So I saw two very different musicals, The Book of Mormon and Without You, in the space of a week. (A wonderfully theater-geeky writer friend was involved.) It got me thinking, not for the first time, about my relationship with musicals as a writer, which is pretty deep-seated for someone who doesn't write musicals. I even started a post about my admiration for their clever lyrics, many of which have stayed with me so persistently that they've become tied to various in-jokes in my life. (There've been a few song parodies. Attend the tale of Soapy Todd, the cleaner barber of Fleet Street.) And about how they often motivate me to work on my own writing, both because they inspire me as achievements and because of the messages in so many of them. I hear the people sing and I want to seize the day and climb every mountain and defy gravity. (Come to think of it, defying gravity would make climbing every mountain a lot easier. Where was Elphaba when the von Trapps needed her?)
And then, while I was halfway between highlighting gems from a range of musicals and trying to convey their effect on me without quoting "Purpose" from Avenue Q too heavily, the soundtrack to Hamilton became widely available. The Internet, at least the bit of it that I follow, went nuts, and I knew that others understood.
I've only listened through once so far, and I have no doubt there's more to discover, but Hamilton is a perfect example of so much of why musicals impress me. The old refrain "surprising yet inevitable" keeps running through my head as I think about musicals, and in Hamilton's case, I think the opposite works: inevitable, yet surprising. Even vague U.S. history knowledge, enough to make you at all interested in this show, is enough that you probably know the ending going in, as well as a few things that will happen along the way--how the war turns out, for instance. And if you don't know the ending from the outset, you'll be told early on, and then there's lots and lots of foreshadowing to remind you. But the show gets there in an unexpected way, a way that the participants in the events couldn't have imagined. The same is true of a lot of other musicals--either they're based on a true or a familiar fictional story, or they sum themselves up in the opening number and leave it to you to figure out how they'll arrive at the projected ending. When they get there--or when they get close, and you can see how they're going to get there--there's a satisfying feeling of closure. On a smaller level, I love it when lyrics build to a word or phrase that's surprising but then seems obvious. ("Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak / Oh, why can't the English / Why can't the English learn... to SPEAK?")
It's a feeling I want to create in my own writing, both in large ways with plot arcs and small ways with details and dialogue. Musicals remind me that I have the chance to tell any kind of story I want in a resonating, satisfying way. And I am not throwin' away my shot.