On Being a Musical Character

January 10, 2011

My friend Nicole recently asked me, “If you could be any character in a musical, whom would you be?”

There are so many ways to answer the question: whose philosophy do you most identify with? Whom do you most admire? What world would you most like to live in? Whose performative abilities (either to an audience or in the context of the story—in the case of someone like Harold Hill) do you wish you had? Well, here goes:

Well, there are the characters whose character I admire, like Nat Miller in Take Me Along. (Take Me Along incidentally, was the 1959 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy—and bittersweet comedy at that—Ah, Wilderness! The musical features a lovely score by Bob Merrill.) Nat Miller has a great family and he’s an enlightened, truly kind-hearted man. Despite being in his 60s, he is still young at heart, but not in a midlife-crisis kind of way. He has grown old gracefully, surrounded by those he loves and respected by his fellow townspeople. I think one could do a lot worse than end up like Nat Miller. Also, I love that period. Turn of the 20th Century New England. I bet there would be lots of gazebos, and I love a good gazebo.

I’m always drawn to farces, partly because of the quick-thinking of the leads. I would love to be Billy in Anything Goes or Charley in Where’s Charley. They both have such a miraculous ability to roll with the punches. They both have wit. They both have positive attitude. And they both can dance. I wish I could dance like that. Oh, and I think they’re both rich. Or rich enough, anyway. I’m always drawn to the “garden party musical.” Those worlds where nothing can go too far wrong, and everyone always seems to know just what to say, and right on cue.

That’s the thing. They always know what to say. There’s a French term esprit d’escalier, literally, “the spirit of the stairs.” It comes from the 18th-Century French court, where courtiers would climb up a long flight of stairs for their royal audience. After descending, they would recount their conversation to all of the people down at the bottom, including all of the witty things they said to the king and queen. But, of course, they recount, not what they actually said, but what they should have said, the things they thought of on the way back down the staircase.

I feel like we all experience esprit d’escalier everyday. Those moments in which we know what to say in the moment are rare moments to treasure. But characters in musicals, at least a certain kind of musical, almost always know what to say. And it’s one of the great joys of writing shows. You have as long as you want to figure out the perfect response for any situation.

Then, there’s always the lazy approach:

Like Frid (the manservant) in A Little Night Music. He doesn’t really have to show up for the first act. He just gets to sleep with Petra and go his merry way. That’s kind of cool. Or a townsman in The Boys From Syracuse. They’re pretty go-with-the-flow, out for a good time, don’t have to deal with having names. You know, no pressure.

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