflection running between the different modes of book and number, a sense of the irreverence of the genre, and a feeling for the anger and beauty of radical multiplicity." p. 211
I hope so!
"The Musical as Drama"
by Scott McMillin
2006 Princeton University Press