Bit by bit, shpiel by shpiel, the musical is being re-explored if perhaps beyond Broadway. One of the first great musicals of the 21st century was not a play but a film: Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. The movie was a revelation in the musical form, using the disintegrating experience of its main character, Selma — slowly going blind and withdrawing further into an internal fantasy world — as an excuse to have some great song and dance numbers inside an otherwise bleak Dogme script. It solved the problem of cheesy musical music by featuring original songs all written and composed by Björk (and whose music is more relevant and more directly connected to popular culture?). Dancer in the Dark took another interesting step by having Björk perform the songs largely alone, unheard of in traditional musical theater, unless you’re watching a one-woman show. The result is startling: stylized artifice that is completely at one with stark realism. Dancer is consciously weird, and yet it’s impossible not to be absorbed by its internal logic. When we are absorbed by a musical in this way, we experience wonder. Wonder, though, is not escape, something separate from our lives. In fact, it’s the opposite. The way that a big song and dance number disrupts a seemingly straightforward story — just like someone bursting into song on the subway — opens up a space to reflect on the incoherency of life. It sparks our imagination and curiosity, creating possibility out of babble. Wonder is horrifying and unnerving but also liberating and thrilling. “From wonder into wonder existence opens,” wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. And so it does, whether we like it or not. Louis Armstrong was right. The world is indeed wonderful, just like a musical.
more from Stefany Anne Golberg at the Smart Set here.