Jul 17

The Language of Musical Theatre

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome– 

Most self-respecting theater fans have probably hummed that line from Cabaret at least once while greeting someone, since it’s practically impossible to refrain from singing a simple hello in three languages. This seemingly simple line is also incredibly easy to get horribly wrong, if your German and French (or your English!) are not up to par. There are musicals where being able to speak several languages contributes to the magic of theater, and a show becomes even more fascinating once the characters switch from singing in one language to another. In some cases, the relationship between the different languages is so important for the plot of the show that it’s practically impossible for the story to develop without them.

One of my personal favorite examples, and probably the most complicated one, is The Light in the Piazzawhich revolves around two American women – a mother and her daughter – in Italy. When Clara, the daughter, runs into the handsome Italian Fabrizio on the street in Florence, their immediate connection becomes somewhat hard to develop through the language barrier that divides them.

The musical functions entirely around Clara and her mother Margaret’s singing in English, while Fabrizio and his family sing predominantly in Italian, despite a few instances of their communicating with the Americans in simplified, almost broken English. While some of the songs in the show are self-reflective and serve as monologues and soliloquies, others move the plot forward and — well.

To an English-speaking audience, it’s pretty hard to understand where the plot is headed when the song which develops it is sung in Italian. Trying to connect with the musical anyway immediately puts this audience in Clara and Margaret’s shoes, and serves as another way for them to connect to those characters. If you were, however, to put on The Light in the Piazza in Italy, it’d be impossible to keep the show as it is: an audience’s experience would be completely different if they understood all of the Italian side of the story, and almost none of the American one. To put this musical on to an Italian-speaking audience would practically mean to create a completely new show.

Another, much simpler example of a musical where miscommunication between the main characters is a turning point in the story and languages are vital to the plot is OnceYes, I can hear you groaning and I definitely agree – things would’ve been so much easier if Guy knew some Czech. When he awkwardly asks how to ask “Do you still love him?” in Czech, he somehow forgets to add a really important question: “and how do you say I love you?” Because, honestly, if he had just asked that, the entire show would be a lot less heartbreaking. If only Guy could just look up as Girl tells him she loves him in her mother tongue, he’d see the subtitles that are thoughtfully provided to break the audience’s heart, and then everyone would be much happier. But instead, Once stands as a case in point for the importance of languages in musical theater, and yet another example of a show where flawless communication is impossible because of the language barrier.

In many other cases, the musicals can still continue to exist and function without the addition of multiple languages. That is not to say, of course, that those musicals’ multilingualism (which is just such a cool word to know!) is not needed or extremely important for the show. A perfect example of that is In the Heightswhere the characters – all of whom have been living in New York for years, if not their entire lives – could easily just speak English, and nothing in the plot or any of the storylines would change. The sense of community, and all of the characters’ connections to their home countries, however, makes Spanish a vital part of the musical.

While there are many random words in Spanish all throughout the musical, emphasizing the fact that mixing languages is just a part of the characters’ everyday life, some words and phrases are given a huge importance to the overall message of the show. For example, Abuela Claudia finishes her very first entrance in the opening number with “¡Ay, paciencia y fe!”, which at the time seems like a random phrase, but then develops into her solo “Paciencia y Fe“, and a life motto that everyone seems to relate to her. Similarly, the word “Alabanza” – something Abuela Claudia used to say, becomes the title, and the heart of the song that is sung when everyone learns about her death.

Of course, having many languages in a musical is not always an central point of the show. Sometimes, using multiple languages is just a way to build a joke that would be impossible to tell in English. The song “Schadenfreude” from Avenue Q is a great example of a bilingual joke like that.  If you were to just say the word ‘schadenfreude’ to a German or German-speaking audience, they would just say “oh, okay”, and just move on with the show. When the characters, and presumably their audience, are all English-speaking, this allows them to create and entire gag around this long, German word, and spend the next four minutes of a musical number defining “people taking pleasure in your pain” and giving examples for that.

Similarly, the entire song “Hasa Diga Eebowai” in The Book of Mormon functions around a shared language joke. While Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, presumably together with the audience, don’t understand the meaning of the phrase, everyone else on stage does. This allows both some pop culture references (“Does it mean no worries for the rest of your days?”) and that hilarious moment when the meaning of the phrase is revealed. Of course, The Book of Mormon takes the play with languages one step further and develops the joke from a simple gag to a slightly modified phrase that turns the initial statement on its head at the end. This way, with just one changed word, the cursing from “Hasa Diga Eebowai” becomes a poignant “thank you” in “Tomorrow is a Latter Day“, the musical’s finale.

Of course, as it is always the case with musical theater, those are only a few of the many examples a theater lover can think of on that topic (and also, frankly, some of my favorites). Ranging from shows where language is a main part of the plot to those where words and phrases are simply used for various jokes could definitely include many other examples. All of them, however, would once again shows the way lyricists can manipulate multiple languages in musicals and use them to bring the point of the show home, even when songs in other languages seem like nothing but simple jokes at first.

(Picture via BroadwayWorld.)

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