The wonderful people at "Bright Wall/Dark Room" launched their February issue today, and it focuses on music, including essays on “Nashville,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “The Sound of Music,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Evita,” “The Court Jester,” “We Are the Best!,” “Tous les matins du monde,” and “The Music Man,” which we've excerpted below. Read more excerpts here and you can buy the magazine on your iPhone and iPad here or sign up for the web-based online version here. The illustration above is by Brianna Ashby.
My father cries at parades. Especially at the small town variety in which scouts march behind banners made of top sheets and a junior high school band goes by in a clatter of excessive snare drums. At these events there is usually a moment, at least once, when you can catch him wiping away a few tears, grinning.
I spent half my childhood in a small New England town whose top three claims to fame are all Revolutionary War landmarks, so the opportunity to glimpse my father crying at parades while a piccolo whistled by came at least a few times a year. There were other events that had this effect on him too, mostly community theater productions, sometimes the Thanksgiving Day high school football game. As a child, I mostly found it amusing that we could giggle as a family at the parade-crying phenomenon – it made for a comforting family shorthand, a way to demonstrate that we all knew each other well. I also didn’t “get” it, and will admit that the parade-crying made me slightly nervous, in that way one feels when one’s parents’ suddenly demonstrate a mysterious interior life. I didn’t know what it was that could tap so deep a well in my decidedly not weepy or wimpy dad.
It’s always been clear to me, though, what those spectacles had in common: People practicing hard to get where they were. Everyone in it together. And of course, music.
I knew that The Music Man (1962) was Dad’s favorite film long before I’d ever seen it, which finally happened on a day spent home from elementary school with a fever, swaddled in an afghan with ginger ale and soup on a card table next to me. Though I’d heard him quote it often, I had never been particularly drawn to the storyline. But a sick day was an opportunity for Dad to give me some assigned viewing, and musicals were a comfort to me. For years, just about the only movies I watched were Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, both of which had been recorded for me by my grandfather on an old VHS tape when they aired on TV. That tape became an object both beloved and full of love, as I wound and rewound it over and over again, never even skipping the commercials, as they too were part of the joy.
When people groan about musicals, as I’ve discovered many of them do, they often drop the accusatory phrase: “And then suddenly someone just bursts into song.” The complaint seems to be that this feels inauthentic somehow, that it actually pushes the viewer away from the story and into the role of skeptic. That things just don’t happen that way.
And yet time and again, upon winding and rewinding, they do.
The Professor sells marching bands. He rolls into places that are plagued by what plagues us (“River City ain’t in any trouble,” says his friend when the professor first appears in the small Iowa town to ply his trade. “Then we’ll have to create some,” he replies) and offers a solution to all the town’s woes in the form of music, choreographed marching, and sharp uniforms. Please observe me if you will, he says, I’m Professor Harold Hill, and I’m here to organize a River City Boys’ Band.
After the Professor has instilled his foundational fear in the townspeople and gathered them up to sell the cure, he abruptly transitions away from singing of his phony credentials in the put-put cadence the musical opens with (a beat that forges ahead through the entire score, connecting one place to another like the train it emulates). Suddenly we have a drumline’s rhythm and a brand new song, already familiar to me on my convalescent couch — a story in the past tense, sung with the kind of dreamy-eyed wonder than can only be found imbued in memory. The Professor recalls -- performs, really -- the first time he heard this music: a day when the greatest names in marching band history came to his town when he was young.
And so we’re dropped, right into that awe:
Seventy-six trombones caught the morning sun
With a hundred and ten cornets right behind…
There’s something about live music, more so than other art forms, that makes me feel deeply impressed, the grandeur and power of what people can do in groups displayed at its finest. I get this feeling whenever a chorus sings in five harmonious parts, or a symphony saws away in unison at a piece of centuries-old music: the feeling goes, we humans created this?! Whether I find the music itself enjoyable or interesting is a separate matter. It’s like standing on the steps of a cathedral; that it is a feat is undeniable.
I can’t say I find parades to be such a feat themselves, but I will allow that there’s something deeply impressive about any group of people coming together and coordinating something so easily verging on chaos. And there’s something uniquely moving in the air when they do it out of joy, even if that joy is not exactly projected by sweltering adolescent clarinet players. A parade is a joyful act, and it sort of flies in the face of logic with its ultimate awkwardness.
Musicals, too, are often awkward. They’re such a staple of high school life and community theaters that most attempts are doomed to be mild and endearing catastrophes right from the start. That they can also be performed expertly—without a seam showing, and with perfect pitch throughout and set changes that barely rustle—only makes our stumbling through them in auditoriums a few times a year all the more lovely.
The Music Man is about a marching band that cannot play, as so many plays and parades and sporting events are about people who cannot fully do the thing that they are there to do. But oh, what pride there is inherent in the trying.
When I was fifteen, I made my first and best ever mix CD. I dubbed it, in self-conscious Sharpie lettering on its grey grooved surface, “The Happy Sad Mix”. I remember explaining the title as “songs that make you so happy you get sad, or so sad you’re kind of happy.” While everything about this now makes me cringe with the fifteen-ness of it all, I still stand by every track, and can’t imagine a more apt title. These songs provoke the same feeling in me today, with the added wistfulness of remembering those hormone-flooded late nights of CD burning, feeling like the only person in the world who was still awake, the precise person to whom my music really spoke.
I suppose that nostalgia is a word that could more efficiently explain “happy sad”. But if nostalgia is the word for it, it’s qualified by the fact that, to me, the particular nostalgia provoked by music that I’ve loved is usually an ache for something that never was, or at least something I have never actually experienced. This feels particularly true when remembering the music of my teenage years – sentiments I would sing and quote and copy into notebooks with the deep resonance of someone who had been through much more heartbreak and sorrow than I ever did in my first couple of decades. I went through a decent amount of both, but somehow I felt that the versions of longing and loss described in those song lyrics were truer than the ones I lived. So I joined my voice to the chorus and mourned all sorts of people and places that I had never known.
Portuguese has an achingly beautiful word, saudade, a not-quite-translatable longing for something that is gone and may or may not return. It’s the “may or may not” that seems to defy translation – a part of the definition that isn’t frivolously wordy, but rather contains the ambiguity and wonder that is so key to the feeling.
In other words, the thing that separates saudade from nostalgia is hope.
I must admit: the allegation that musicals are inauthentic puzzles me. What I get in those bursting-into-song moments is more like an overwhelming feeling of feeling. When sung, especially when sung by many people all at once, everything that feels big suddenly becomes big. It fills my stomach as it fills the room. It tugs at me in a familiar way.
It’s the feeling of late night, teenaged emotion and yearning, and a palpable connection with the sound in one’s headphones, the feeling that words written decades ago are coming from some place deep in one’s own gut.
It’s the feeling of being a part of a group that has worked hard and built something bigger than its members.
It’s the feeling of standing on the sideline of a small-town parade and knowing -- maybe not knowing personally, but somehow knowing -- all the people in it, and clutching one of those little flags they hand out, and being there with my dad.
These moments of sudden music are actually exaggeratedly authentic, so real that they’re nearly unrecognizable as the inner monologues we go to such lengths to mask and keep inside at those times in our lives when we just want to burst.
But nostalgia has its negative connotations, too. The essayist Michelle Orange writes that “What we call nostalgia today is too much remembrance of too little.” This accusation stings a bit for those prone to the feeling, though most of us will quickly point it out when someone more conservative lashes out against change and demands a return to purity, order, and manners.
To sell his bands, the Professor must first sell the idea of going back to a Golden Age that we know from the beginning probably never existed. We know that he can’t teach music, and that he’ll never teach anyone to march. We know that the people of River City are ridiculous for being so easily mongered into fear, and for believing that they can ever buy back the past. We also know that the past cannot possibly have been so golden, that it was in fact a time of dust bowls and slavery and great depression.
We know and yet as we watch we yearn for the promise of a band to be true, even while we hope that The Professor will be caught red-handed and leave the people of River City to their changing times.
And then he starts to yearn for it to be true, too. To lock down a girl, sure (there’s that going on, which I haven’t mentioned, but you must have guessed) but also because, after all this time hearing the story coming out of himself and filling the room with sound, he wants to be able to touch it for once. His performative nostalgia turns into an against-all-odds hope. Without realizing it, he had been joining his voice to the chorus, joining River City in yearning and hoping for a time that he’d never known either, though he’d sung of it so many times before.
This, then, is what musicals can do: they give us a chorus of happy sad mourning for something none of us have experienced and for which all of us are nostalgic, this version of the world in which people burst open and beauty comes out.
At some point in my mid-twenties I started to cry happy sad tears on a regular basis for the first time. It still makes me feel refreshingly adult, like how I also acquired a taste for olives. It makes me feel grateful that my dad showed me that crying at parades, or your parade equivalent, is part of being a grown up—the more simple beauty you’ve seen in the years you accumulate, the more it bowls you over. Now, the happy sad feeling seems less like teenaged angst and more like a side effect of the accumulation of wonder. Some of the wonder I’ve accumulated I’ve experienced – no, all of it I have, in one way or another. How wonderful. How deeply impressive, that we’ve experienced all that.
There were copper bottom tympani in horse
Thundering, thundering louder than before.
Double bell euphoniums and big bassoons,
Each bassoon having its big, fat say!
Horse platoons! Who knows. What’s important is that this is a mighty return, an eternal reprise, a dialogue with the past. It’s as if every song is lined up in front of another. It’s as if we’ve been doing this forever, as if we keep getting better. At making music. At being human. Thundering, thundering, louder than before.