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what would barbra do?

12 june 2007

The subtitle of Emma Brockes's new book What Would Barbra Do? is "How Musicals Changed My Life." But it's not so much that musicals changed Brockes's life – she's just north of 30, not enough time to have a life changed, one would think – as that musicals formed her life. What Would Barbra Do? is an account of how a genre shapes lives – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and artistically.

And can I ever relate. Men, at least straight men, are supposed to run shuddering at the first bars of musical comedy overtures. But despite the gender divide that figures so prominently in What Would Barbra Do?, my growing-up as a straight male in 1960s America has eerie parallels to Brockes's as a straight female in 1980s England. My mother did not sing me across the street with "The Sound of Music," as Brockes's did to her, but I spent more hours listening to LPs of My Fair Lady and The Music Man than any other childhood activity. And I never seriously or for very long abandoned my first love, show tunes.

I can relate to the treacherous disavowal of the passion that Brockes documents here and there in this, her first book. She admits to a heavy metal icon that she loves show tunes and he trashes her opinion. As a teenager I would often cite jazz or progressive rock (of which I knew next to nothing at the time) as my musical preference, though really I have never heard anything, then or now, to top Mary Martin singing "Distant Melody."

My experience differs in one salient respect from Emma Brockes's, though. For her the film musical is the definitive version, with stage openings and revivals mere pendants to the canonical version. But I grew up before VHS tapes and DVDs. If one didn't catch a musical film in the theatres or in the occasional ephemeral TV screening, there was no hope of seeing it. My introduction to the musical was on LPs (and indeed, on some more ancient 78s) that featured Broadway casts – supplemented by annual helpings of Cinderella, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz on our eternally snowy black and white TV. (Oz in color still looks basically wrong to me. I think it's essentially a black and white film in which Dorothy, like me at age seven, has to imagine the color.)

Much of Brockes's funny and sharp commentary on musicals is taken up with The Sound of Music, for instance, which to her means Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer singing "Something Good," a puppet show of "The Lonely Goatherd" and "My Favorite Things" sung defiantly in a storm. But I can't really think of that spool of celluloid as The Sound of Music, which to me means Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel singing "An Ordinary Couple," and those other songs either absent, or set . . . well, come to think of it, songs on a cast album are not set anywhere. My experience of the musical was entirely aural and, well, musical. I didn't know the books of these shows at all, and their supposedly well-integrated music and story was for me a complete disintegration. Brockes talks about the jarring effect in musicals when a speaking character breaks into song. That rarely happened in my childhood. Mary Martin just up and started in with "A bell is no bell till you ring it." I have no idea why she was going on in such a metaphoric vein, but God was it gorgeous stuff.

A minor point. Whether on film or on stage or on vinyl, whether written for the screen or for the Majestic Theatre, we are in the same universe, one where it pays off to be a cockeyed optimist, where the impossible dream is on your daily planner between lunch and the dry cleaners, where, as in Les Mis,

a heart full of love
a night full of you
the words are old
but always true
even while the National Guard is killing your peers on the barricades.

What Would Barbra Do? seems to be written at times in direct counterpoint to the uninvoked voice of Nick Hornby in High Fidelity or 31 Songs (in the US, Songbook). Brockes meets a Streisand impersonator who "worships Babs the way some men worship Arsenal" (172), and a significant part of the poignant final chapter concerns making compilation tapes (a motif passim in Hornby's music writing; in fact 31 Songs is basically his compilation tape for the world). Lads' taste in music has been given its day; Emma Brockes now stakes a powerful claim for the appeal of show tunes to women – and to those of us men who can subscribe to her articles of faith: that "Audrey Hepburn's cockney accent in My Fair Lady was every bit as bad as Dick Van Dyke's in Mary Poppins," but for all that "Mary Poppins is by and large [a] better film" than The Sound of Music (13-14).

Brockes, Emma. What Would Barbra Do?: How musicals changed my life. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.