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Kate Mz

Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight

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I’ve been thinking about how elements of tragedy weave their way into musicals, and how the type or treatment of tragedy might change according to the times. In most of our films so far, even when serious issues are featured, in the end the comic impulse overcomes the tragic. And that makes sense: audiences in the 30s need relief from the Great Depression and, during WWII, inspiration to unify behind a greater cause. Then there’s the postwar sense of youth and optimism. So in this era it’s the exceptions (the tragedy) that stand out. Gold Diggers of 1933 closes with a reminder of poverty and neglected WWI veterans in “Remember My Forgotten Man.” And in Cabin in the Sky (1943), the stakes are nothing less than life and death, sin and damnation--yet the characters are, finally, given the chance to redeem themselves.

What do y’all think? I’m not as familiar with the early stuff, so when I think tragedy in musicals, I think West Side Story (Broadway 1957, film 1961). Not surprising since it’s inspired by one of the most famous tragedies of all time--but why is it at this point in history that this kind of story gets told? Or take South Pacific (Broadway 1949, film 1958), where there are two main storylines; one ends in tragedy, the other in hope. My sense is that this pattern becomes more common as the genre “matures”: a way to weave comedy and tragedy together.

It’s also striking that both West Side and South Pacific confront the problem of racism. In each case, the tragedy works to show how destructive prejudice is to everyone involved. In South Pacific, sure, it’s war that’s the killer, but for Nellie, the difference between a miserable ending or a hopeful one is whether she can overcome her prejudice. So now we have musicals not only recognizing social injustice (like Gold Diggers) but being willing to kill off its heroes, or make them suffer, to show how devastating it is.

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Just to add something about West Side Story, the film version goes even further with the theme of prejudice and racism than the stage version did because of the changes made to the lyrics in the song "America." In the stage version the lyrics were about how bad Puerto Rico is and how America is so much better, but the movie changed it to be more about the discrimination faced by Puerto Ricans in New York City. That's just one of quite a few changes made in the translation from stage to screen that make me prefer the film version to its stage counterpart (although the main changes that make the movie better are structural changes and order of the songs rather than the themes and characters).

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7 hours ago, Kate Mz said:

So now we have musicals not only recognizing social injustice (like Gold Diggers) but being willing to kill off its heroes, or make them suffer, to show how devastating it is.

Interesting point about the killing of lead characters.  You'd expect the villains to be killed off, but not so much protagonists unless it's heroic self-sacrifice (perhaps drawing on plots from literature, myth, and operas, ex: Miss Saigon, Hair) 

I came across this quiz:   Can you name the musicals by the deaths of their characters?  Some of these seem obscure to me, and I can think of some that aren't included, but kind of fun to try.  

 

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Interesting Quiz!  I had  not heard of just two: "Once on this Island " and "Spring Awakening."  

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