Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Tropes VS Tropes: The Big Freaking Kiss Song

As a life long musical theatre nerd, I feel very lucky that my college days managed to coincide with the rise of the Wicked Witch of the West on Broadway. While kids today go around singing their Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, I came of age to the angst filled power ballads of Idina Menzel in her most famous pre-Frozen role, that of Elphaba, the famous Ozian witch, in the musical Wicked.

If you have even a passing interest in musical theatre, you know Wicked. If you don't, you've probably still heard a few of it's songs. It was everywhere at it's height, with shows like Glee featuring it's most famous song, "Defying Gravity" in one of it's earliest episodes.

As a nineteen-year-old, I was obsessed. I had the soundtrack memorized. All I wanted was to see a proper production of it. To my incredible luck, a touring production of it visited Toronto the very week I was scheduled to be in Ontario, visiting my sister for reading week. She lived a few hours south of the city, but we took a bus up, spent a couple days sightseeing Canada's great metropolis and, of course, saw Wicked.

Overall, it was spectacular, but I do have one memory of a particular song falling short of my imagination. Towards the end of Act II, Elphaba and her love interest, the dashing Fiyero, are reunited and sing "As Long as You're Mine," a passionate song about how they're gonna smooch and snuggle and probably do more things. This was, in my Wicked addicted brain, the sexiest love song to ever exist.

But on stage, it kinda… fell flat. They just stared at each other and stroked each other's arms a bunch. I kept waiting for it to heat up or for there to be choreography or something. Anything to give the scene a bit more shape than just singing forcefully in the face of the one you love. Instead, it felt like the song was a thing the characters had to get through, before they could finally reach the kissing that came at the end.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. Apparently, you can't smooch and sing at the same time. At least, not in real life. When I listened to the song on the soundtrack, it had played more like a music video in my mind, with shots of the characters making out, cut together with overlays of the actors singing at each other. Like, check out any Taylor Swift song. She makes out with dudes while singing all the time. But this doesn't translate to the stage. In concert, I'm guessing she's never snogged a man while crooning "Wildest Dreams" at him.

For Ms. Swift, this isn't much of a problem. Her songs may exist in the broader context of an album or a music video or a live performance, but they're rarely defined by them. Pop music is meant to exist as something the audience vicariously experiences and can imagine their own lives and fantasies onto. With great songs that come from musicals, there's an aspect of that, but most theatre songs require the context of their plots and performers in order to give full weight to the experience of a particular song.

"As Long as You're Mine" requires context and it still saddens me a little that it's stronger with only the context of the other songs on the album, not the actual performance. It might sadden me more if it weren't such a reoccurring problem in theatre. Yes, Wicked fell into the trap of the boring pre-kissing song, but it's far from the only show to do so.

Oh, Where is the Song that Goes Like This?

Quick question! In a musical, are the characters actually singing? Within the confines of his reality, does Javert actually stand next to the university students, belting out his plans to trick them and infiltrate their numbers, as he appears to do in the song "One Day More" in Les Miserables? Do a group of nuns actually argue about "How do You Solve a Problem like Maria" via song, as they appear to in The Sound of Music? Within the confines of their own realities, the answers are almost certainly "no." I mean, Javert would have to be really stupid to do that. Leader of the students, Enjolras, is literally just a few feet away from him during that number.

Most musical numbers aren't meant to be taken literally. Instead, the music and dancing is meant to stand in for something else. So what do they represent? The quick answer is usually something like "emotion" or the "feel" of a particular scene. Energetic, frantic songs coincide with when the mood is particularly tense or exciting. So in The Sound of Music, Maria sings the bouncy "Confidence" when she's trying to convince herself she feels braver than she does. In contrast, Javert sings the slow, contemplative song "Stars" when he's feeling, well... contemplative. Emotion and mood are the major drivers of song choice and placement in traditional musicals.

So it's little surprise that there are lots and lots of love songs in musicals, especially songs that come right before characters kiss. Great, big kiss scenes frequently come at the emotional height of a piece, as they release the tension of the character's building romance. Whole stories are structured around that moment of triumph. So of course there are songs about it! On paper, it sounds so incredible, ending a soaring ballad with the leads finally locking lips. But often, it falls flat, because these songs can't help but grind the plot to a halt. As mentioned before, you can't kiss and sing at the same time, which means that often, the characters have to get the song over with before the plot can advance any further, because the next plot point IS the kissing!!!

For here you are, standing there... standing there.

Both Les Miserables and The Sound of Music have scenes that suffer from this. In Les Miserables, Marius and Cossette sing at each other through a gate, and I remember as a kid thinking this scene took for-freaking-ever. They don't necessarily kiss at the end, but they want to, and nothing exciting is allowed to happen until they're done making goo-goo eyes at each other. In The Sound of Music, an even straighter example occurs, where Maria and Captain VonTrapp stand in a gazebo and stare sweetly at each other while their silhouettes delay kissing just long enough to get a refrain of "Something Good" out.

Researching for this article was a blast, because I got to relive some truly hilarious stage direction as I looked up examples of this phenomenon. How many times can Marion run back and forth across a bridge before finally ending her song and kissing Herald Hill in the Music Man? How long can Christine sway side to side before realizing that all Raoul asks of her is a kiss in Phantom of the Opera? Why does the Baker's wife keep wandering away from him during "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods, except to delay his inevitable kiss of her face?

By now, you might be asking what could possibly please me? Haven't I any romance inside of me? Don't I appreciate the need to slow down for these moments? IF THE PLOT CAN'T STOP FOR LOVE, WHAT CAN IT STOP FOR??????

It might be tempting to assume this kind of thing is inevitable--that it's impossible to end a song with a kiss without it coming across as cheesy and overblown. There's a reason White Christmas interrupts the smooch at the end of "Count Your Blessings" with another character stumbling in on the happy couple, because it stops an intensely earnest moment from feeling too corny. But to that I say, the presence of examples where it's done well shows that there's no excuse for doing it poorly. So who did do it well?

The Multitask Scene

The next slew of examples are all going to have one thing in common: In addition to being songs that end with dramatic kisses, they also do something else for the scene. Some subtext or character moment is going on, or the plot is carefully advancing without you noticing it. Returning to Sound of Music and Les Miserables, these shows actually have TWO of these scenes, and the other two are far more poignant.

For Sound of Music, the scene in question is the kiss between Liesl and her baby Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe. The classic "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" serves as a precursor to her first kiss, and between the singing and prolonged dance section, it takes a looooooooong time to get there. But, here, the delay is justified. She and Rolfe are young, inexperienced and nervous about love. When they finally do kiss, it's an impulsive peck by Rolfe, before he runs off into the rain. All the foofering around delightfully illustrates his nervousness, even while he's trying to front maturity to her.

Les Miserables has it's second occurrence with Marius again, but this time, he's cradling Eponine during "A Little Drop of Rain." And, erm, spoiler alert I guess, but... SHE'S DYING! As an audience, we're all heartbroken, like Marius. You get the sense he didn't even know to expect the kiss she gives him at the end, because this is the first time she's desperate enough to make her feelings clear to him. It is, quite literally, her last chance. This subtext makes the scene far richer than any he shares with Cosette and helped launch the wallowing of a thousand lonely theatre girls, who forever see themselves in Eponine's tragic friend-zone fate.

So, now that we've explored this issue thoroughly, what are the best examples? In order to qualify for honors on this list, a scene must involve:

1) A love song.
2) At the conclusion of the song, the characters kiss
3) At some point, they preferably sing directly into each other's faces. Bonus points for volume.
4) While indulging in the pathos above, the scene still manages to progress the plot meaningfully
5) As in yes, there is kissing, but you aren't just waiting for them to get the singing over with so that they can kiss.

And now, for the awards for best use of the singing-in-face-leads-to-kissing trope...

Best Classic Example:

"If I Loved You" - Carousel

Despite having incredible music, this is one of those musicals you don't see very often any more, largely because sections of it haven't aged well. At all. It takes a... VERY outdated stance on a few issues, and I say this as someone who watches Howard Keel movies. But this song, guys. It's that good.

Rogers and Hammerstein were masters of the I-Swear-I'm-Not-In-Love-With-You song. "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," mentioned earlier, has aspects of this with the way Rolfe clearly has no clue what he's doing. More famously, Oklahoma has "People Will Say We're In Love," which is delightful, even while making you want to smack the people singing it. But those still aren't "If I Loved You."

There's a cat and mouse feel to the whole thing, as both Julie and Bill swear to the other that they don't love each other, but if they did? Well, they know exactly what that would be like. And what would it be like? It would involve failing to say it out loud, because they're both too nervous and proud to admit what they feel. They verbally dance in circles around each other during the song, underscoring the tension in their relationship, yet by the end, they can't help it! They must give in! And yes, we get that glorious kiss.

Bonus points: The sheer length of the scene. I'm amazed this song stays enjoyable when they're taking SO LONG to get to the point, but that's the beauty of a song that spells out multiple levels of character.

What could make it better: They actually face each other very little, and never sing at the same time in each other's faces. Wasted opportunity.

Best Lyric: Longin' to tell you/But afraid and shy/I'd let my golden chances/Pass me by

Best Comedic Example:

"The Night is Young and You're So Beautiful" - Robin Hood: Men in Tights

I had to break the rules a little here, since this number doesn't technically end in a kiss, but it gets pretty close. One of the running gags in this movie is that the characters aren't allowed to kiss, so that's part of why it gets a pass.

The other reason why is because in comedic songs, they don't tend to end with the kiss actually happening. Whether it's "Where is the Song that Goes Like This?" from Spamalot, "Love is Strange" from Galavant, "Let's Have Intercourse" from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even "The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room" from Flight of the Conchords, the kiss doesn't come to be. Part of the comedy of the thing, I guess. But the purpose is pretty clear with all of these songs. They're designed to subvert our romance expectations and poke fun at the common tropes associated with these songs.

And with that disclaimer out of the way, the best of them is definitely the one Robin sings to Maid Marion. The whole scene kills me. Carey Elwes hams up his role fantastically, but it's Amy Yasbeck as Marion that really sells the scene for me. She's trying so hard to be into it for his sake, but she's mostly just startled and terrified by the theatrics. Man, this movie is a frickin' classic.

Bonus Points: He sings at her so forcefully her crown falls off her head.

What could make it better: Some sweeping camera angles? Spinning, maybe? I dunno, aside from the lack of a kiss, it's pretty perfect already.


Best Disney Example:

"A Whole New World" - Aladdin

In the movie, both of Aladdin and Jasmine's kisses are scored to this classic, Oscar winning tune. So yes, there is technically a delay between the song and their first kiss, but the instrumentation comes in with the song when they kiss on the balcony and see??? At the end, they kiss as they sing a reprise of the song again. So it counts. It's my list, I say it counts.

This song has been overplayed a little, and even as a wee one back in 1992, I remember getting tired of hearing the pop version on the radio. But this list is all about context and how the scene plays into the overall narrative. And here, it absolutely works. Aladdin works his way up to their epic balcony kiss by giving Jasmine the adventure she was never able to have before. Within the context of the movie, the scene is wonderfully charming. And like the best of these song+kiss scenes, it's about more than their romance. It's about the thrill of discovery and magic of their world. Subtly, it's also about Jasmine putting together the pieces that Prince Ali is the same boy she fell for back when she dressed up as a commoner in Agrabah.

Bonus Points: A flying magic carpet! Obvious, I know, but you'll notice they do way more interesting things than stand in a gazebo or walk back and forth across a bridge.

What could make it better: If the balcony kiss came more immediately on the heels of the song so that I didn't feel like I'm fudging it a bit.

Best lyric: Hold your breath/It gets better.

But enough beating around the bush! You came for the best triumphant, end-of-song kiss, and there must be one! So what is it? What beats out all the others to be Emily's all around favorite scene of this variety? How do you beat Disney at dramatic musical theatre kisses?

You do it by looking at what the guys who wrote all your favorite Disney Songs did before coming to Disney. You go just a little Off Broadway to...

Best Dramatic Kissing Song

"Suddenly Seymour" - Little Shop of Horrors

So first off, fun fact:

Back when Disney was trying to kickstart their animation division again, Broadway was experiencing something of a revival. Both Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim were at the top of their game in the Eighties. What a time it must have been to be alive in New York city! They weren't the only ones doing great work either, with two talented, young writers named Howard Ashman and Alan Menken collaborating together on numerous smaller shows. The strongest of them, and the one that caught Disney's eyes, was Little Shop of Horrors.

Top to bottom, it's a fantastic musical, and once you know that the same people who wrote the music for Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are helming it, you can never unhear how much the show sounds like a Disney movie. It's got their classic brand of villain song, as well as one of the best love ballads anywhere.

Mind you, "Suddenly Seymour" isn't a song that works great divorced from it's context. Part of why it's so good is because it's tailored to its characters. During the song, they both have the realization that they can and should be together. One of the many tragedies of this show (especially if you see the stage version, which is altogether far more tragic) is that it's taken so long for them to admit this to each other. Both Seymour and Audrey have adored and admired the other from a distance, but until this moment, they don't feel good enough for each other.

This song is so loaded with catharsis. Over the course of the show, we've watched Audrey go through so much abuse and heartache. In "Suddenly Seymour," he finally gets up the courage to put himself forward, Audrey works through part of her own baggage about life and love, and then together, the two of them beg the universe to let this moment last. This song is an absolute emotional ringer of a number.

It's also a good example of how these songs should work. At the beginning of the song, they are not ready to kiss. The emotion isn't there yet. They have to work their way through the emotions of the song and the little character transformations it involves before they reach the moment where they are ready to kiss. The song isn't a delay on the road to kissing, it's the vehicle by which they get there. As a result, it's so satisfying.

Bonus points: This song hits everything. Character transformation in the course of a single song, agonized wailing directly in each other's faces, interlocking melodies, plus a totally sincere smackeroo at the end. What else could you ask for?

What could make it better: As adorable as Rick Moranis is, I've generally preferred the live versions I've seen of this show to the filmed one. For one thing, I think there's some subtext lost to the song with the movie's happier ending.

Best lyrics: All of Audrey's verse. It breaks my heart every time, despite how silly the musical is.
Nobody ever treated me kindly/Daddy left early, Mama was poor/I'd meet a man and I'd follow him blindly/He'd snap his fingers. Me, I'd say, "sure."

You'll notice those lyrics don't seem to have a lot to do with loving Seymour, but that's what makes the song work so well. It points out how all the lies and garbage we believe about ourselves impacts our ability to seize love when it comes to us.

So if you're feeling lonely tonight, maybe get out there, grab someone attractive, and belt your personal issues at their face until you feel like kissing them. I mean... I've seen it work on stage.

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