Donald Munro

When (TV) life is a musical, you can’t help but sing

ABC

Hear me sing at the top of my lungs: I love “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Galavant.”

These two peppy, clever and slightly subversive TV series both offer full-fledged musical theater goodness, and they’ve enlivened my January viewing in a way that makes my heart tap dance.

I discovered “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on the recommendation of Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s TV critic. (She praised its “eccentric, slow-build charisma.”) The show is about a neurotic New York lawyer (the appealing and chameleon-like Rachel Bloom, a Golden Globe winner for the role) who drops everything to move to non-glamorous West Covina, to chase a long-lost summer-camp boyfriend. Though it started airing in October, I was able this month to binge-watch past episodes thanks to Hulu. New episodes started back up Jan. 25.

As far as “Galavant” is concerned, I’ve been smitten for a year. This funny gem about a ridiculously handsome knight (Joshua Sasse) and buffoonish king (Timothy Omundson) romping through the the Middle Ages was a hit last January during its short, sweet run. (ABC packages the half-hour episodes two at a time, and there were only eight the first season.) When the show got picked up despite its mediocre ratings for a second season – a 10-episode run that ends Sunday, Jan. 31 – musical-theater fans across the country rejoiced.

The real thing

Let me make a few points before I go on. One is that when it comes to musical theater on TV and in film, in my view there are two approaches: the real thing, and not quite there.

For an authentic musical theater experience, characters inhabit a world in which it is perfectly acceptable to break into song and dance. Such moments aren’t merely presented as a bit of music realistically inserted into the action – a character singing a song within the context of a stage show or musical performance, say – or a stunt lip sync to a pop song. I’m even wary of musical fantasy dream sequences. (Under my strict definition, a film such as “Jersey Boys” isn’t a musical to me – it’s a movie with music.)

Nope, people in musicals sing, with an orchestra and everything. It doesn’t need to make sense. Deal with it.

Both “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Galavant” are fierce proponents of the genre. When Rebecca, the stalkerish main character in “Crazy,” arrives in West Covina, she appears in a full-fledged production number extolling backwater Southern California living in a scene with dozens of dancing extras as she sings about strip malls and boba stands. When we meet a group of merry monks in the first season of “Galavant,” they sing a tight-harmony number titled, appropriately enough, “We’re the Monks.” (It’s a sly reference to the old group The Monkees.) Both shows feature original music and lyrics, with “Galavant’s” score written by none other than Alan Menken.

To sing is human

The second point is that I firmly believe there’s a musical-theater fan within each and every one of us.

Really.

Such an affinity ranges widely depending on the person, of course. At least 95 percent of the molecules that make up my corporeal being, for example, are so steeped in musical-theater love that I have been humming the theme song of “Galavant” – an earworm if you’ve ever heard one, complete with rousing key change and trumpeting French horns – for a year now and haven’t gone insane.

With some folks, however, you have to dig deep into the soul to find even a sliver of musical-theater fondness. I know people who make vomiting noises at even a mention of a character in a film or TV show breaking into song and dance. Still, I maintain there’s a trace – even just 1 percent – of Broadway in even the most adamant hater. Call it a residual genetic throwback to a dawn-of-humanity era of movement/vocalization around a cave fire, but the idea of expressing human experience through music is positively primordial.

How is this relevant to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Galavant”? Because their songs are so clever they might even appeal to the One Percenters.

OK, maybe that’s a little wishful thinking. I wouldn’t stake my life on it. But, really, the musical numbers feel fresh and contemporary. They get past the unrelenting wholesomeness and goodie-two-shoes merriment of Broadway past.

A woman’s point of view

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” pushes the envelope the most, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality. Bloom, as the wildly off-kilter Rebecca, is like a shape-shifter. With her non-six-pack, Everywoman bod, sometimes she cavorts as a buxom, scantily clad pin-up-queen who reminds you of an old-fashioned film star. At others she has no problem of strutting before the camera in real-women-squeeze-into-Spanx moments of blunt authenticity.

She isn’t afraid to go without makeup (or a bra), and in one cutting song parodies the tortures that women put themselves as they primp and preen to bask in the male gaze. (As a New York Times profile recently noted, it’s certainly the first show to acknowledge the painful realities of anal waxing.)

“Galavant” is a lot gentler and sillier, but it can still have a sting. A typical “love” song:

Love is strange

And sometimes kind of gross

It’s embarrassingly gassy

And it leaves its dirty underwear

In piles around the place

Not quite “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Some musical theater traditionalists might decry both shows as too snarky or self-referential. If you’re the type who tires of the meta approach – of a work of art commenting on itself – it might be too much for you. I do understand that concern: Much of our media culture today is so studiously self-aware that the technique can start to seem lazy.

But remember that musical theater itself is a sort of meta experience. That’s one of its great joys: Characters step out of their lives for a moment to reflect through song. And within its own special world created on stage or screen, that introspection can take you places that “real” life can’t.

In the first episode of “Galavant’s” second season, one character demands to hear a repeat of last year’s tuneful theme song, the one that has trilled through my brain for 12 months. The rest of the cast shuts him down. Who wants to launch that earworm again? “It didn’t win an Emmy, now it’s time to move along,” the lyric goes.

I loved it. If life were a musical, I would have done my own song-and-dance number right there in my living room.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

  • 8 p.m. Mondays, CW (Channel 59.1)

Galavant

  • Season finale 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, ABC (Channel 30.1)

More online

Fresno Bee TV writer Rick Bentley talked with Aline Brosh McKenna, creator of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” For highlights, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.

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