This is the story of my enforced indoctrination into the teachings of ‘The Musical’. It is a cautionary tale of how the world of spontaneous singing and dancing and happy-ever-afters can encroach on young, impressionable minds and warp them forever. Oh yes, for when the two opposing worlds of reality and Rodgers and Hammerstein collide, the still- beating heart of their hopes and dreams can be ripped out and mercilessly discarded, like an old tap shoe. It is a warning of clear and present danger. Of how, behind the joyful, melodic, union of the terminally loved-up, lurks a force so evil….Oh, whatever, you get the gist.
Now let’s be clear about this. I don’t dislike musicals. I think. In fact I have a nostalgic fondness for them, although I am not entirely sure how much of this fondness is through freedom of choice and how much is born out of my family’s excessive consumption of the genre throughout my formative years. When I was a kid we would sit round the TV after Sunday lunch with my old nan dribbling her way through a Mars Bar and looking like she was having a mini dirty protest, and watch the afternoon musical. It was a ritual. The glasses of pop would be poured, the Quality Street would come out at the opening credits and for the next ten minutes or so we would gaze at the screen in silence….watching….waiting…. Then someone would shout “hey up we’re on” which in our world meant that the actor was about to sing. And yes, sure enough, the actor/actress would do a 90 degree turn, the shoulders would go back, the chest would swell and yes…here it comes….the chin would tilt upwards….. And at this point we would all cry in unison “OOO I can feel a song coming on” and start clapping. I don’t know which old 70s comedian we stole that line from but somehow it managed to get itself woven into our family history. It was practised so often that it evolved to the point where the whole process was performed by rote and with completely straight faces. A performance in itself, that was often a little unnerving for visitors.
We watched every musical that the three channels (yes, that’s a THREE kids) could churn out. We particularly loved the ones starring Deanna Durbin whose unique singing style was the source much mirth. Deanna would trill her way through a song then, at the penultimate note, would pause for a second before blasting out a lengthy final wail, a sound that pitched just one notch below, and just within the human decibel threshold, of a sonic rat repeller. We often joined in to that bit too, which probably explains why the neighbours didn’t like us.
In the 1970s it was usually the old 40s and 50s musicals that made it onto TV so it was this particular era that was so extensively employed in my indoctrination. I was forced to watch so many of them during this decade that it may be considered by some to be a form of brainwashing. These days, you could probably be taken into the care of Social Services for less. Like all forms of brainwashing I was eventually imbued with a set of beliefs and distorted truths that would take years of de-briefing to rectify. For example, I truly believed that it was only possible to sing in a musical if you had an American accent. Inadvertently supporting this belief was my old nan, who, by my reckoning had watched thousands of musicals but never sang in an American accent. She sang all the time, mostly when she was doing some, now largely obsolete, ‘nan stuff’, like scrubbing the front step, but never in an American accent. My ‘accent issues’ were further embedded by my nan’s own strange singing eccentricities, although I have since come to realise that she was probably a bit mad. You see when she spoke, it was with a broad Yorkshire accent but then on the frequent occasions that she would burst into song, she would sing with the most refined, full on, BBC, best Queen’s English accent you would have heard since….well, the Queen. It was quite disconcerting for me as a child, to hear someone shout “Oy ‘as tha put thi toys away like a telled thi” before turning their attention to the mopping and bursting into “There’ll beee blue birds owvaarrr thar white cliffs of Dowwwvaar…”. It was if the Duchess of Kent had just popped in. When I eventually got to see My Fair Lady it was a revelation. It was my Darwin’s Theory of Evolution moment, my ‘money fairies’ don’t pay the household bills moment and the start of my journey into disillusionment with the teachings of ‘The Musical’.
The other thing that musicals brainwashed me into believing was that all relationships were conducted in a polite and respectful manner synonymous with the era of chivalrous decorum. Which explains why I have had so many disappointments: “But you have to SING to me Dwayne, SING…like you meeeeeaaaan it”. In fact I sat around for so many years waiting for someone to ask my ‘pappi’ for my ‘hand’ that in the end I gave up and bought a dog.
I remember my first boyfriend, Tony. Ahhh Tony. Tony to my Maria…Our parents said we were too young….Oh the sweet agony. If only I could have quickly chucked together a couple of opposing violent street gangs with a long standing vendetta my own West Side Story would be complete. Of course, inculcated as I was by the traditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or in this case, Bernstein and Sondheim, I just knew that our love would overcome any obstacle. We would prove to the world that we were meant to be together forever. I knew his love was true. He proved it by daubing our initials on the side of the chip shop wall with his dad’s Fix it Pro scratch repair pen. In a heart. We met in secret under the romantic glow of the neon security light at Johnson’s Haulage and as we tried to fend off the attentions of the growling Dobermans he would look into my eyes, cup my chin and say “why miss Catherine, you have no idea how long aaa’ve been wait’n to hold you in ma arms and tell you that ah love ya”. Or something like that. And not in an American accent. So imagine my disbelief when Tony, MY Tony, the ‘one’, the man who was going to “make me his”, ended up dumping me cos I wouldn’t shag him, then running off with fat Linda from the very same chip shop that still brandished the evidence of our now cruelly discarded love. The end of my love affair with Tony marked the beginning of the end of my love affair with musicals. But there was one final blow to come…..
The teachings of ‘The Musical’ had really let me down. But I recovered, and, like a partner in a bad marriage, continued to cling to the hope that one day, yes one day, my faith would be restored. Sadly, it was not to be and the time came when I had to face the final disappointment of my young life. If the musical was a balloon, the time was nigh to let it go. Let it float high among the cloudless skies and….yeah whatever.
As you will know the other component that makes up the standard musical is the dancing bit. Most musicals contain a dance scene or two, even if it’s only a gay little tippy toe’d trot around a maypole between verses. But a new day was dawning. The days when gay meant happy and Fanny was a girl’s name were over. Times had moved on. In the 70s the biggest thing to hit the screens for teenagers was of course the all singing, all dancing, Grease. The other big movie of the day was Saturday Night Fever. I always lump Saturday Night Fever together with Grease for some reason. I know it’s not a musical as such, more a danceical, or maybe it’s the John Travolta link… Anyway, even though I was too young to see it when it was released, by the time I went to a nightclub for the first time I had watched it on, are you listening you young folk, slowly now, a vid-e-o re-cor-der.
So there I was, circa 1983, about to embark on my first night club experience. Now in MY head, when men and women came together at a venue where music is supplied then obviously, what will happen is this: The boy grabs the girl and launches straight into a perfectly co-ordinated dance routine involving lots of whoops and smiles and a few acrobatics, then their mates join in, who instinctively know how to do exactly the same dance and a good time is had by all. And no one sweats. OK, so maybe that example was a bit on the ‘Grease’ side. But Saturday Night Fever on the other hand, well, wasn’t that supposed to be a more serious story with almost like, y’know, real life stuff in it? Wasn’t it a cinematic depiction of the low aspirations of the working classes and a study of early New York gang culture, but with dancing? In other words, wasn’t the dancing supposed to look like ‘real’ dancing, of the kind performed in nightclubs the length and breadth of the Western world? I certainly thought so.
I can still remember my wide eyed wonder as I entered that club. How I excitedly scurried towards the door of the dance area and burst through the entrance to the dance floor, half a lager and lime in hand and……..but hang on, where’s the perfectly aligned formation dancers strutting in perfect harmony to the pound of a dance beat?, Shouldn’t there be a hundred feet moving in perfect synchronicity? Where are the clapping crowds, cheering on an agile, floor spinning acrobatic, gymnastic, high kicking, whooping, floor sliding disco hoofer? Where are the men, flinging women around their heads, and twirling them like cheerleading batons or spinning them under their arms like delicate little music box ballerinas? In fact, hang on a minute, where ARE the men? I surveyed the room again, wondering if nightclubs had ‘intervals’, like they do in the theatre, and expecting that, at any moment, they would change the record and the whole room would erupt into a frenzy of gyrating, spinning, boogieing bodies. It didn’t.
What actually happened was this: Approximately 7 separate groups of women had formed circles around heaps of handbags and were shuffling from one foot to the other while moving their arms slightly, in the opposite direction to their feet. Occasionally one of them would wiggle her arse, or shimmy her shoulders and her mates would laugh, before readjusting their faces back to that of the terminally bored. Then they would all resume their little ‘shuffle’ dance (not to be confused with the ‘hustle’ which was also a dance, and also something that prostitutes did). It was more reminiscent of a scene from Night of the Living Dead. The men stood around the edge of the dance floor looking like they would much rather be under the bonnet of a car, but grudgingly accepting that this was a marginally better way to procure sex. They dealt with this predicament by necking back copious amounts of beer in order to make the whole thing bearable, and occasionally decided to hit each other. Every so often a brave (or pissed) one would move onto the dance floor and proceed to do exactly the same dance as the women, only with less grace and co-ordination and never- I repeat never- in time to the music. If you think this was bad fast forward to the end of the night and imagine the whole of the above scene played out again only this time on a carpet of broken glass, spilled beer and vomit. By 2am, during the last slow dance of the evening, known to all as the ‘smooch’, the men were pissed enough and brave enough to try and grope the women’s arses and the women were pissed enough to let them. Then they all went home. As for me, I got into The Smiths and never danced again.
So there you have a cautionary tale my friends. Never let it be said that someone, somewhere didn’t try and warn you of the detrimental effect of ‘The Musical’, even if it is only on an obscure little blog in the vast world of cyberland. Mothers and fathers, protect your young. And if the damage is already done take comfort in the knowledge that there is someone out there who feels your pain. OOO I can feel a song coming on…..