The Lyrical Language in Musicals

by Megan Greer

With the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz this year, we are reminded of the incomparable language of musicals. Musicals are unique because they use music as well as dialogue and body language to communicate their story. Music conveys the character’s emotions and can change the way the audience feels. So, you sympathize with what the characters are feeling more clearly. In The Wizard of Oz, When Dorothy sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, there is no better way to express the longing she is feeling for a way out of her bleak present life.  As the song goes on, you can hear that she is getting more and more hopeful about her imaginary future. Judy Garland sings in a way, which fully expresses both the sorrow and hope that Dorothy is feeling and adds to the empathy that the audience feels for her. In The Sound of Music, we can remember to think about the beauty and music that nature gives us.  I like these movies because singing along with the songs is enjoyable and musicals bring a kind of happiness and positivity that I really appreciate. I think that the music in musicals helps the story stay with us because the songs are easy to remember. Also, emotions that are tied with the songs can help us remember these stories even more.

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most influential movie musicals ever made. It is about a young girl named Dorothy whose house is hit by a tornado and she travels to a magical land called Oz. The story has become a part of popular culture, references to The Wizard of Oz can be seen everywhere from Energizer Battery commercials to episodes of The Simpsons. The songs from The Wizard of Oz are memorable and referenced today. Even though the songs are simple, they are actually very hopeful and have thoughtful lyrics, which is why I think they are still considered notable 80 years later. Take for example, “Over the Rainbow”:

Somewhere over the rainbow, Skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me

In the song, the metaphors and imagery that come to mind are wonderful to imagine. Stars, clouds, lemon drops, and rainbows. These words create a clear and colorful picture in the minds of those who hear the song. The greatest kind of music is the kind of music where you can imagine what the song is describing. These images enhance your experience of listening to the song because it’s no longer just an audio experience it is also a visual one. The song is very simple and has kind of a silly sentiment but this isn’t the kind of song you should really try to analyze and make it make rational sense. It’s a song about being hopeful and imagining all kinds of wonderful things that the future could hold. Dorothy is saying that even though things seem discouraging now, with hope things will progressively improve. Many people in awful situations say that music helped them get through it. Sometimes a little hope is all people need to remember that there are still good things in life.

Building on the success of The Wizard of Oz, there have been several other musicals that have been very popular recently such as The Greatest Showman, La La Land, and Mary Poppins Returns.

The Greatest Showman is based on the story of P.T. Barnum creating the Barnum and Bailey circus. The many odd performers are encouraged to celebrate their differences in the circus. For example, in “This is Me”, the character of the bearded lady, Lettie, talks about being proud of who she is and ignoring hurtful things that people have said about her.

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

These words strike a chord with a lot of people. The song tells us to be brave, don’t listen to discouragement or self-doubt and encourages self-love. These lines also suggest a lot of poignant imagery. “Sharpest words, send a flood, bruised.” The song is very powerful, especially the way it is sang with clarity and force. It declares at the end: “I make no apologies. This is me.” I think that this song can relate to many people who have a hard time being themselves. The Greatest Showman soundtrack was the highest selling album in 2018 (Stutz, 2019) even beating out popular K-pop group BTS. The songs in The Greatest Showman are bold, declarative, and many of them illustrate important parts of the story. Songs from musicals are becoming on par with other songs by musical artists that play on the radio. Which is consequential because usually these kinds of songs would only be popular with young children.

La La Land is a colorful throwback inspired musical about an aspiring actress and jazz musician following their dreams and falling in love in the process. The songs in La La Land are all inspired by songs from classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and Funny Face. In the song, “City of Stars” from La La Land, the lyrics discuss making their dreams come true as well as delving into new love and encouraging each other:

“A look in somebodies eyes…. A voice that says, I’ll be here and you’ll be alright.”

In the song, the characters are talking about their hope for the future and the possibilities of their relationship. In the movie, Ryan Gosling and Emma stone sing the song softly while sitting next to each other on a piano bench. The characters share a lot of chemistry while singing which complements the lyrics about a start of a new relationship.

Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel to the original, where Mary Poppins comes back to help the Banks family out of a tough situation. The songs from Mary Poppins Returns are similar sound to the song from the original and also a Broadway feel. In the song, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” from Mary Poppins Returns, we are encouraged to be positive and look for a solution when things are going wrong instead of giving up.

Let’s say you’re lost in a park, sure
You can give in to the dark or
You can trip a little light fantastic with me
When you’re alone in your room
Your choices just embrace the gloom
Or you can trip a little light fantastic with me

For if you hide under the covers
You might never see the day

The characters are trying to get home but it’s dark and they can’t see the way. So, the lamplighters come and light the way for them. This could be understood as a metaphor for overcoming hard or dark times and finding the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, there is a lot of imagery about the dark and the light, which are potent images to picture. The scene illustrates these lyrics perfectly. This scene is also very similar to the scene that goes along with the song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from the original.

I believe that music is better at expressing emotions than just words, which is why people gravitate to musicals and enjoy music in general. The songs make the movie more effective because they can express something that dialogue can’t. Songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “This is Me,” “City of Stars,” and “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” are effective because they remind us something true and something to improve upon. They make us better people. Many of the most popular musicals are important because they are about being hopeful even when everything isn’t perfect. I think that that’s a lesson that everyone can benefit from.

Megan is a Graphic Design major who also loves watching musicals in her spare time.

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