In the last few months I’ve enjoyed answering the “what do you do?” question more than usual. “I’m writing a musical,” I say. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Musicals, it seems, make people happy and excited.
Not everyone, though. David Sexton, writing in the Evening Standard recently, deplored the form. Musicals are “innately idiotic”, he said. “The very idea of having people acting and then singing at the same time, and quite possibly dancing too, repels us.
“We don’t get it. These things don’t make any sense together. We find people doing this on stage and on screen no more acceptable than we would find it in life, if we were chatting to a neighbour or asking for directions. It’s embarrassing and stupid.” Opera, he admits, is just about bearable because the music might be good. Musicals are just tasteless.
Sexton’s dismissive words made me think about what ordinary life would be like if sometimes we did burst into song. And then — as I prepared for my son’s barmitzvah while writing the musical’s script — my work and family life collided. We Jews do incorporate music into our lives. To turn our boys into men we require them to sing in public. As Sexton says, it doesn’t make any sense. It is embarrassing and can quite possibly seem stupid.
How does singing in front of an audience of family, friends and community make boys into men? It requires courage, that’s certain, but a different sort of courage than that demanded in a fight. Our boys, and some of our girls, need the courage to face potential embarrassment and the possibility of looking stupid.
Singing alone in public makes you vulnerable and open to ridicule. Coming through the ordeal will give a boy more confidence to face potential humiliation — and more empathy when they see others in similar situations.
More than that, by using music to mark the occasion, barmitzvah boys open themselves up to the possibility that words alone can’t express all that we think and feel. It’s not enough to make a speech, pass an exam, do the normal, usual things. Sometimes life doesn’t make sense. Music enhances and illuminates the everyday.
My musical is an adaptation of my book Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. Turning an 80,000-word book into a stage show is not easy. The music is essential to add nuance, depth and character as we pare down the story.
We’ve been workshopping the songs and script with the help of students at the University of Cumbria on the musical theatre degree course. Some of the students are dancers or actors, not singers. They’ve had to stretch themselves to meet our demands, in much the same way that barmitzvah boys do.
In the last few weeks I’ve watched a musical director help a nervous student, telling him: “It’s OK. It’s only a solo. It’s not the end of the world”. I’ve helped my son prepare for his barmitzvah, singing the words again and again so they came easily and naturally on the bima. The stress, in both cases, was enormous. When the singer overcomes fear to produce something tuneful, it’s a wonderful thing to witness.
At our barmitzvah party my oldest friend — who just happens to be the UK’s leading Elvis impersonator, the very talented Elvis Shmelvis — got everyone singing along to Viva Las Vegas, napkins flying in the air. Yes, we looked a bit silly, but no one cared at all.
At another batmitzvah, the following week, the speeches included a 16-year-old girl singing soulfully and beautifully to her younger sister, pledging love and support. And then her uncle and his small sons bouncing around to The Monkees’ I’m a Believer. Each time the celebration was made happier and warmer by the music. Each scene could have morphed straight into a musical.
I’m guessing that David Sexton doesn’t get invited to parties like that. His loss.
Next weekend, my musical gets its first public outing. A work-in-progress performance in Carlisle. I’m arming myself with two hankies. It’s like being Barmitzvah Mum to the entire cast.
I feel sorry for David Sexton. If you’re so embarrassed by the possibility of music seeping into real life, then your imagination is stunted. Your real life can’t be much fun. Maybe he should try singing instead of writing. Our lives are all the better with a touch of the musical.