Why We Love Teen Musicals

There are many charming things about Glee, Fox TV’s quirky new fall comedy about a troupe of high-school misfits with gorgeous voices and hearts of gold. There are the one-liners that cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester lobs like poisoned pom-poms at her colleagues. There’s the winsome Afterschool Special sincerity of teachers Emma and Will. Best of all, there’s the glee club itself—baby diva Rachel, budding gay Kurt, artsy jock Finn—those fresh-faced kids with the fantastic vocal cords whose renditions of songs both retro and rap make for some serious chills down the spine.

Of course, Glee isn't the first show to figure out that teens and musical numbers make for a potent combination—the pairing is practically ubiquitous these days (who among us, oh lucky one, hasn’t confronted the phenomenon that is High School Musical?) And it’s not just sappy Disney flicks: the breakout stage hit Spring Awakening, about sexually repressed teens and their erotic stirrings in 19th-century Germany, swept the Tony Awards in 2007. (Glee actresses Lea Michele and Jenna Ushkowitz both appeared in its various casts.) The Public Theater’s production of teen rock-musical Hair at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park last year turned out to be so popular, it extended its run twice and was immediately snatched up by producers for Broadway. Wicked, which imagines the exploits of Oz’s witches in their girlish years, is the Great White Way’s top-grossing musical right now, clearing close to $1.5 million a week despite the recession. (Perennial teen musical favorite West Side Story isn’t far behind, netting $1.01 million in the last week of September alone.) Even Fame has gotten a remix.

In fact, musicals and teens are such a natural match, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t always thus. But back in Broadway’s heyday, very few musicals dealt with teen love (West Side Story was a notable exception). Sure, there were star-crossed kiddies in shows such as South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof, but they were generally sideshows to the main affair. And that main affair was romance between adults, who were separated by barriers of race (The King and I), social class (My Fair Lady), and morality (Guys and Dolls, The Music Man). The leading lads and ladies weren’t malleable pups, but hardened gamblers, con artists, Cockneys and curmudgeons. This made their evolution into kind, responsible men and refined, elegant women through the transformative powers of love all the more improbable and touching.

These days, we’re a little more cynical that a hard-living guy or gal might be cured by love—much less burst into song about it.  Thanks to postmodernism, we’re no longer cockeyed optimists. Trouble is, musicals are the antithesis of ironic ennui—they’re all about volatile emotions that can’t be contained and must burst forth in spontaneous song. So where to channel all that un-sardonic emoting in these snarky times? Some playwrights make it happen by transposing their plots into historical eras (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon); others turn to that old ruse of play-within-a-play, and set their musicals in the record industry or the world of fine arts (Dreamgirls, Billy Elliot). And others still go back to high school.

Whereas postwar audiences may have had an easier time relating to Maria and Captain Von Trapp than to his 16-going-on-17 daughter, that’s not really a problem for us—we’re all still in extended adolescence these days. So we get our vicarious thrills by identifying with Glee's Rachel and Finn, or Hair's Sheila and Berger, or Spring Awakening's Melchior and Wendla as they sing about the immature emotions and roiling hormones and impulsive mood swings that we pseudo-adults have to suppress in daily life for fear of social consequences—say, the implosion of a political career. And indeed, the most successful moments in Glee are not the well-coordinated stage performances that the kids put on (although those are surely entertaining), but the teens’ tender interior monologues, such as when Rachel expresses her broken heart by belting out Rihanna's "Take a Bow." That’s when the show really pulls at our cynical, ironic, postmodern heartstrings in the most delightful way.