On Sunday, La La Land — the musical about two crazy kids just trying to make it in Hollywood — all but swept the Golden Globes and created nearly as much hype as the upcoming remake of Beauty and the Beast (a movie so hyped it’s already released its Justin Bieber tie-in dolls).
Which seems to happen every couple of years. While musicals have always had a place on Broadway, in London’s West End, or among theater communities, their relationship with the rest of us — those who may not get a chance to see live theater, or whose familiarity with musical theater begins and ends with Hamilton — is more fickle. Many of us only get to enjoy musicals when they show up on TV, or when they’re nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes (like Chicago or Les Misérables), or when they become full-on pop-cultural obsessions (like Frozen).
And that’s ironic when you think about the popularity of Hamilton, a musical about the founding fathers whose political strife echoes our own era. As the election cycle heated up last year, it became easy to draw parallels to the deadly rivalry between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. While many musicals deliver a world far from our own, in 2015 and 2016, fans gravitated toward a production that instead reflected the years of hard political work we have ahead of us in real life.
When La La Land premiered last fall, though, it resonated in part because it promised a dash of necessary escapism. Who wouldn’t want to disappear into Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone singing and dancing their way through a very fictional world? Or, alternately, who wouldn’t want to see Beauty and the Beast with actors we know and grew up with? For a handful of hours, musicals grant us permission to pretend that most problems can be solved with a song and a dance. They’re an injection of joy where we need it the most, and they showcase the power of music to transport us away from the realities of our day-to-day lives.
The contrast with our real lives that musicals provide is especially appealing (and even valuable) when we’re being inundated with daily disasters. Even if it seems like escapism is irresponsible — like we’re turning our backs on actual problems for the sake of nestling into pure, unadulterated comfort — we can’t overlook the importance of emotionally recharging, even if it’s through songs about glorified Stockholm syndrome.
But we also need to remember that there comes a responsibility with using musicals as the go-to portal to fantasy-land. No art form is immune to criticism. You’re not “ruining” a musical by pointing out its flaws or shortcomings, just like you can’t “ruin” a record by examining its failings.
So go ahead and escape among the crazy kids just trying to make it in Hollywood. You deserve it. But if we’re really going to value musicals — which we should — then we have to remember that they’re not simply a guilty pleasure we can use to ignore our shitty circumstances for a little while, but a bankable form of artistic expression, one that should be subject to real talk and debate.