Do you hear the Diva sing?

We had a Parents’ Consultation at Daniel’s nursery yesterday evening (we don’t have Parents’ Evenings apparently. We have Consultations). All in all it was a glowing report, aside from his short temper which we’ve known about since he was a few months old. He is seemingly a whiz at maths and number skills – didn’t see that coming!

He’s also very independent and strong-minded. As his teacher pointed out, this can be a good thing. He’s standing up for himself with children who are all bigger and stronger than he is (he’s one of the youngest in his class) and it’s good to know he can do that, particularly since I myself am such a wuss!

It’s turned out for his teachers to be a double-edged sword though. He’s very fond of singing and music, and he’s developed a passion for the song Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Mis√©rables. It’s taken him a few weeks to get to grips with the words – after all, we’re not talking Jack and Jill here. His nursery rhymes haven’t prepared him for lyrics such as “The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France” (his teacher’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when we told her that line… ). But he’s pretty much got all two and a half minutes off pat now and he loves singing it. Over and over and over. He’s also quite a perfectionist and if he gets a word wrong he starts again. If his audience aren’t duly appreciative, he starts again.

Which brings me neatly to the point of today’s post. His teacher gave us this story from yesterday. They were all sitting down together for music time and Daniel decided that the time was ripe to try out his repertoire on his classmates. He insisted on treating them to a gala performance of Do you hear the people sing? and launched into full diva mode. About half way through what is a fairly long and repetitive song for a class of three and four year olds, he noticed some of the other children had started whispering and letting their minds wander away from the cultural feast that was, frankly, being wasted on them. He immediately stopped singing, complained vociferously and demanded to start again. His poor teachers (who deserve a medal) endured the whole song again, begging the children to be quiet so Daniel could finish his song.

When I picked him up he proudly showed me his sticker and told me he’d got it for singing Do you hear the people sing? for Mrs Badger and Mrs Burton. I can only think they were so relieved to get to the end that a sticker seemed a small price to pay.

My son, the diva, obviously has a long and glorious career in show-business ahead of him. I hope Cameron Mackintosh is prepared.

5 Things Musicals can teach us about writing

I was driving yesterday and put Les Mis√©rables in the CD player for the first time in ages. Wow, that’s a good show. And as I was listening, it struck me that there’s a few tips you can pick up from musicals on good writing.
  1. Dialogue – Expositional dialogue drives me crazy. “Hello Annie who is my sister and has dark hair, did you hear Ruth who is our half sister and ran away with the milkman is back in town?”. Ugh. And yet in musicals there’s no prose, no way of easily relating backstory. So it all has to come through the dialogue/lyrics WITHOUT being exposition. And good musicals do it. Ok, so at the start of Les Mis you get a teensy bit between Jean Valjean and Javert, but it’s not forced, it doesn’t intrude and it ain’t bad going in a 3 hour show. You also have to relate the character’s feelings through their dialogue, as someone listening to the soundtrack without being able to see the acting needs to be able to get a rough idea of the story, and you can’t use prose here.
  2. Characters – Musicals use lyrics to lay their characters bare. They need to. They could show Valjean going through angst as he decides whether to turn himself in or not, but without the words you’d just wonder if he was constipated. So you get Valjean’s Soliloquy, and Javert’s suicide; deep emotion made believable through 2 minutes of lyrics. At least I think so.
  3. Voices – Secondary characters in good musicals also get a voice and are made believable. Eponine is a very minor character in Les Mis, but she gets some cracking songs, including one of the most popular woman’s solos EVER, and we really care about her when she dies. You can see how distinctive each of the characters is in One Day More, where everyone’s voice comes through clearly despite being so deeply layered.
  4. Setting – Again, there’s no prose or description to give a sense of atmosphere or setting. The most you might get is some explanatory notes in the programme, but you can’t rely on those. Some comes through the set, but mostly you know what’s going on because the characters are acting and speaking in a way that’s believable for their setting. Javert IS a nineteenth-century, upright policeman. Chris (in Miss Saigon) IS a 1970’s GI. Bernardo IS a Puerto Rican immigrant in 1950’s New York.
  5. Growth – The characters we care about most in musicals are the ones we see make a journey. One of my favourite characters is The Man in Whistle Down the Wind – you can see him change and grow and move on just from his dialogue with Swallow and the kids. On the flip side, Judas is a truly tragic figure because you watch his faith in Jesus crumble and his dilemma, as he sees it, crush him.

These are a few of the things we could learn from musicals, in my humble opinion. I’m off to put them into practice!

Anyone got anything to add? I’d love to hear what you think.