On A Tangent

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Tapping on the Fourth Wall: Do They Know They’re Singing?

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Musical theater is a divisive medium. For some, it produces endless delight and fanatical devotion; for others, bafflement and fierce avoidance.

For me, musicals have always been a source of enjoyment. I grew up watching The Sound of Music once a year, every year. I spent most of the last academic year reviewing Broadway tour productions for my college newspaper (best gig ever – great seats for the low, low price of 500 words). I’ve even been in a musical or two myself.

But not everybody is musical fan, and understandably so. Musicals can be just plain baffling. Why is everyone singing? Why does everyone just accept this? Real life isn’t actually like this! (As a person who sings throughout my day, I beg to differ, but the point stands.) Musicals aren’t exactly a 1:1 reflection of everyday life.

But some musicals do try to tackle the question of “why are we singing?”. Some musicals seem to take place in a world where everyone sings and spontaneous extravagant musical numbers go unquestioned. But some musicals have a group of people consistently baffled by the theatrical antics of the main characters, a mirror for the audience who are less than spellbound by this perfectly choreographed and harmonized world.

I’ve been thinking about these questions recently and the worlds that musicals create. Specifically, because I recently binge-watched the first season of the CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (a musical comedy), I’ve been thinking about how these questions are addressed in musical television, both in shows that regularly feature musical numbers and ones for which musical numbers are a rarity.

Today, I’ll break down four of my favorite examples of musical TV and attempt to answer one question: do they know they’re singing?

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

I’ll start with the show that got me thinking about this question in the first place. CEG is a zany, sometimes odd, but ultimately enjoyable show. The premise: Rebecca Bunch (actress Rachel Bloom) is a high profile lawyer in NYC who, after a chance encounter with an old camp boyfriend, Josh Chan, refuses a huge promotion and instead spontaneously moves to Josh’s hometown of West Covina, CA. (But NOT for him, of course.)

The show features about one or two musical numbers per episode. In the pilot, the first musical number happens without much preamble, leaving the audience with questions. Are the songs only in Rebecca’s head? Does everyone sing? Since most of the first few songs are Rebecca-centric, we’re led to assume that they’re a manifestation of Rebecca’s stress and anxiety, as well as her relief about escaping the pressure of her high-achieving life.

Then, in the episode four, “I’m Going on a Date with Josh’s Friend”, we finally get a (sort-of) answer to the question of “do they know they’re singing?”! The titular friend, Greg (played the ridiculously talented Santino Fontana, of Broadway and Frozen fame), after debating with his feelings, attempts to ask Rebecca out. The conversation turns into the hilariously self-effacing musical number, “Settle for Me“, shot in black and white (pictured above) and featuring Astaire and Rogers-style dancing. Even if you don’t watch the show, the video is worth a watch for the humor and the choreography.

But after this extravagant musical number, during a date that goes terribly wrong, Rebecca brings the moment up with him: “As long as we’re being super honest, let’s talk about when you asked me out and your whole “Settle for me” vibe.” To which Greg responds: “Okay, well, that’s not quite how I remembered it.”

Clearly, “Settle for Me”, though it is almost entirely Greg’s solo, is not his interpretation of events — it’s Rebecca’s. Thus, the question seems to be settled — in CEG, the musical numbers are the filter of Rebecca’s reality. And looking back on the musical number with that in mind, it adds an extra dimension to the interpretation of Rebecca’s character — she interprets his advances as him asking her to settle, yet she romanticizes the moment in a classic, old Hollywood-style scenario, a subtle hint at her conflicting feelings.

Of course, there are later numbers that throw a wrench into this interpretation; numbers that take place outside of Rebecca’s presence, during events of which she has no knowledge. So which is it — a personal musical delusion, or an entire cast of characters who share a kind of musical fantasy realm? Perhaps later seasons will tell!

My Musical (Scrubs)

Scrubs, a half-hour dramedy about the trials and tribulations of the doctors at Sacred Heart Hospital, is the oldest of my examples, but still worth a mention. Most of the show is not musical — but in season 6, Scrubs did a musical episode called “My Musical”. In it, a patient (played by Stephanie D’Abruzzo of Avenue Q fame) comes to Sacred Heart with a unique problem: everyone around her is singing like a bird.

Besides being a uniquely hilarious episode of an already amusing show, “My Musical” also addresses its musical premise up-front. The patient has a temporal lobe aneurysm causing musical hallucinations, a rare condition, though not unheard of. (If, like me, you’re interested in the actual medical basis and other such musically-based neurological conditions, I can’t recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia enough.) Her condition strikes the perfect balance for the show’s usual tone: the circumstances allow for a great deal of comedy, but her prognosis is ultimately very serious. Her fears about the surgery manifest in the final number, “What’s Going to Happen“, a touching number that showcases the dedication of the doctors at the heart of the show.

The result is an episode the skirts the borders of the plausibility, but never crosses them. Likewise, it gifted us with such classics as Dr. Cox’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style, “The Rant Song“, and the ultimate Scrubs love song, Turk and J.D.’s “Guy Love”. Definitely worth a watch (and rewatch) for musical lovers and fans of the show.

Psych the Musical

Psych is easily one of my favorite shows of the last decade. Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a gifted and hyper-observant but lazy individual, works as a “psychic detective” for the Santa Barbara Police Department, solving crimes with his long-suffering best friend, Burton Guster (Dule Hill), and detectives Carlton Lassiter (Timothy Omundson, whose musical exploits I’ll be discussing further below) and Juliet O’Hara (Maggie Lawson). The show takes a “crime of the week” format for the most part, with a few longer arcs throughout. Its brilliant cast, visual gags, and snappy dialogue alone make it a must-watch, but the musical episode, a two-hour special that aired in the seventh season, is a true gem.

Like Scrubs, Psych is not a musical show. In previous seasons, the show took some occasional forays into the realm of musical theater, particularly to showcase Dule Hill’s many talents as both singer and tap dancer. But “Psych the Musical” takes the chaos to a whole different level.

The plots begins with an escape from an asylum: failed playwright Z (Anthony Rapp of Rent fame) runs away to expose the truth of the disastrous fire that destroyed his career and framed him as a murderer. [MILD SPOILERS FOR THE YIN-YANG KILLER ARC AHEAD; SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION IF YOU WANT TO AVOID] To solve the case, Shawn and Gus must enlist the help of suspected serial killer, Yin (guest star Ally Sheedy), who insists that all questions be put to her in the form of song.

It seems straightforward — Yin demands song, so the show becomes a musical. But, unfortunately, the world of “Psych the Musical” gets a bit more complicated than that. For instance, the show opens with a huge musical number, “Santa Barbara Skies“, before Yin has even entered the plot. Likewise, some of the other character seem to notice the singing as an oddity — Shawn’s stoic father, Henry, flat out refuses to sing early in the episode. Perhaps even more perplexing, Yin dies near the middle of the episode, yet the singing continues, both on and off the stage.

So, do they know they’re singing? Sometimes, yes. Does it really matter? In this instance, probably not. Psych consistently pushed the boundaries of the fourth wall, extending its characteristic humor to the show’s format itself. Ultimately, though “Psych the Musical” gives us few answers about why the singing is happening, it’s nonetheless enjoyable.


Galavant, a sad casualty of ABC’s annual round of cancellations, was a mid-season musical fantasy that’s part Monty Python, part Disney (the music is written by Alan Menken), and all hilarity. The titular hero embarks on a typical quest: his fair true love, Madalena (played by the show-stealing Mallory Jansen), has been stolen away by the evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson, again!) and Galavant must rescue her. He’s joined in his quest by his squire, Sid (Luke Youngblood, whom you might recognize from Harry Potter) and Princess Isabella (Karen David), as she attempts to regain her kingdom from the conquering king.

But many of the tropes of the series are quickly turned on their heads. King Richard turns out to be less tyrannical and more timid — he can hardly do anything for himself. Madalena is the schemer — she sees the King as her ticket away from a life of fleas and poverty. And Galavant, well… he’s not quite the shining hero everyone thinks he should be.

Like many of its musical fantasy predecessors, Galavant is a little all-over-the-place in terms of its relationship with the fourth wall. The title song, “Galavant“, is sung by a narrator who oversees the proceedings and offers often unflattering commentary. The musical numbers openly mention Nielsen ratings and the impending cancellation early on, though the show managed to survive to two seasons. And, of course, there is also some hilarious lampshading of the medieval setting, in musical numbers like “If I Could Share My Life With You“, where two of King Richard’s servants imagine their life together in a world without pest control, birth control, or modern medicine.

And, as you might expect from such a self-aware show, everyone in the Galavant universe seems to know they’re singing, though they accept it with emotions ranging from glee to chagrin. The world that they inhabit is already absurd, filled with magic, medieval maladies, and constantly changing monarchies. Add singing to the mix? No one even bats an eyelid. After all, what’s a little song and dance when you have dragons and the plague to deal with?

These are just a few of my favorite examples, but the genre has developed so many interpretations of the fundamental question: “do they know they’re singing?” Do you have a favorite answer to this question? Or even another musical or musical show you think is worthy for consideration? Let us know in the comments!




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