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Glee: "Ballad"

For all of the Glee commentary running rampant on the Internet, there's been surprisingly little analysis of the show as an actual musical. Sure, there's lots of writing about how exciting the show's musical sequences are or the song choices or how well the songs sell on iTunes, but there's very little placing the show within the context of a stage and cinematic genre that it belongs to. Since Myles McNutt pointed out to me that tonight was a Brad Falchuk episode and Falchuk tends to write episodes with lots of big musical moments ("The Rhodes Not Taken" being the best example), it seems like as good a time as any to talk about how the show uses musical numbers to either advance its stories or not advance them.

Early in its run, a lot of the musical numbers on the show functioned more as gimmicks than anything else. "Showmance" was full of songs that were pretty much just there so the show could have some songs, and while they were fun, and the production numbers were snappy, they haven't resonated for as long and as much as some of the more emotionally resonant numbers have. The numbers that really play are the ones that key into the show's emotional undercurrents, that simultaneously examine a character's emotional mindset and advance the story in some way. Some of the best sequences also play (perhaps inadvertently) into famous musical song "types." Think, for example, of "Don't Stop Believin'" from the pilot, which expresses the emotional state of the kids in the glee club, shows the way they're going to be together going forward and functions as a fairly classic "I wish" song. (The "I wish" song is almost always the opening number in a musical, featuring an expression of the lead character's desires. The convention is so widespread that the first song in Into the Woods is literally called "I Wish.")

Musicals use their songs in numerous ways. The main reason to have a song sequence in a musical is to show that the characters are having such intense emotions that they see no way to contain themselves any longer. But a song sequence can also examine the way feelings can change. A song can stand in for the sort of slow-building character development that might take up several pages or hours of time to display realistically. If you see someone across a crowded room and instantly fall in love, it can feel kind of corny. If you see them across a crowded room, instantly fall in love and sing a song about it, you're in a musical. It's still corny, to be sure, but it's also an accepted convention of the genre. (Though the more modern musicals of the current stage world - roughly everything post-Cabaret - try to eschew this sort of sudden emotional shifting more often than not. In these musicals, the songs take the place a monologue might take in Shakespeare, where a character examines their emotional mindset in depth. Obviously, this isn't all a hard and fast rule, but speaking in generalities, it seems to work.)

One of the biggest criticisms of Glee early in its run was that the characters seemed to have no solid emotional undercurrent. One week, they'd be sad and desperate about the situations they were trapped in, and the next, they'd be falling in love with one of the other characters out of nowhere. To be fair, some of this stemmed from the fact that the show has, effectively, three authors, but just as much of it stemmed from the fact that the show was operating by the conventions of a genre that aren't terribly well known to people anymore, since that genre has fallen out of favor in Hollywood. The series probably could have done a better job of keying us into the fact that this is what it was doing, but it's not unusual to watch early episodes of the show and see characters facing emotional turmoil that they then "solve" by singing about it. All of these solutions end up being essentially empty (part of the reason I think the show is essentially cynical about its title), but for a while, thanks to singing, they're able to shift rapidly from one emotion to the next.

Or, as a better example, take tonight's episode, which opens with Rachel and Will singing "Endless Love" together. Rachel, who's previously had eyes only for Puck and Finn, suddenly develops a crush on Will through the course of the song. In other episodes, this might have happened just as suddenly as anything else, but here, the show tossed in a voiceover where Rachel actually tossed in some meta commentary about how singing the song with him was making her fall in love with him. Now, this storyline was, all things considered, kind of stupid, except for actually utilizing Terri surprisingly well (her threats to Suzy Peppers were hysterical, and I liked her idea to use Rachel as sort of an improvised maid). But the show seems to understand, now, that a lot of the people watching it won't necessarily buy a sudden emotional shift from the characters. They have to work a little harder to earn it, even if it's a musical. Also, this storyline essentially guaranteed a B of some sort from me, since it utilized the marvelous Sarah Drew, who is terrific at pretty much anything the casting directors of the world ask her to do. Suzy Peppers could have been another of the show's monstrous freaks, but Drew gave her a certain emotional reality that worked. Drew needs a show of her own, preferably soon.

Speaking of guest actors who always get my attention, the episode also featured the wonderful Gregg Henry and Charlotte Ross as Quinn's parents, who've invited Finn over to dinner, a dinner at which he breaks the news that Quinn is pregnant via song. There were a few missteps in this plotline - like Finn singing to that sonogram - but for the most part, it was a surprisingly poignant handling of how two families deal with the fact that their kids are having a baby. Finn breaking down in his mom's arms served as a pretty nice counterpoint to Quinn's dad kicking her out of the house. While I'm a little tired of plots where a teenage girl's parents don't want her at home when she's knocked up, all involved played the material really well, and it was written with a hand that was surprisingly deft for this show.

All in all, "Ballad" was a step down from "Wheels," but it shows that the series has finally figured out how best to present itself going forward. The character pairings - from Kurt and Finn to Mercedes and Puck - were inspired, and all of the characters behaved, for the most part, like real people. And even if I didn't really like the Rachel loves Will stuff, at least the show built to it properly and clued us in to its game plan. My biggest concern with Glee at this point is that emotional whiplash is one of the signatures of the musical. But most musicals are over in two to three hours. How can the show hope to sustain a tone like that for multiple seasons? If anything, the last two episodes of Glee suggest that it could be sustained if those shifts remain fairly muted.

Stray observations:

  • I'm just waiting for the pianist to get his own song. (Also, he kind of looks like a friend of mine who also plays the piano and lives in LA. I keep expecting my friend to say he's never seen the show because he's IN the show.)
  • I had hoped to do more analysis of the show's song choices in light of it being an actual musical but ran out of room. Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.
  • That said, I'd really like it if the show was just a bit more adventurous in those song choices. Outside of "You're Having My Baby," which was more a joke than anything, every song in tonight's episode felt like the easiest possible choice for that particular emotional moment.
  • Next week's episode is entitled "Hairography." There but for the grace of God, I guess.
  • "He's cheating off a girl who thinks the square root of four is rainbows."
  • "I have to go. They'll think I'm pooping."
  • "Let me tell you a few things I learned from two years of intense psychotherapy and an esophagus transplant."

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