Wednesday 1 February 2012

My Not So Guilty Pleasure...

Everyone has a guilty pleasure. You might secretly know the dance to Everybody (Backstreets Back) by 90's boyband The Backstreet Boys and find yourself completely unable to resist breaking into it, should you hear the song (which you frequently do, because it's on a Best of The Backstreet Boys album, which you regularly play on long car journeys...). You may have developed a taste for sticking two extra buttery shortbread biscuits together with a copious amount of Nutella and scoffing the lot before anyone sees. Or perhaps whenever you put on a hair band, you secretly want to wear it across your forehead and pretend to be Alana from the popular early 90's children's series, The Girl From Tomorrow.
Shut up, it was cool.
You may have guessed by now that all of the above are just a few of my guilty pleasures. It turns out some of us have more than one...
But I have one pleasure in my life that I refuse to refer to in such terms. A pleasure that some would term cheesy. Some would call "twee."
I, Emma Tofi, aged 29 (and refusing to acknowledge her 30th birthday creeping towards her like a pantomime villain), am obsessed - yes, obsessed - with musicals.
And I mean this warning quite seriously...
My love of any film or show in which people randomly burst into song (and everyone around them suddenly discovers that they know all the words, harmonies and dance moves in spite of this being an "off-the-cuff" moment of spontaneity), started early on. As a little girl, I'd listen to my mum, humming tunes from classics such as The King And I or West Side Story as she cooked dinner or got on with housework. On drizzly days, when it was too cold to play outside, she'd put on The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins and we'd sit together, singing along and being filled with the kind of genuine warmth you normally only experience if you do something really lovely for another human. Or you wet yourself. So I'm told.
I was also lucky in that I had grandparents who lived on the outskirts of London - Morden, to be precise - and a trip to see a pantomime became an annual treat for me, my sister and my cousins. There was something magical about watching people on stage, singing and dancing as they told a story. The music and the movement seemed to make everything bigger and more special. I was totally and utterly hooked.
So much so, that by the time I was 11 or 12, I had made the decision that I wanted to be in musicals. I wanted to go to theatre school, I wanted to sing on a stage... I wanted to be a part of that incredible world I had glimpsed through films and theatre trips. Where a song could make everything better. Where good news could be celebrated by dancing through the streets, without people looking at you like you're mad (believe me I've tried, but in real life, a conga through ASDA just isn't going to happen).
Although I'm clearly shopping at the wrong branch...
Unfortunately however, this was also the age at which I began to be bullied at school (if you scroll down through my old blog entries, you'll find out more about that). I lost all of my confidence. Suddenly the bright, shiny world of musicals was replaced by a dark, lonely place. There was no way I could face the thought of auditioning in front of someone. I didn't think I was talented enough. I didn't think I was pretty enough.
Interestingly, although my early teen years were the years in which I realised I was going to miss my chance to join the magical world of musicals, it was also the point in my life during which I realised more than ever that the camp, cheesiness that many believe defines musical theatre, masks a much deeper, darker side. At the age of 15, I went on a school trip to London, to see a musical called Blood Brothers. Although by that age I'd already realised, thanks to the likes of Carousel, The King & I and West Side Story, that musicals could - and often do - feature death and sadness, I had no idea just how gritty they could be.
Blood Brothers tells the story of a mother of seven, pregnant with her eighth child. Her husband has recently left her and she's struggling to cope. Having visited the doctor for routine tests, she's shocked to discover she's expecting twins. Upon delivering this news to her employer, a wealthy, married woman whose home she cleans, she's stunned when an offer is made: The wealthier woman - Mrs Lyons - is desperate for a child, but has been unable to get pregnant. Her husband is away for a long period of time and she suggests that perhaps the poorer woman - Mrs Johnstone - will give one of the twins to her, so that she might raise him as her own. She offers a great deal of money and Mrs Johnstone reluctantly accepts. Mrs Lyons insists that the twins must be raised entirely separately, never discovering that they are, in fact, brothers. "You won't say anything about this Mrs Johnstone," she warns. "Because if you do, you will KILL them!"
That show changed my view of musicals enormously. Suddenly, not only were they bright, dazzling and uplifting. They were emotional. They felt real. Blood Brothers still managed to offer escapism and even featured some cheerful tunes and laughter along the way. But the story was still deeply moving. The characters felt genuine, rather than being overly chirpy, slightly two-dimensional people who just happened to burst into song now and again.
In fact, it was Blood Brothers (and later on, the fantastic Les Miserables), that made me realise that musical theatre (and film musicals), never had to be a guilty pleasure. They were simply a pleasure. Full stop. No guilt involved.
From that moment on, I embraced musicals even more fervently than before. I've now seen several big West End shows (Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and The Sound of Music to name just two) and a Broadway smash, too (Phantom of The Opera). I don't care whether it's a comedy, with silly lyrics and bouncy tunes, like The Producers, something based on factual events, like Evita, or something purely frivolous like Mamma Mia! The fact is, if it's a show with songs in it, I'm at least going to show some interest. In fact, the only two musicals I can think of that I would point blank refuse to see are Cats (because Memory is the song we played at my Nan's funeral and I'd find it far too hard going) and Chess (because I actually went to see that with an ex of a sort, who turned out to be a rather manipulative individual who hurt me terribly badly - I Know Him So Well would probably send me into some sort of breakdown...).
Lets face it - if you switch on the news, you're faced with images of floods, famine, recession and war. I find it amazing that not only can you escape all of that through a bit of "razzamataz," singing and dancing that leaves you feeling cheerful, but that musicals can tackle some of the darker aspects of life, such as war & revolution (Miss Saigon and Les Miserables to name just two) and cause you think about things that can be distressing, yet still they leave you feeling ultimately uplifted.
Yeah, so er... They're dead, but ULTIMATELY it's uplifting. Honest.
I have no guilt when I sing Fabulous Baby from Sister Act, to cheer myself up when I'm having a bad day. I have no guilt at being able to name all of the Von Trapp children from The Sound of Music. I have no shame when I weep and howl at the end of Les Miserables (seriously, we're talking snot, tears, the works).
Musicals put a smile on your face, a song in your heart and a tear in your eye. And you know what? I love it!
And on that note, I shall go off and grab myself some lunch. All together now: Food, glorious fooooood...."