By Laura Grimes
Mr. Scatter has been hogging the blog of late. I forgive him, though. It’s not like he’s been eating bonbons. I know full well that he’s the muscle to my muse, the bacon to my trifle.
Art Scatter works to deliver a full-course meal, and I don’t mind being the pastry chef. There’s no shame in that. Funny writing comes with its own tricks and techniques, craftsmanship honed to a sharp wit.
I can’t do what Mr. Scatter does, and, I hate to tell him, but … let’s just say he suggested adding a line to one of my posts a little while back, which was a great idea in thought, but the words – well, I was at a loss how to delicately tell him that he just cast a lead weight in my lightly flowing stream.
I explained that one of the first rules of humor writing is not to reveal an obvious punchline straight off the bat. Take a joke and yank it in another direction and then yank it again. Come in sly on the side, tease it, stretch it and make people reach for it and discover it for themselves. Therein lies all the fun.
And then I stopped talking. I blinked at my current first husband a couple of times. He blinked back at me. I realized I was explaining the craft of writing – to my husband, of all people. But I was explaining a different type of writing than what he’s practiced for eons. It takes a whole different brain from a whole different angle.
Criticism requires straightforward explanatory writing. With flair, surely, and penetrating insights, but the ideas need to be absolutely clear. What do I do?
I turn an idea inside out and come at it any direction but head first. I throw around a bunch of ridiculous contrasts, exaggerate like a goofy caricature drawing, play with rhythms beyond recognition, drop bombs with precise timing and blow the language to hell. If I back myself into a corner, I consider it an opportunity to go around the bend and pop up with a surprise – I don’t settle for the predictable – grenades are my friends.
It’s a whole different set of rules. But it still requires careful craftsmanship.
Deep thoughts need a funny bone, a vital connector piece. I like my trifle. It comes in layers. It’s the well-earned treat. Consider it important to a well-balanced meal, and don’t miss the good stuff at the bottom. Which brings me to …
My name is Laura and I’m an unabashed fan of musicals. There, I said it. Bring on the support team. The weekly meetings. I swear on a stack of scores, though, that I refuse to give up my addiction.
As Mr. Scatter already mentioned, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a sterling production of She Loves Me. It is fresh, lively, engaging. Every moment is beautifully turned, whether it’s sweet as can be or funny as heck. The timing is spot on. It is amazing to me how a character can just lift a hat without saying a word and send peals of laughter through the audience. The set is divine. The costumes are exquisite. I could watch it again and again.
So please tell me, then, why musicals are so maligned? Do people not appreciate a delightful score? A gorgeous voice? A sexy dance? Those charming intimate moments that make you smile? That make you cry? Isn’t that good theater, too, with the added challenge of music and singing and dancing?
And tell me, too, do people miss how hard it is to do comedy?
A short time before The Scatter Family saw the show, the Small Large Smelly Boy and I spent some time making a rubbing. We do one in Ashland nearly every year. The Small LSB has a dog, an elephant and a knight on his bulletin board so far. This year, we rubbed the heck out of King Henry VIII. (We call him Hank. We’re on familiar terms, owing to an overlarge pub sign with him painted on it that hangs in our dining room.) We think it’s our best rubbing yet.
As we happily rubbed away we chatted with the nice volunteer lady who was running the station. She sees a lot of the plays produced at the festival, but she refuses to see the musicals. Why? On the grounds that they’re musicals. She’s not happy that the festival has added them to the mix, those inferior bastard children.
She didn’t elaborate why, but I suspect it’s because she doesn’t think musicals are worth discussing or debating or, gosh, enjoying. She Loves Me is really good theater at work. It might not have a deep literary context to delve into, but it has a lot going for it. For one, I laughed all the way through it. That’s not easy to pull off.
Not all musicals are all light and air. Dark undercurrents run through Oklahoma!, Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, the list goes on.
As I watched She Loves Me I thought of the nice volunteer lady, and I felt sorry for her. She was missing out on a sublime confectionary.
Why, again? Ironically, because of some of those themes circulating among the shows at the festival. The title of Pride and Prejudice says it best. It’s pride. And it’s prejudice. Preconceived notions put up barriers between people and prevent them from finding happiness. The same themes crop up in The Merchant of Venice and … well I’ll be … in She Loves Me, the same story as Pride and Prejudice turned inside out, just like good comedy.
What else does the nice volunteer lady miss out on? She refused to see The Music Man that the festival produced last season. (I’m sorry we did, but that’s beside my point.) The show has such a knockout score, from the very opening with the rhythms and sounds of the train. How can you not love the ingenuity of lyrics like this?
Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks
Cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods
Cash for the fancy goods
Cash for the noggins and the piggins and the frikins
Cash for the hogshead, cask and demijohn.
Cash for the crackers and the pickles and the flypaper
Look whatayatalk. whatayatalk, whatayatalk, whatayatalk, whatayatalk?
Ya can talk, ya can talk, ya can bicker, ya can talk,
ya can bicker, bicker bicker ya can talk all ya want
but it’s different than it was.
I liked the nice volunteer lady. Except that she’d probably be the first to volunteer for my support team, I’m sure she’s perfectly lovely in most other ways. I’m also sure she’s not alone in her sentiments.
For the nice volunteer lady (and the rest of you theater snobs), here are just a few reasons why I love musicals.
Many years ago a former colleague couldn’t make it to a staging of Guys and Dolls that the Oregon Symphony put on, so I bought the pair of tickets and took one of the boys.
The next morning the colleague sent me an e-mail. “How was it?”
“Great. I always love the opportunity to introduce my kindergartener to betting on the ponies, Bacardi and craps.”
Not to mention gangsters.
After the show, the kindergartener and I spilled out of the Schnitzer Concert Hall and into the South Park Blocks. The not-yet-Large Smelly Boy danced and twirled and jumped and sang at the top of his lungs, “Luck be a lady tonight!” He hopped from brick to brick and balanced on cement curbs. He was completely oblivious that the park was crowded with people and that many were staring at him. They were smiling. (I, on the other hand, pretended to blend in and look around the crowd as if trying to figure out where his parents were, but that’s also beside my point.)
When the boys were young and went to bed early, we made a big deal of letting them stay up late one night so that as a family we could watch South Pacific, which was specially showing on television. It was the 2001 version with Harry Connick Jr. and Glenn Close. (Close was miscast, but because she was an executive producer we’ll figure that’s an argument we’re not going to win with upper management.)
The boys must have been 3 and 6 at the time (I had to count on my fingers). The next day they bobbed around in a swimming pool while scratching their heads with both hands and joyfully singing, “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair.”
A handful of years ago Mr. Scatter and I saw a performance of The Lion King. The LSBs were adamant about not wanting to go. As soon as the show started, and the magic of that opening spread through the theater as each of the animals paraded in, I knew the boys had to see it and I was bummed that they weren’t there.
The next day I looked for tickets online for the three of us, and it appeared that everything was sold out. So I took the boys to a box office close by. Three seats together were not available anywhere in the run (and the boys were too small at the time to sit separately) – but wait! Three seats just opened up for that night’s performance, which was in just a few hours. Could we make it?
I looked at my watch. I looked at the boys. Could we make it?
Yes! We bought the tickets, raced out of there, grabbed dinner, changed clothes and were in our seats just in time to see the magic of that opening spread through the theater.
I was in a meeting with a number of people discussing what types of arts programs we wanted at our kids’ school. The meeting went on, lots of people spoke up, a little light was shed on shape and direction, but the discussion was starting to tediously circle in on itself without going forward.
Then a woman spoke up who until then had only quietly and patiently listened. I knew she had a fine arts background in painting. She said I have to go but I just want to say that if we have to pick only one thing (I thought she was going to say visual arts) then let it be a musical because it incorporates all the different art forms and children have an opportunity to participate no matter their skill level or interest. Kids can paint sets, make costumes, be techies, act, sing, dance, play music. It has it all. There’s something for everyone. It brings together a community.
And she left. The rest of us sat there and all looked at each other. Then we said, yeah, that makes sense. What a brilliant idea. Meeting adjourned.
So give me my trifle. My funny. My fun. In many ways, musicals, like good comedy, are a great way in, and open the doors to a wealth of good taste.
PHOTO: Cast and set of “She Loves Me” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham