Musical Comedy and Cultural Context in France

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Music can be universal. But American musical comedy is generally local. Some of its cultural oomph is lost on a French audience, just as certain French local attitudes and cultural givens are beyond us Anglo Saxons, despite our best intentions to understand context. Sometimes, however, context has to be lived rather than explained.

Four days after I arrived in Paris for my second extended stay, I went to see a South African production of the American classic “Show Boat” at Théâtre du Châtelet. It was like playing telephone: I recognized some of the words, but the meaning was sometimes hard to follow as the original dialogue and lyrics were processed through others. Determining cultural signifiers were missing from the interpretation – both from the earnest actors and even for the enthusiastic Parisian audience. You sort of got the overall point, but any subtlety was missing.

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 “Show Boat” was, at that point, the latest in a series of musicals that Théâtre du Châtelet had been mounting, introducing French audiences little by little to this particular American theatrical hybrid. (Since then, Châtelet has done quite a bit to help popularize the form in France, and has even helped in the creation of some new works, such as the recent stage version of “An American in Paris.”)

“Show Boat” was performed in English, though I couldn’t quite make out the South African troupe’s version of Southern American accents. I sometimes needed to glance at the projected French subtitles to understand what was being sung. (Queenie’s “Can’t help lovin’ dat man” came out like “weoriuw owe oweroiu wrooiu.”) The dancers didn’t have Broadway polish, and you could see some of them counting as they got ready to step into a beat. It felt a bit like an amateur production – but one that won you over because everyone tried so hard to make it work and you appreciated the effort. It was like someone applauding my progress in French because he’d heard me at last conjugate an irregular verb correctly in a sentence.

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“Show Boat” is a landmark show, albeit one with problems, especially in the second act, which is such a compression of the Edna Ferber novel on which it is based that events trip over themselves: Julie shows up after disappearing for a stretch only to sing “Bill” and Magnolia makes up with her long-lost husband faster than you can say, “We need to wrap this up now.”

My French friends Walter and Bertrand, who were there at the same performance as I, asked me, “What happened to Julie’s husband?” and, “Is that all Magnolia says to Gaylord after not seeing him for two decades?” Good questions, but logic wasn’t really as important as music and mood to the show. You ignore logic when you’re in thrall to songs like “Make-Believe,” “Bill” and “Ol’ Man River” (or, as the super-titles had it, “Vieil Homme Fleuve”), even if the interpretations of those songs aren’t topnotch.

I mentioned this to Walter and Bertrand afterward, when we had a snack at a café across the plaza from the theater. I said that musical comedy, especially of that era, didn’t need to make much sense, even though “Show Boat” was one of the first to try. But I couldn’t articulate in French the cultural signifiers that would explain why this didn’t and really shouldn’t matter. They were seeing the show from their perspective, which wasn’t at all mine, and could never be. They saw a somewhat choppy script broken up by nice melodies, and they had a sense of the work’s treatment of racism and tolerance, which was significant for its era. To me it was an important musical. To them it was an artifact of another age whose meaning was weakened by time. It could have been an amulet from the Assyrian Empire on display at an exhibition, where you’d read descriptive panels and “hmm” to yourself but couldn’t really sense the power that the actual wearer of the amulet must have felt. You take such things on trust. Or you shrug and move on.

I get that. My explanations of why “Show Boat” mattered might have had an effect on how they considered the show we’d all seen, but their interpretations couldn’t be mine. The show they saw was the show they saw, not the show I thought they should have seen, not a show that was important because I knew its place in the history of American musical theater and they didn’t. I could provide context, but not the feeling that gives context that rightness that helps you understand without footnotes. Such explanations take you out of the experience. The experience is no longer an experience but something distant from it, like a photographic approximation of a gas cloud in a far-away galaxy. You cannot explain sensation as it occurs, only on reflection, and then it’s no longer the thing itself but its memory.

Living in another culture, you’re always interpreting your interpretations, looking to understand why and how, that what you’ve understood is what you’ve actually seen and heard, and not your supposition of an event based on your faulty comprehension of words or cultural signifiers. But they cannot be what anyone else has seen or experienced, as much as we want to share what we love, what we think, what we discover.

No matter how often my French friends explain things to me, I won’t understand them on some level until I’ve lived them in some way. We each react differently to a musical theater performance, and each reaction is valid, in the same way that I don’t own a particular interpretation of anything, from performing arts to books, to everyday events in a country where I spend a lot of time but in which I wasn’t raised. I can be told why something matters but I can’t understand that particular thing on any deeper level until what I sense about it arises not out of my later interpretation but from an immediate unarticulated understanding.

3 thoughts on “Musical Comedy and Cultural Context in France

  1. I don’t know if the subtitles were that trash, but just : “un vieil homme”, never vieille which is for feminine only . “Vieil” is like “bel”, masculine before a vowel, un bel arbre, or “fol” in un fol espoir . .

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  2. What you rightly wrote about the necessity of knowing the context of a culture to fully appreciate any form of art recalled me how despairing it is to write or speak in a foreign language . There are for instance expressions that were used in a period and by a certain category of people you find in some classical books or old movies that I can use at a precise moment in order to produce a funny effect or to counterbalance what I just said that might appear too precious or directive . You see, this kind of things, and it is just an example . Speaking or writing is an art, a living and moving form when we speak, interacting with the people in front, and it’s even more important when we write, and to write I desperately need to master all levels of a language to mix them with an intention, plus an exhaustive knowledge of what made the collective culture of this country now .
    I find it’s impossible for me to be able to freely write in a second language . Even for a foreigner who would settle abroad and live there it would be a challenge unless the person spends 30 years and wants to assimilate everything by all means .
    What we can do will always be less than perfect, let’s accept this, and let’s concentrate on perennial improvement .

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