Fifty Million Frenchies Kissing A Lot Of Frogs: Is That A Musical?

In some of my previous posts, I promised you a post about the blockbusters of French-speaking musical theatre. Here it is.

Every one or two years, a big show with a cast of at least 50 people and a creative team only slightly smaller invades Paris. Their producers become famous. Their songs are on the radio, there are huge signs in the street announcing they’re coming, there are thousands of people talking about them, their cast is on TV, and there are (and I swear I have no idea how that happens) promotional emails in my mailbox.

Just so you know what I am talking about, you should listen to the song “Tomber dans ses yeux” (“Falling into his eyes”) from one of the last productions of that kind, a show about the French Revolution called 1789: Les Amants de la Bastille (The Lovers of the Bastille). This song has the advantage of having everything I am going to tell you about in this post and still being one of the few songs from this genre of musicals that I appreciate. You can listen to a clip here.

I can already hear some of you exclaiming: “how amazing! New musical theatre being again admitted to pop culture!” And I would almost welcome those shows like I welcome every movie adaptation of a musical – with a reluctant heart but knowing that my prejudices mostly come from elitist tendencies to consider the original and the lesser-known as the better work. But there is something that really bothers me about those shows: they have actually nothing to do with musical theatre.

Let me explain that more clearly. Those show may be called “comédies musicales” (the French language hasn’t understood yet that a musical doesn’t have to be a comedy), but they are bad by every single musical theatre standard. I don’t mean to say that they are inherently bad, only that we have to look at it with other standards to find them good. Of course, some sociologists might say that anything considered widely as a musical is a musical. But really, I don’t think it would be nice to call them that, considering how many people knowing the history of musical theatre despise them.

Now, I am calling those shows “bad” for a few reasons. First of all, they are only about subjects that have been dramatized thousand of times and don’t really take any personal turn on the subject: the French Revolution (see video above), Robin Hood, Dracula or King Louis XIV are all treated the same way, without any interesting plotlines or any attention paid to how the songs fit within the frame, but with a big very unsurprising love story. Moreover, it often happens that the songs of each individual show are written by a dozen of different composers, which doesn’t help. And the lyrics, when they mean anything at all, are such… pop lyrics. They don’t fit with the characters (when the characters are actually enough defined to be called so) and seldom with the situation (and they use the diabolic e!!!). As for the music, it is most of the time terribly repetitive. Sure, there is some dialogue, but in everything I’ve seen, they were either there to introduce the next song (sometimes with lyrics that repeat exactly what has just been said!) or they have no connections to the song at all. So those are shows without theatricality and without any real occasion to act.

So I’ve grown not to call those shows “musicals,” really. They are much more of a staged rock concert, with spectacular lights, costumes, sets and dozens of performers coming on stage operating much more like Beyonce’s dancers than a musical theatre chorus: they come onstage for no other dramatic reason than to dance some choreography that fits the mood. Whether they are good rock concerts or not, I leave to others to say. As a matter of fact, the producers are themselves pretending that these shows have nothing to do with traditional American musical theatre, since they think Broadway is “outdated” and has too much “recitative” (here’s the proof – well, it’s in French).

If those shows are nothing like musical theatre, then why did I just bother writing a whole post about it? Well, most people do think of those shows as musical theatre, and that’s probably bothering me more than I would like to admit. Of course, it’s great if some admirers of those shows start, because of them, to love Sondheim or Schwartz. And it’s also great if those shows have an audience who like them as they are. But I do get annoyed that the art form I love is mistaken for something else, and that my love for well-crafted multi-layered theatre lyrics is seen as a love for cheesy-as-usual love song lyrics. Anyway, next time you hear about a big French musical, don’t get fooled by the so-called “sexiness” of the language and know that if you read this blog, the chances are high that you would not like it at all.

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