A musical’s primary dramaturgy is rooted in which parts of the story the composers decide to set to music.
And paying attention to these decisions can be a good way to understand what a musical’s up to.
Two recent examples — one from the stage, the other from the screen:
The Classic Stage Company’s sublime revival of A Man of No Importance begins with a dialogue scene between the main character and a priest (how Irish). Their conversation ends when the pastor asks what constitutes the main character’s religion — what does he believe in, what gives his life meaning?
Before he responds, the production answers for him: we hear the first notes of music wafting over from the orchestra.
Which qualifies as an answer because, in this musical, music represents his religion: the theater! Such art is the language he uses to make sense of the repressed yearnings of his heart. Plus, it bonds him to his fellow congregants of thespianism in a temporary house of worship, a means of translating their quotidian into the profound. He keeps referring to art as “sublime”, one definition of which reads: “a high degree of moral or spiritual purity or excellence.”
And what’s more sublime than music?
An even seriouser example can be found in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile wait what?
The movie starts with a showman adopting lonely Lyle out of orphaned abandonment. In order to develop Lyle’s innate singing and dancing skills, they spend their early days rehearsing a musical duo act. To underscore the importance of this newfound companionship to Lyle, the movie turns this sequence into the first musical number: the electric camaraderie of “Take a Look at US Now” — emphasis on US.
This song title also foreshadows one reason Lyle is soon thrust back into tragic isolation: after a bout of stage fright ruins his first performance — triggered by audiences “taking a look at” him — the showman promptly abandons Lyle once more, off to pursue his dreams of stardom without being hampered by Lyle’s cold (webbed) feet.
Fittingly, the musical ceases to be a musical as soon as Lyle is alone again.
The movie then switches its focus as we watch a fractured family move in to Lyle’s home (obviously they don’t realize a crooning crocodile lives in the attic). Their fractures have wedged an emotional distance between each other, and because the movie has already established that — in the world of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile — music facilitates and reflects companionship, this whole stretch of the plot is song-less…
UNTIL COMPANIONSHIP BEFALLS ONE AND ALL AGAIN!!!
As soon as Lyle and the family meet, their interactions are shown to us through SONGS SONGS SONGS, conveying the meaningfulness not only of Lyle finally enjoying kin who actually care about him, but also of how he injects the music of long lost joy back into their lives.
Because when you think “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile”, you think: “Dramaturgy.”