In a shocking (not really) turn of events, a great deal of my spring break this past week was spent at the ol’ high school, CHS. Even more surprising (not really), this was directly connected to the performance of the spring musical. The most unexpected part of all (not really) (it’s so easy to convey sarcasm in a text-only format) (not really) was that I was one of the camera operators for the DVD of said play, there at each performance.
And what musical masterpiece was selected for this year? “Peter Pan”! But which of the 427 musicals based on the beloved children’s story was used? Apparently, the only one we could afford! Which, by coincidence, is the one nobody has ever heard of!
Now, the performance, as expected, was fantastic. I never cease to be impressed by the sheer amount of talent one high school can produce, especially after seeing a lot of pretty lousy high school plays elsewhere in the world. Every year, it seems like they’re gonna lose all their talent when the seniors graduate…and every year, someone else amazing steps up to the plate. Basically, any CHS performance is worth watching.
That said, the musical itself wasn’t the best version of “Peter Pan”. The script itself seemed almost verbatim from the original Barrie text for the most part; the problem was in the songwriting. Evidently, a lot of the songs were in very bizarre keys originally, and Mrs. H actually rewrote some of the show’s music for our performance. But rewriting the music didn’t help with the song lyrics, most of which were just reiterating information already revealed in dialogue…and then repeating said information without variety for about three verses too many. Take the opening number, “We Are The Darlings”, in which we learn that…the family is called the Darlings. The song could have been used to reveal actual information about the characters *in* the Darling family, but no, it pretty much reiterated the family name over and over, just to ensure that even the densest of audience members grasped this information–one of the lines even emphasizes “just remember we’re the Darlings”, as if we’d get confused later in the show if we didn’t have Wendy, John and Michael’s last name drilled into our heads…even though their last name barely ever comes up again.
See, in a musical, a song should do *at least* one, and preferably more, of the following things:
1. Reveal setting/mood that isn’t conveyed in the dialogue
2. Reveal character or emotion (preferably with some degree of subtlety, or else Robot Devil will feel angry)
3. Drive the plot forward in some actual way
4. Be really, really funny/sad/touching/musically excellent/good in some way
5. Not sound like it’s just a ripoff of “The Life I Lead” from “Mary Poppins”, with a touch of “A Little Bit of Luck” from “My Fair Lady” and “Up From The Ashes” from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”.
And the *very first song* in this musical accomplished none of those things. I’m pretty sure the songwriter got to the end of his writing session at the local pub and realized he still didn’t have an opening number, so rather than do anything that would entail actual effort, he took a song a six-year-old wrote to perform for all the grownups at a family reunion, substituting said child’s last name with “Darling”.
Similarly, the first song Peter Pan sings to Wendy introducing himself starts with a verse that can be summed up by saying “Growing up is boring, I’m staying a kid”, then repeating that verse, then a bridge where Peter says he ran away to Kensington Gardens the day he was born to live with the fairies…all of which is information that he had just told Wendy in spoken dialogue right before the music even started. Good thing the cast had fantastic voices, to the point that listening to them singing a split pea soup recipe would have been entertaining.
Now, not *all* of the songs were this pointless. Some of them are just this repetitive. Take “Goodbye, Peter Pan”, the song Hook sings before poisoning the sleeping Peter’s medicine Now, I lost track every time I tried to count the verses of this song, but I think it was at least six. Each of which can be summed up as, “Bye, Pete. I’ll kinda miss the game, but killing you is worth it.” Fortunately, the fantastic Jack Taubl played up the song’s repetition to hilarious effect.
So, the songs aren’t great, to put it kindly. But on the other hand, they are definite earworms. The songs from the musical are STILL stuck in my head…and this is after listening to “Blue Sunny Day” about sixty times in a row.
Another problem with this musical, once again connected to the effort of the writer, is that it seems underdeveloped. Specifically, it feels like it’s trying to start investigating the idea of a Wendy-Peter romantic recurring theme (calling it a “subplot” is being way too generous), but it only touches on the shallowest ideas of the concept. The one song, “Why?”, a duet between Peter and Wendy, brings up the idea that Peter and Wendy each want the other to change for them, which, if explored properly, could have made a really interesting story. However, the song has, as Dad described it, all the depth of a mid-90s pop ballad, with the characters stating their feelings rather than expressing them. Now, admittedly, maybe it’s appropriate that the song was kinda shallow, since, you know, the characters are children. Plus, the song wins a lot of points for not just restating the lead-up dialogue, and it gave Alysha Compton and Sarah LeMien a chance to really shine as Peter and Wendy. I can’t praise their voices and performances enough, they were absolutely fantastic.
(Tragically, this song accidentally got skipped at one of the performances…I’m not exactly sure what happened, but one way or another the conductor missed the cue, and Alysha and Sarah, bless them, improvised their way around the scene, before picking it up after the song.)
Long story short, the main thing that the songwriting in this musical lacks is passion. You get the sense that the writer really didn’t care, and was just throwing the whole thing together for a quick buck off of an established and beloved story. (I’d say it’s a more harmless version of what Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg do, but it’s not nearly THAT bad, just passionless.) The song lyrics, when not repetitive, are filled with cliches (Peter actually tells Wendy “don’t stop believing” at one point in the emotional final number), and there’s no indication that this was in any way a personal project, a story that the writer loved and wanted to tell in a new way. It is, to reiterate myself almost as often as the play’s lyrics do, completely devoid of true emotion or heart, utterly passionless.
On the other hand, passion is certainly one thing that a CHS performance never lacks. Every year, Doc Fullerton brings about a collection of students, parents, and faculty, who pour their entire selves into producing an entertaining work. Extremely talented people come out of the woodwork; students who can hit any note, students who can replicate any accent, students who can out-dance Fred Astaire (which, admittedly, got much easier to do after he died), even students who can build and paint detailed sets. There are sleepless nights, missed homework assignments, the frequent bout with sickness (and the even more frequent couples starting to date and/or breaking up), all for the sake of one weekend, four performances. But it’s all worth it, when the grandparent or cousin flies in to see the opening night, or the friends from church stop by and congratulate you, or the little kid in the front row just stares up at you in awe because, holy crap, Peter Pan is actually flying across that stage.
The writer of this play could learn a lot from watching CHS’ performance of it. Because none of these kids are getting paid–in fact, I don’t even think the school’s breaking even–and yet, year after year, they put on a show that rivals a lot of professional productions. It’s a real labor of love, and as tiring and stressful as it gets, I am extremely honored that I still get to be involved, even in my small way.
So, I do recommend any CHSers pick up the DVD if you missed the show. Even with mediocre material, the school put on an absolutely first-rate performance. I just apologize in advance for my camera angles sucking.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish writing “Split Pea Soup! The Musical”. I’m thinking the opening number will list different brands of saltine crackers.