Or, "Why my Music Theatre Lit professor says Rodgers and Hammerstein are sexy."
by Amanda Louise Miller, grad student
Music Theatre Literature is kind of a dream class for a theatre nerd like me -- we get to listen to musicals, watch videos of musicals, and talk about musicals, working our way through history from ragtime and operetta to the modern day. (Click HERE for a link to my previous "Modern Major General" post, fearing members of the class.) This week, we have made it to those kings of dramatically-validated music, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
"This is so sexy," my professor prefaced us, as he cued up a video from Oklahoma. "Forget all of the bad productions of Oklahoma you've seen and try to watch this with fresh eyes. You'll see: it's seduction."
("Surrey with the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma.)
My professor was right, of course. Granted, someone as sexypants as Hugh Jackman could probably make a root canal sexy, but I think there's something profoundly alluring in the subtext and the playfulness of this musical scene. It's flirty, it's fun, it's human, and it's REAL. And don't even get me started on "People Will Say We're in Love." :)
The fact is, good ol' reliable R&H were masters of the "almost" love song.
"almost" love song (or ALS): (n) a duet between a musical's romantic leads, happening early on in the show, in which the characters deliberately do NOT profess their love for each other (though we know that they totally will by the final curtain).
There are lots of reasons why "almost" love songs are so awesome:
- They provide a clear starting point for the main characters' arc, and provide lots of room for character development throughout the show -- if a script makes a point to state that two characters are NOT in love in act 1, you can bet they will be in love at some point before the final curtain!
- They are far more interesting than plain old love songs. Subtext, layers of meaning, sarcasm, and denial -- all are far more meaty feasts for audiences (and actors!) to chew on than plain old vanilla adoration, and ALS's have them in spades. (Plus, how many words are there that rhyme with "love," really?)
- These songs get the audience rooting for the successful uniting show's main characters. ("Of course they are perfect for each other -- just listen to them harmonize!")
- They are sexy. Relationship experts tend to have differing opinions on whether or not playing "hard to get" actually works, but I think most people will agree that the anticipation leading up to that magical foot-popping first kiss is often the sexiest part of the smooching process. And that's what these "I don't love you yet" songs are -- that agonizingly delicious, cut-with-a-knife sexual tension that boils up between two people who have yet to act on their feelings for one another.
While Rodgers and Hammerstein were undesputed giants in the "ALS" field (for further "R&H Were Awesome" evidence, see "If I Loved You" and "Twin Soliloquies"), they're certainly not the only musical theatre writers to utilize the magic of the "I Don't Love You Yet" format.
Here are some of my favorite examples of the formula, some obvious and some a bit more sneaky in their take on the archetype:
- "I Think I Got You Beat" (Shrek) -- Even though it's not their first moments together in the musical, this duet starts to lay the foundation for the show's love story between Shrek and Fiona.
- "Falling Slowly" (Once) -- Let's be honest: this whole show is an "almost love song." And it's HOT.
- "Mix Tape" (Avenue Q) -- I remember hearing this song for the first time and feeling my heart DROP along with Kate Monster's when she gets to the "You've Got a Friend" songs...not to mention when Princeton rushes off to make tapes for everyone else: so real-life, and so sweet!
- "Coffee" (I Love You Because) -- "Opposites attract" = another common facet of the "Almost Love Song" archetype. (Plus, this video brings back awesome memories of when I did the show!)
- "Loathing" (Wicked) -- Ok, so it might be more of an anti-love song than an almost-love song, but there's no arguing that Elphie and Glinda's relationship is the true love story of Wicked, and this song definitely provides a starting place for their friendship.
- "You Must Meet My Wife" (A Little Night Music) -- Because Sondheim is a dramatic badass, he manages to not only fulfill, not only the requirements of an "I don't love you yet" song, but also layers in a checkered past and a questionable future, all into the same song.