Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week..
Oxford makes a companion for everyone. Horticulturalists please refer to Oxford Companion to the Garden. Need something more specific? Try the Companion to the Australian Gardens. Wine connoisseurs need go no further than the Companion to Wine, and less discriminating tastes can try the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Companions that cover everything from the Bronte sisters and Irish history, to modern warfare in India abound. The basic rule of thumb is: Do you like something? Then Oxford has the companion for you!
Why all the companions? Because we all have an obsession that is borderline scary, leaves us teetering on “unhealthy” at times, and most importantly, warrants living when nothing else does. Mine? Musicals. So you can imagine my excitement when Hugh Jackman announced at the Oscars last Sunday, “The musical is back!”, followed by a Baz Luhrmann number that toured American Musical History in about six minutes.
I’ve always known that the musical never quite fit into my Generation Y popular culture, but this never stopped me from trying to convince friends that it could. I still remember the feeling of triumph I felt the summer of fifth grade when I persuaded my best friend to watch West Side Story because “it’s about gangs.” Nevermind his disappointment when he realized he had sacrificed a precious afternoon at the pool to watch the Jets and Sharks sing and arabesque around some all too perfectly choreographed fight scenes. This is why the musical tribute at the Oscars made me so happy—Hugh Jackman, declared “Sexiest Man Alive” by People in 2008, was the one doing the convincing now, and at one of the most watched events of the year. Other musical aficionados were not so pleased. According to Time Out Chicago blogger Kris Vire, the fact “that Mamma Mia surpassed Titanic at the U.K. box office and that means movie musicals are back all of a sudden, is patently ridiculous. Moulin Rouge, Chicago and the Condon-directed Dreamgirls have all been huge presences at the show earlier this decade…”
So the musical isn’t back per say, but I would argue that Mamma Mia! ticket sales aside, the musical did have an unprecedented 2008. Last week on “Fresh Air,” Terry Gross paid tribute to recently deceased conductor and music historian John McGlinn with an interview recorded in 1989. In the interview McGlinn argues that during the age of composers like Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, shows were not primarily viewed as art; rather they were “designed to make the authors and producers money.” Upon hearing these words, I could not help but think of the High School Musical enterprise and its highly publicized third installment this past fall, which grossed the highest opening weekend ever for a musical film. The trilogy’s near monopoly of bubblegum paraphernalia is evident in film inspired t-shirts, dolls, stickers, books, pencils, “I <3 Troy” pillows, and even trash cans. The Oscars certainly had their tween-girl demographic covered with Zac Efron’s not one, but two appearances on the show.
Meanwhile, another musical took the country by storm this year, embodying everything that High School Musical is not: an anti-establishment, original web film that had no pretensions of making money. An experiment born out of last year’s writers’ strike, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was so innovative that TIME listed this “Direct-to-Web Supervillain Musical” as one of the “Best Inventions of 2008.” It is fitting that main character Dr. Horrible, is determined to dismantle the “the status quo,” which this web musical does, not only in terms of new mediums, but artistic autonomy. Director Joss Whedon vouched for the raw freedom of the internet platform, calling it a place where, “We knew as writers that we could bare our ridiculous souls to the point where people would suddenly, sincerely burst into song.”
This year the musical has captivated a generation of teenyboppers, using the principals that drove our great composers 50 years ago—money. At the same time, it has renounced stymieing executives and established a paradigm for internet film that works. Meanwhile Hollywood and the music industry have paid their respective dues, turning out star studded extravaganzas like Mamma Mia! and the Beyoncé-led Oscar medley. The result is a genre that at once encompasses mass-market commercial success, wry social commentary wrapped up in new technological mediums, and cultural preservation in the form of revamped top hats and ABBA numbers. The musical is clearly at a place it’s never been before, which is ultimately why it doesn’t make sense to say “it’s back.” And unlike Dorothy, I don’t think we’re returning to Kansas anytime soon.