Fantasy in Musicals

I’ve been playing a lot of shows in the last week. As part of a commitment for my own personal growth, I’m looking at a lot of new (to me) scores. Any piano playing is useful to me, but since my particular interest is in directing, I decided to focus on shows for which I can get both script and score at the SU library.

I ended up with this collection, mostly because I wanted to look at Camelot.

Because I already had this checked out, I decided to go for other shows in the set. Surprisingly, we didn’t have all the scores for some of the more well-known shows. So the first four shows I looked at were:

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Score by Frederick Lowe

Book by Dale Wasserman
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Music by Mitch Leigh

Book by Moss Hart
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Music by Kurt Weill

Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Music by John Kander

I realized that these shows have some interesting parallels and contrasts, so I wanted to take a couple of minutes to compare them.

First, a quick synopsis of each one:

  • Camelot is the story of the establishment and downfall of King Arthur’s Order of the Knights of the Round Table. Established as an ideal of using military power to moral ends, it is torn apart when Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot and they run off together.

  • Man of La Mancha is a loose adaptation of Don Quixote, framed by an imaginary episode from Miguel de Cervantes’s life. While imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes acts out episodes from his famous novel for the diversion of his fellow prisoners.

  • Lady in the Dark is the most unusual in construction. By recounting a series of dreams in therapy sessions, Liza Elliot tries to figure out why she’s feeling lost and sad. In between sessions, she tries to balance her personal life with her work as head of a magazine.

  • Cabaret tells the story of Cliff Bradshaw, an author who spends time in Berlin just before the ascension of the Nazi party, where he falls in love with Sally Bowles. His landlady falls in love with a Jewish merchant, and the Kit Kat Klub offers surreal commentary on the story and politics.

So in each of these stories, fantasy or imagination has a significant part to play. In Camelot, Arthur’s imagination carries him to great heights of achievement before it collapses. Man of La Mancha is built around the idealistic delusions of an old man highly detached from the world. Lady in the Dark illustrates Liza’s dreams in a surreal, highly stylized manner. And Cabaret revolves around side comments in the imaginative world of the club.

The first thing I noticed is that the shows pair up in interesting ways. Camelot and Man of La Mancha are idealistic interpretations. Arthur’s optimism about the ways of the world is undiminished throughout. Even at the very end, he remains idealistic. On the eve of battle he finds a young boy and send him off to tell the story of his “one brief shining moment” at Camelot. He hopes that it will give cheer to the world forever.

Man of La Mancha is, in many ways, a story about optimism. Don Quixote interprets every moment as an adventure, a joy. His imagination elevates everyone—innkeeper becomes lord of a castle, a weathered prostitute becomes a lady worthy of adoration. Even as he is robbed blind toward the end, Don Quixote believes he is being entertained by an exotic prince and princess. When his illusions are shattered by the Knight of the Mirrors, it is a blow.

In both of these stories, fantasy is a good thing. It excites the nobler parts of humanity. Lancelot is first stirred by finding an ideal higher than his own perfection. Arthur wants to escape the warring local factions and senseless violence of the world. Guinevere wants to exercise her own will. The Round Table gives them all this.

It is ultimately brought low by the flaw in human nature: love. Guinevere and Lancelot fall in love deeply. Arthur sees but cannot interfere for fear of wrecking what he has wrought. Even in the final scene, with the two men on opposing sides and Guinevere lost to him, Arthur has a conference with the two of them and laments that he could not overcome these weaknesses.

Don Quixote’s fantasy ennobles Sancho from servant to squire. We don’t see the relationship develop (it’s established in the opening number), but Sancho is devoted to him. What we do see is Aldonza’s transformation to Dulcinea. Don Quixote insists to her at every step of the way that she is a lady, that she has dignity, that she deserves his loyalty. This despite the fact that every other part of her life tears her down.

When we meet Aldonza, she is a maid and prostitute in a seedy in. She’s preyed on and exploited by muleteers and she uses what she has (her looks, body, and attitude) to manipulate them as best she can. When Don Quixote is star-struck at her, she laughs him off. It’s not until she sees him doing his devoted vigil in the courtyard, that she truly speaks and listens to him. What he says (the famous song “The Impossible Dream”) awes her.

In the end, Aldonza gets what the little boy Tom does not get in Camelot. Arthur is still alive at the end of the show, so he gets the final reprise. In Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote expires after the stress of having his illusions destroyed and then restored. Aldonza takes up his song and leads the final reprise of “The Impossible Dream”

In both cases: fantasy = optimism.

Now let’s turn our attention to the dark twins. These have a surprising number of historical parallels, but let’s stick with the stories for this post.

There is never a question in Lady in the Dark of whether Liza’s dreams are good or bad. It’s made clear in the opening scene that she is disturbed by them. And her presence in a therapist’s office is a clear sign that the progress of this show will be her interpreting her dreams and solving the problem.

And in Cabaret, the dream and fantasy is a kind of collective subconscious, where an attractive roommate becomes two, and an unusual attraction becomes dating a gorilla. There is a continuous tension between the unnatural joy in the club and the growing storm outside. In the end, Cliff escapes while the other characters hide in their illusion.

Liza’s dreams are populated by people she sees, her memories, and her fantasies. In the first dream, she is the most beautiful, interesting woman in the world. A far cry from her daily life. In the second, she is simultaneously at a high-school reunion and a wedding to a man who in real life is available but whom she does not love. In the third, her indecision becomes a kind of circus and trial where she is instructed to make up her mind.

Only in the final dream of her childhood is the true history revealed. The song she’s been humming all show is a kids song she sang, her family told her she was ugly and should never wear blue, and she has always lost when in conflict with other women. Once she understands the problem, Liza is able to step up and solve her own problems—taking action for herself and what she wants.

Cabaret does not have such a happy ending. Although Cliff is able to escape Germany without issue, Sally returns to the club where she believes she will be safe. Fräulein Schneider, the landlady, believes it will all blow over. Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit seller, thinks getting away from Fräulein Schneider will disguise him enough to escape Nazi scrutiny. Although we do not find out what happens, at the end of the show even the shoddy, deep-rooted cabaret feels like a tin shack in a hurricane.

In this case, fantasy is a kind of sedative. It deadens the senses of those caught up in it. Only Cliff, the most down-to-earth character, is able to see what’s really happening and go. In that sense, he has more in common with Ernst Ludwig, our primary Nazi.

In these shows, fantasy = darkness.

It’s interesting to note that of these shows, three of them are from the 1960s. Only Lady in the Dark precedes, them, having run initially in 1941.

Obviously all of these shows are different. But in each case, the characters struggle with imagination, fantasy, or dreams. In some cases the struggle ends with a victory for the character (Lady in the Dark) or his cause (Man of La Mancha and Camelot). Only in Cabaret is the victory of fantasy a loss for the world.

I should write longer posts about each of these shows, but I wanted to at least share these thoughts, since the parallels almost defied coincidence.