On A Tangent

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

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?

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