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Musicals for children, or not

In 2014 I watched the movie “High Society” on DVD, the first time I’ve sat and watched it all the way through since the 1970s. As a family we have spent plenty of time and money on musicals and musical theatre in recent years, including theatre trips to “Mamma Mia” (twice), “Matilda” and “Charlie and Chocolate Factory”, and my children (currently aged 9 and 11) have participated in many dance shows, and productions including “Alice in Wonderland” and “Oliver!”. The dance shows involve songs from musicals old and new and our knowledge of classic numbers from Broadway and the West End has grown year on year.

Back in 2014 I thought that the children might enjoy the collection of Cole Porter songs featured in “High Society” (including “Did you evah?”, “Who wants to be millionaire?” and “True Love”) but decided to check it out first. There are some musicals that are suitable for young children and some that aren’t.

The first time we watched “The Wizard of Oz” together (on DVD) we spent most of the time reassuring my daughter (then aged 6) that it really was going to be okay, that Dorothy would get home safely, and the Wicked Witch was going to die before the end. We could probably watch “Billy Elliott” now (I have a DVD of the stage show) but I was wary initially because of the language. The swearing is more extreme than the “bloody” and “bugger” of “Mamma Mia”, but my daughter has heard plenty of that since becoming a regular visitor to Arsenal football matches.

We have listened to the soundtrack to “Fiddler on the Roof” many times; it alternated with “My Fair Lady”, “Matilda” and “Oliver!” on long car journeys on holiday last summer. But when I checked if the movie was suitable for the children I figured that they’d be scared of the sequence with Frumer Sarah coming back from the dead (at the end of Act 1) so we’ll come back to it when they’re a bit older. And we’re a long way from watching things like “Cabaret” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. Have you seen how much fake blood they used in Tim Burton’s movie version? (At least, I hope it’s fake blood.)

Anyway, back to “High Society”. What surprised me most, right from the opening number (the title song), was just how much smoking there is in it. During that first song Louis Armstrong has a cigarette constantly on the go. Every time he takes a breath, he has a drag. Bing Crosby first appears smoking a pipe. My children have never spent time in a room with anyone who smokes as much as these characters. And the movie is hardly aimed at children. The songs are good, but I have issues (for want of a better word) with the storyline. Tracy Lord, wealthy heiress (played by the 26 year old Grace Kelly, goddess) is divorced from her first husband (played by Bing Crosby, 26 years older than her) and is planning to marry a boring businessman type. Bing is a songwriter (already wealthy because his ancestors were “robber barons”) and into jazz, man. And Tracy/Grace is constantly given a hard time for being cold (they might even use the word frigid) and not returning to her first husband. All of my sympathies are with her, hoping that she might meet someone closer to her own age (a prince perhaps) and find “True Love” (which is the song that Bing’s character wrote for her when they were married).

We have assorted “issues” with other musicals. We still haven’t explained to the children what Nazis are, so for now we’re unlikely to get through the whole of “The Sound of Music”. It sits on a shelf along with other part-watched movies: “My Fair Lady” (too long), “The King and I” (“boring”, they said, and not enough songs), “Oklahoma!” (great opening hour, but gets rather dark with “Poor Judd is Dead”, and then Judd trying to burn everything down). And we have to watch out when printing out lyrics to the songs they sing and dance to. “Shaking the Blues Away” is a classic Irving Berlin number, featured in “Easter Parade” (sung by Ann Miller) and “Love me or leave me” (sung by Doris Day). It was also in one of their dance shows a few years ago. I went to a Lyrics website and printed the words out for them and, fortunately, checked them through first. There’s a verse that contains these lines: “Do like the voodoos do / list’ning to / the voodoo melody / They shake their bodies so / To and fro”. Unfortunately the website I found had these words instead: “Do like the darkies do / Listening to / A preacher way down south / They shake their bodies so / To and fro”. We have made progress as a society since the 1970s, so my children have never heard or read the word “darkie”. I’ll try and keep it that way for as long as possible.



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