Sunday, July 20, 2008

A PhD in Horribleness

When I tell people over a certain age that I study musicals, they seem to feel obliged to do one of two things. Either they ask me what my favorite musical is (I don't have an answer to that one; sorry), or they tell me, conspiratorially, that they know all the words to West Side Story.

I'm not kidding; all Americans who were aware in 1957 know every last word of West Side Story. This odd tidbit is often used to begin a tiresome conversation about how musicals after WSS have really not lived up to its gold standard, an attitude common even among scholars of the musical theatre (British spelling specially added for extra pretension!). "Why have musicals fallen out of the public consciousness," my despondent yet articulate interlocutors ask; "why are they no longer a part of our collective knowledge?"

Here I can finally respond, "they still are." Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog represents the culmination, for many show fans, of a trend that has been building for over a decade, the parody musical. From The Bitter Suite episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (1998) and Joss' own Once More, With Feeling (2001), to Broadway productions like Urinetown (also 2001), Avenue Q (2003) and the aptly named [title of show] (this past Thursday), there have been upwards of a dozen musicals about being musicals in recent history.

Such a commercially and critically successful phenomenon can only exist when the idea of the musical still has a firm grip on the hearts and minds of at least a significant percentage of the populace. The jokes aren't funny once we've forgotten the language they employ, the language of the musical. Luckily, despite the insistent nostalgia of the over-fifty crowd, we haven't forgotten it. We've just let it grow and develop, as languages will if not policed. Musicals, much to the chagrin of certain older scholars, didn't stop changing when Dick Rodgers finally croaked.

Now to the matter at hand: Dr. Horrible. Unlike most of the other musicals listed above, Dr. Horrible does not explicitly acknowledge its parody status, except in its title. Nevertheless, it clearly plays on commonly recognized tropes of the musical comedy, intertwining them hilariously with those of comics and television. The result is something that cannot truly be slotted into any of the three media, a parodic hybrid that has become characteristic of...The Internet (dramatic thunderclap). Joss has always been a master of the ironic tribute, a form that affectionately satirizes its source material, and Dr. Horrible is no exception.

An example: The Act I finale ("A Man's Gotta Do") recalls, among many other classic musical theater numbers, the opening of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, "Now Later Soon." Each character presents his/her point of view in a solo, then the solos overlap into a trio texture for an exciting finish. Despite the overlap, every word is distinctly audible, and the contrasting personalities show clearly through. Consummate musico-lyrical craftsmanship, demonstrating a knowledge of the traditions of the genre, but capped with Dr. Horrible's exasperated "Balls!," in case the viewers accidentally started taking it too seriously.

This comedic-but-knowledgeable attitude is maintained throughout the musical numbers, with only a few breaks: the opening duet of Act II ("Any dolt with half a brain"), Penny's solo "Here's a story of a girl," the verse of Dr. Horrible's "Look at these people," and much of the final song, "Here Lies Everything." In fact, all of the songs sung by or about Penny are serious, musically foreshadowing her tragic fate and its consequences. Nevertheless, even these somber moments are leavened with...levity, one might say, by the visual accompaniment. The musical comedy is, after all, a comedy.

Or is it? Dr. Horrible is hilarious, of course. But Dr. Horrible isn't a comedy. An English teacher once told me that the difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that a comedy ends with everyone getting married, while a tragedy ends with a stage full of bodies. While this definition is facile, it does provide a way to view Dr. Horrible as a tragedy--Penny ends up dead, Captain Hammer weeping on a therapist's couch, and Dr. Horrible an emotionless shell. Not exactly a happy ending.

Which brings me back to my first anecdote. West Side Story has been hailed as the elevation of the musical comedy to an art form by the replacement of "comedy" with "tragedy." Frivolity is banished, in the end, by tragic death, no matter how defiantly we recall "I Feel Pretty" and forget the gang rivalry that has been tamed into finger-snapping dance routines. Fifty years later, another musical has dared to end without the rousing choral finale, with a lead struck down in the prime of life. Is Dr. Horrible the postmodern West Side Story for the internet age?

I submit that, yes, it does fulfill the same function. For those who grew up on self-aware musicals, television, and comic books; for a generation of pop culture consumers; for any participant in fandom, however tentative, Dr. Horrible can be that touchstone, that pinnacle of cultural evolution. In only 42 minutes. When our grandchildren confess to us that they are getting PhDs in internet memology, we can shake our heads and sigh at the downfall of memes after Dr. Horrible.

Is this paean ridiculous? Am I overstating the importance of an internet meme? Quite possibly. Nevertheless, that's the reaction this sort of thing demands. Either it is dismissed as just another meme among thousands, or it is worshiped as our Savior by thousands. I'm a fan of it, certainly. Just think about how many article possibilities are lurking beneath its smooth, polished surface, a surface that I have not yet begun to scratch!

Scratch away, readers.


Anonymous said...

Do you know about this?
Music in the Whedonverse collection,

Your Dr. Horrible analysis sounds perfect for it!

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