Why Musicals are Timeless and What Writers Can Learn from Them

Posted By on Dec 6, 2013 | 4 comments


So I sit here watching Ms. Carrie “Perfect” Underwood sing her little heart out in the live performance of The Sound of Music and I’m crying. Not because I’m blown away by her fantastic voice, which I am, but because of the nostalgia the songs evoke. I can see myself sitting in my grandmother’s living room surrounded by my aunts and girl cousins (there was quite a string of xx chromosomes for a number of years) watching it. Maybe I’m verklempt because of that family tradition that is no longer taking place, but also, I think it is as simple as the music itself.

The music seems give the emotion to the story with melodies that are instantly etched into our minds.

How many times have you watched The Sound of Music, do you think? Five, ten…thirty? I know I’m closer to thirty and some change.  I’ve watched it every year during the holidays for as long as I can remember. My daughter has watched it with me since she was little and is hooked now as well. We bought her (okay, us) the DVD a few years ago and road trips just don’t feel complete if it isn’t with us.

Every fricking song, I swear, chokes me up. As I watch tonight’s live show, I realize it’s the songs themselves that get me. Rodgers and Hammerstein were musical geniuses. Oklahoma!, The King and I, South Pacific…they all have songs we we’ll remember for years. I can’t drive over the Oklahoma border without belting out “OOOOk-lahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain!”

Then there are the others like Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, Mary Poppins, Annie, and The Music Man. Long after I forget my library card number, I’d bet my last tooth that I’d still be able to sing any of these songs by heart.

Let’s not forget the musicals of a newer generation: Fame, Grease…even Mamma Mia! The words aren’t so important with these so much as how the music made you feel. I spent many nights with my friends watching Grease that whenever I hear those songs, I feel young and carefree. I think the words are probably really stupid if I took the time to read them. Greased Lightning? Pure crap and quite raunchy but that stuff all flew over my head as a teen.

How is it that these musicals and their songs make such an impression? They get us with emotion. We are watching the Von Trapp’s try to save their family and the power of the moment is felt as they sing their Auf Wiedersehen’s for the last time at the festival. Emotion that connects us to the music and that emotion sticks with us long after the show is over. If you don’t tear up when “Climb Every Mountain” comes on, then you are dead inside.

That is what every writer should be shooting for. To write words that evoke that kind of emotion in their readers. Whether it’s an essay, short story, memoir, or fiction, getting your readers to connect on a deeper level will keep them coming back for more.

I wrote a scene a little while back in my very unfinished novel that brought tears to my eyes as I wrote it. I used a real life experience to create the framework for the scene then put myself in the character’s shoes as I wrote. That scene and the memory of writing it will stay with me for a long time because of it. I used the emotion I had felt in my own life to feed the words I was writing.

What makes a great and memorable book, for me, is a lot like the musicals I love so much. I want emotion spilling from the page, whether it’s happy, sad, inspirational, awe…I don’t care. Just give it to me.

  • Which musicals are your favorites?
  • How do you bring emotion to the words you write?
  • What makes a story stick with you long after you’ve shut the book?

4 Comments

  1. I LOVE musicals, more so than plays, and maybe it’s for the reasons you mentioned. Every song reminds me of a time in my life, an age, when I first watched it. And how is it that I know every single word in those songs but can’t remember the speaking parts? I have many favorite musicals (live and on tv); Sound of Music is definitely one of them, as is West Side Story and Les Miserables.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks for stopping by, Nina. I love hearing about others thoughts on musicals and I’m glad to see a story told in song is still well-loved. I’ve wanted to see the recent Les Miserables movie with Hugh Jackman and that other girl (does it really matter?) but hadn’t had the right person to watch it with until now. (My daughter is 14! Woo hoo!)

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