Il Mondo Era Vuoto: Multilingual Shows and Why I Want More Of Them

Adam Guettel’s beautiful musical The Light in the Piazza tells the story of a young American woman named Clara who falls in love with Fabrizio, a young man she meets on vacation in Italy. When Fabrizio sings about how empty his life was before Clara, it is entirely in Italian. Asking a primarily English-speaking audience to care about a character they can’t always understand is a risk, and in other mediums, it might not work at all. Setting the story to music, though, helps audience members become emotionally invested even without understanding the language.

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Being able to tell stories about people from all over the world is an amazing part of musical theatre. But when these characters all spout poetry in perfectly-formed English, it takes away some of the authenticity of the story. Stephen Sondheim has long been a proponent of writing lyrics that are true to a character: basically, he argues, if you can’t say it, you shouldn’t sing it. Looking back on his first major work on Broadway, West Side Story, Sondheim has said that he feels embarrassed that he didn’t always follow this principle. The show’s leading lady Maria, for example, is newly arrived from Puerto Rico and struggling to learn English. In her big number, “I Feel Pretty,” she’s suddenly able to break out sophisticated internal rhymes like “it’s alarming how charming I feel.” Though the English lyrics make a lovely song, they aren’t true to the character.

When the revival of West Side Story opened in 2009, the show’s creators saw a chance to make the songs better fit the characters who would sing them. With the help of Tony-winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, the book and lyrics were revised so that the Puerto Rican characters speak and sing to each other exclusively in Spanish. These new songs added a whole other layer of storytelling to the show. Bernardo, the proud leader of the Sharks, refuses to speak English, and leads his gang’s verse in the “Tonight” quintet entirely in Spanish, while Anita, who wants to leave Puerto Rico behind, proudly sings “America” in English. Maria gets to wax poetic about her newfound love, and in Spanish, it makes perfect sense.

“I Feel Pretty/Me Siento Hermosa” — Stephen Sondheim and Lin-Manuel Miranda:

Original Spanish English translation
I feel charming, Oh, so charmingIt’s alarming how charming I feel! And so pretty That I hardly can believe I’m real. Hoy me siento encantadora Atrayente, atractiva sin par Y ahora Ni una estrella me podrá opacar. Today I feel so enchanting Attractive, without comparison And now Not even a star can eclipse me

Musical theatre is a great way to tell diverse stories but ultimately, it is a reflection of the people who create it. We should make that reflection an accurate one — one as multifaceted and interesting as people actually are. I believe wholeheartedly that representation matters, and I argue that what is just as important is participation. Participating in theatre is such an incredible learning opportunity, especially for young people. If they don’t or can’t take part because they feel isolated by language differences, they miss out on valuable experiences.

Deaf West Theatre Company in California works to break down language barriers in musical theatre by making it accessible to hearing and deaf audiences alike. Their latest production, Duncan Sheik’s provocative rock musical Spring Awakening, features a cast of deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing actors who tell the story through a combination of singing and American Sign Language. As director Michael Arden puts it, Spring Awakening is “a story about people who are denied a voice,” and incorporating deaf characters into the show only emphasizes the divide between the teen protagonists and their parents. It just looks so COOL:

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Writing shows about and with people who don’t speak English should be a goal that more American composers aspire to achieve. They should write musicals that accurately portray characters from different cultural backgrounds and they should also take advantage of the creative opportunities that these shows can offer. Utilizing multiple languages opens up so many interesting ways to write lyrics. One of my favorite shows, In the Heights, centers around a predominantly Dominican-American neighborhood in New York City. The characters weave English and Spanish lyrics together to create a sound that is uniquely theirs. The music feels true to the characters and the exciting turns of phrase in both languages make it just plain fun to listen to. When musical theatre writers embrace the diversity of language, they can break down barriers and tell great stories too.

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