it’s not enough to take the one you love for granted

Recently, in trying to get up-to-date on Amy Adams in preparation for the new Muppets film, I watched ENCHANTED, which I’d never seen before. If you’ve been living under the same rock I’ve been living under, it’s about a cartoon character (Adams) sent to the “real” world by an evil witch. It’s a delightful movie, and she’s the best part of it. Here’s Adams singing “That’s How You Know,” with a flash mob of New Yorkers:

If this sounds a bit musically…familiar…well, it’s Alan Menken, ripping off his old work from TLM: the stylistic quotations of that main hook are pretty directly stolen from UNDER THE SEA and KISS THE GIRL’s use of calypso and reggae. It’s still fun, but it’s old territory for Menken. And if the lyrics sound a bit…sub-par…that is, of course, because Howard Ashman, the brilliant Baltimorean lyricist of LITTLE SHOP, TLM and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is still dead. I wish I’d known about this song when I was still teaching the musical theatre course–it’s a great example of the impact that Ashman’s death had on musical lyrics in film.

I don’t want to be too bad of a sport about what is a really enjoyable film, and a great funny musical number. The dancing and the silliness, as well as the lampooning of cartoon conventions, make up for a lot. But just as with Dr. Horrible, an otherwise perfectly executed number is marred by the lyrics not being as light-footed as they could be.

You can peruse the lyrics and see how horrible they are, if you want to ruin the song for yourself. There are a couple of tell-tale warning signs early on, like the use of “really, really, truly” to fill out the line. But this is the stanza that I would have used to make the point, in the classroom:

Because he’ll wear your favorite color
Just so he can match your eyes
Rent a private picnic
By the fires glow-oohh!

This was the faceplant moment for me. Insert your own snide remark. “Rent” a private picnic? Really? Really?

Between the move from 2D to 3D, Ashman’s death, and the shift from studios populated by theater artists to studios populated by technological/computer graphic innovators, the screen cartoon musical hasn’t been the same since the early 90s. Which means that a generation of children grow up on cartoons without original music–the best there is to offer them is a Shrek-esque jukebox musical. Which means, of course, that the chorus–the living chorus–loses one of its petri dishes for growth.

Thank goodness for SOUTH PARK, for Flight of the Conchords (collaborating on the Muppet movie, which makes me optimistic about the lyrics and the songs) and for the more adult realms of comedy and cartoons that still incorporate musical humor and choruses. There’s the SNL Narnia rap, right? Whenever someone *does* write good lyrics, those lyrics become popular. There is hope. Surely Brian Boitano wouldn’t give up hope.

(I’m willing to overlook the “for true” in this song because of the versatility of the rest of it.)

I am, of course, hoping that this reboot of the Muppets is also a reboot of well-written original musical theatre for children on film and on TV–with cartoons, with puppets, with whatever it takes–and that the popularity of musical theatre for children becomes such that even the 3D animated films are motivated to incorporate original songs. That would be the best possible situation.

Let’s finish this particular tirade with the Dracula musical from FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL–with lyrics that sound as natural as casual speech. And with puppets. “It’s getting kind of hard to believe / things are going to get better.” That “kind of,” which fills out the line but also adds to the character, is a gesture of a good writer: as opposed to that “really, really, truly” wheel-spinning sludge from ENCHANTED.

Looking forward to the Muppets movie, and to the songs!