Saw a production of The Dead last week – a musical based on the last chapter of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Great example of the benefits and pitfalls of genre crossing.

First of all, the idea of creating a musical out of this story is absolutely cracked, almost as crazy as turning it into a movie, as John Huston did in 1987. Period detail is no substitute for Joyce’s prose. And both the film and the musical completely botch the surprising dramatic arc of the story.

But despite those issues, I found myself admiring the adaptation, perhaps for reasons that weren’t intended by the adapters.

One of the problems musicals face is the shift of flow between drama and music. Just when you are getting into the story, everything has to stop so someone can belt a song. Contriving events so that the songs arise naturally out of the action takes a lot of skill – and some luck.

The Dead solved this problem rather neatly: most of the action takes place in an evening musicale, a gathering of friends to sing old and new songs together. A band of six instrumentalists huddle in the corner of an enormous Edwardian drawing room, while characters take turns singing. Why do they sing? Because that’s what they’ve gathered to do.

(Extraordinary to think how often this must have happened – people getting together socially to sing because otherwise they would have no music in their lives. Are we spoiled now, with our push-button soundworlds, or simply tragic?)

Much of the music in The Dead is very weak, but I found myself enjoying the insipidity, because it felt dramatically true. These people wouldn’t have gathered to sing Wagner or Verdi – they would have sung everyday tunes, some of which would be quite fetching, while others would be godawful.

Unfortunately, every once in awhile, a Broadway-style number was inserted, and the clash was just bizarre. And thereby lies the pitfall of genre crossing – musicals seem to demand a Big Number at some point, but the story and the setting of The Dead doesn’t support Big Numbers. I almost wished that it hadn’t been conceived and promoted as a musical, but rather as a play, much of which is sung. As it was, the audience came away disappointed, because the experience didn’t have the expected payoffs.

Is there a formula for making these kinds of genre crossings effective?

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