This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching a truly effective Musical Comedy scene, improvised onstage at the National Comedy Theatre in front of an appreciative crowd.
Don opened the scene in a flower shop, talking about how he had no friends or family, and only his flowers to make him happy.
Enter Karen, who confessed she passes by the flower shop daily to see Don inside, but never getting up the courage to say hello until now.
Jeff played Karen's young son, who was deathly allergic to poinsettias but also desperately wished to have a dad.
The description alone is full of tension, drama, and irony. The scene lasted only three minutes, compressed into four songs and two scenes, but drawn out, elaborated upon, I think it would have made for a brilliant little, slightly subversive, musical.
I got to thinking about exactly what was entertaining about this particular scene. What I arrived at what was essentially the same conclusion for one of my favorite movies: Shaun of the Dead.
As a comedic subversion of classic zombie movies, Shaun is a masterful parody.
But also as a truly classic zombie movie, it is equally effective.
Knowing the rules of what generally works within the context of any genre (some spheres like to call these 'tropes') allows you to create a story based in that genre so that it is recognizable to the audience, so that they know the rules of the world going in without you having to explain them, and it allows creators the freedom to find ways of subverting, and in so doing, revitalizing, these rules and 'tropes.'
It's an old adage, but always true: You have to know the rules before you can break them.
Audiences are not completely stupid. Let's be honest, they can be dumb about a lot of things. Also, for the sake of entertainment we are so willing to suspend disbelief and this makes for a lethal combination. But audiences understand conventions, detect patterns, feel rhythms.
Saying that something is going to be a musical, it conjures up specific expectations in the eventual viewers' heads. Same thing if I were to say "Greek tragedy", "summer blockbuster", "chick flick", "Disney film", or "zombie movie." Audiences immediately know what rules will apply to this world.
When something comes along that can deftly and tastefully take us through these expected beats, and then suddenly add in new elements we weren't expecting but are executed so well that we can accept them, we have a refreshing new take on a tried and true method.
Take the film Enchanted, for instance. Not only is it a clever twist on the classic Disney formula, it still works as the classic Disney formula, modernizing it and updating it.
What makes short-form improv so deceptively difficult is walking that increasingly fine line between a scene that fulfills the expectations of the audience while also giving them something they were not expecting, without breaking the rules of context.
The improv team I perform with is wonderfully talented at many things, and one of their stronger suits is bringing musical scenes to life. Across the board, they're not always the strongest of singers, but their conviction and commitment makes them absolutely believable, and removes some of the scrutiny of their technical abilities, allowing the audience to focus on what they should be focusing on: their storytelling abilities.
A short-form improv scene is an organic contradiction. A scene is always played truthfully.
But improv also exists as a distillation of life. Another adage explains that theater is larger than life. And I've held to the belief that improv is larger than theater. It's not that it's so broad and we're just these caricatures onstage, barreling through tired cliches.
The task of the performers in an improv scene is to know all these rules and conventions, present them believably, and then perhaps to find a new creative path and toy with these conventions.
It's an exceedingly fine line. It's finding the balance of playing these broad characters and situations to be quickly grasped and understood by the audience, while bringing the originality and unexpected that audiences are also anticipating. There's also a very clear and finite time limit in a short-form scene. You'll have three or four minutes to do this.
You need not tell a complete story. Even a long-form scene may not reach an ending, though that is the expectation when presented to an audience. A short-form scene is just that: a scene. It could be a compression of a full musical, but it could very well only reach a certain point. And that's fine. But it's making the most of those three minutes.
This musical scene, like I said, had it all.
Immediately, the performers adopted the attitude of characters you'd see in a musical. Don's character was bright despite adversity, comfortable with himself. Karen's was earnest, honest, and attempting to join the big world. Jeff's was the comic character, adorable, childish, hopeful.
The songs came in at the perfect time. A rousing, world-establishing opening number, sung by Don, set the stage of a flower shop situated at the base of an apartment building where Karen resided. The second number was a confession of feelings from Karen to Don, and Don perhaps reciprocating. A third number was comical while also being somewhat confessional, a brief number to establish Jeff's character. The final number of the scene was the lovers accepting love, and taking the next step.
All the familiar beats are there: the hero establishes himself, boy meets girl, there is a brief conflict, the conflict resolves itself.
What was clever and fun about the scene though, was this added element of a tragedy.
In classic drama and theater, tragedy and musical comedy are inherently dissimilar.
I think the main cause of the clear distinction is how in control the characters are of their own destinies.
What makes tragedies so distinct is that its characters are indelibly linked to fate, and it is a fate they cannot control. They cannot alter the path they are put on, and we as the audience see their inevitable failure.
Musical comedies, be they serious or lighthearted ("comedy" is not a reflection of tone, rather of structure) are of characters who, while they may slip in and out of control of situations, are always in control of their destinies. They decide where they end up at the conclusion of the story, giving us either a happy or sad ending. (Most often, it's not a "sad" ending, but an ambiguous, or bittersweet ending.)
In Thoroughly Modern Millie, the title character loses everything, only to take charge of her own life and become a modern woman.
In Next to Normal, a much more dramatic and serious musical, the protagonist chooses her own fate by deciding her mental state. It is poignant, but it is never left up to predestination.
This mixes with the emotional response each respective style demands of its audience. A musical requires us to root for our protagonists. A tragedy does not. A tragedy demands that we learn a lesson and/or take pity on the protagonist.
A musical cannot be a tragedy. It can be sad, serious, dramatic, even heartbreaking. But ultimately, there's a hopeful air to the ending.
It was such a subtle addition to the scene:
Karen explained that Jeff, playing her son, had a deathly allergy to poinsettias. Don, being a florist, was around them constantly.
The game that started to be played in the second scene (also the final scene) was that not only was this allergy fatal, it was absolutely going to be Jeff's fate.
In improv, nothing is accidental. Everything that is said in a scene becomes canon. Through the process of "Yes, and," the players collaboratively write a scene. Everything said and done was meant to be said and done.
In fact, Karen revealed later she had said 'kitten' and not 'kid', as we'd heard, and apparently as Jeff had heard. But they both continued with this idea. And then, through some slip in wording, it was as if Jeff was predicting his eventual death by consumption of a poinsettia. It was unexpected, and subtle. Again, all the players went with it. In the final song, Don's final line of his verse was: "2+2=4, except he'll be gone soon, so, one less..."
It's pretty uncommon to have some sort of terminal character in the story of a musical, but the performers made it work, because the rest of the scene had been so strong. Again, the characterizations were spot-on, the music landed well and was sung well, and all the appropriate beats were hit. Then, they introduced something unexpected, albeit somewhat accidentally, but sometimes, that's the most rewarding.
In a way, musicals and improv scenes are extremely similar, very close relatives. They exist in that same universe of what some call these very fine and specific characters painted in these broad strokes. And just like improv, a musical is not a world where only crazy things happen. It is a world where people are driven emotionally to break into song, but this is an acknowledged convention of the form. What exists at the center of a musical are characters we as the audience can relate to, attempting to overcome changes to their status quo. Improv operates in much the same manner. They are real people, dealing with relationships. In both, the emphasis is not on however strange we can make it, though the creativity is certainly welcome. But even the weirdest musicals, look at Bat Boy, look at Little Shop of Horrors, look at even The Lion King, these are musicals set in strange worlds with strange characters dealing with strange situations but ultimately, they are about relationships: about love, about misunderstandings, about greed and power, and about how all these things relate to the audience.
Every time an improv scene favors tenets we can learn in musicals, it is for the better. And it's something we already naturally understand, because we know them so well, musicals aren't so unnatural after all.