What Would Barbra Do?, By Emma Brocke

At heart, we're all Captain Von Trapp

By Mark Simpson
Sunday 18 February 2007 01:00

During a long car journey with a slightly older gay friend, I suggested he put on one of his CDs. I said this knowing full well that he liked showtunes. Sorry, LOVED! show tunes. It was a warm sunny day, the top was down, and I was feeling reckless. "I can deal with this," I told myself. "After all, how bad can this be? It's only music." But I was wrong. So wrong. Musicals are not in fact musical. They're much more than that. They're vocalised, choreographed insanity. Hoofing hysteria.

As we sped through the English countryside to a soundtrack of Liza Minnelli impersonating a dying llama, I began to lose the ability to change gear or focus on the road ahead. I had to ask my blissfully happy passenger pointedly if he had any other CDs. He reluctantly obliged and I found myself missing Liza. Now my stereo was pumping out a gee-whiz-fellas Broadway male chorus that sounded like a battalion of Ned Flanders on happy pills. Every time we drove through a village, small children and stray dogs followed us. I sank below the wheel and steered by the position of the sun.

I don't like musicals. That way unreason lies, hands on hips, drumming its fingers on its pink silk sash and tapping its emerald slippers. For a while I kidded myself that I was man enough to endure them because I liked the title song sequence of Singin' in the Rain and quite enjoyed Calamity Jane when I was 12. But neither of these count, since Gene Kelly's virile, carefree embrace of the elements transcends the musical genre and is in fact one of the pillars of Western culture, while Calamity Jane isn't a musical at all but lesbianism in reverse.

Liking films like Grease, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Can't Stop the Music, which single-handedly ended disco, the 1970s and the Village People, doesn't count either. Campness is cheating. Musicals are sincere. Terrifyingly, ruthlessly sincere. They block all your exits and breathe down your neck demanding you marry them forever and ever. Or else.

Phantom of the Opera is the only bona fide musical I've been to see (for a dare), instead of watching from behind the sofa. I cheated again: I slept through the whole smothering thing, waking once for the big chandelier crashing to the floor at the end of the first half and a second time for the final curtain. For me, all musicals are a scary mask.

Emma Brockes, the author of What Would Barbra Do?, subtitled "How musicals can change your life" is made of much sterner stuff however, and she likes - no, LOVES! - real, unadulterated, hairy-chested, five-alarm musicals like Phantom, Mary Poppins (which she has watched hundreds of times), Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and Guys and Dolls. And even - sharp intake of breath - Yentl. So she has my deepest respect.

She is also rather more entertaining and witty, not to mention cogent and ironic, than most musicals. Brockes's autobiographical advocacy makes a song and dance about musicals without actually making a song and dance. Perhaps this is because she has a keen awareness of how mad musicals appear to most men, and probably most women. She also knows that musicals are a disease usually passed down the maternal line, but for her it is a blessed, blissful one, and the book is peppered with affectionate, funny memories of her mother and the quirky passion for showtunes she passed on.

Despite the title, the book doesn't really have much to do with Barbra; it's mostly an attempt to persuade men to like musicals. Brockes hopes that musicals can melt the ice around the heart of men, just as hearing his children singing "The hills are alive..." in the parlour melted Captain von Trapp's: "...tears spring to his eyes and he walks into the room crooning that he, the captain, also goes to the hills when his heart is lonely. The children stare at him as if a small mammal has just appeared through the curtain of his fringe, but, recovering themselves, come in with backing vocals to accompany their father... Maria has brought music back into the house! And that, my friends, is the magic of the musical."

Yes, that's what I was worried about. Brockes argues at one point that musicals disturb men because they're not about them. But, as much of this book shows, and almost all musicals demonstrate, the audience for musicals may be women but the target for them is men, on and off stage. This is the main reason why men feel uncomfortable around them. Musicals are femininity mobilised and orchestrated against them.

To prove this, I only have to point out that the recent BBC series, How do you Solve a Problem like Maria, was presented by Graham Norton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Brockes knows that "in these metrosexual times", as she puts it, "straight men are getting gayer by the day," but she also knows that for even for heteroflexible men, musicals represent a high-kick too far. Apparently, most homosexual men love musicals - a few don't but this is only because they are in denial or afraid of cliché. Real gays know that they were born to be hag fags to girls like Brockes, sighing over Mary Poppins together.

Well, as a paid-up shirt-lifter who also happens to have been credited with/blamed for siring the term "metrosexual", I can tell you frankly and openly that I'm not afraid of cliché, but I'm terrified of musicals. While the question "Are you musical?" may once have been a discreet way of asking if someone was a player of the hairy oboe, today it won't get you many drinks bought in Old Compton Street. (Though it might get you a herbal tea from my car passenger.)

I identify with the experience of Brian, Brockes' straight friend, who as a seven-year-old boy was taken by his mother to see South Pacific at the cinema. It's recounted as an example of why straight men hate musicals. He was understandably troubled by the poster, which had too many girls and flowers in it for his liking. "Really, dear," Brian's mother said, "it's about war." Little Brian was quickly reassured, as I was, by the appearance of Rossano Brazzi, "built like a war hero, dressed like a war hero, and surrounded by all the exhilarating paraphernalia of the Second World War", and "bare chested sailors".

But then things started to go wrong. A strange expression crept across Brazzi's face. "Sort of strained... then he opened his mouth and out came a sound that, at first, Brian couldn't quite place. Hey; wasn't that... singing?" Now he was singing into the face of a woman who'd materialised behind him who looked like "she, too, might be about to... yup, there she went. What was this?"

Heterosexuality, Brian. The real, unvarnished kind. That's to say: from the point of view of the dame.

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