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by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & What Would Barbra Do?

by Emma Brockes

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here's a Richard Greenberg play in which a character resents how the word "gay" has been hijacked -- it used to mean living joyously and in the moment while retaining full awareness that life can be horrible and cruel. That's the dream-like, cynical/romantic knife edge that musicals teeter upon -- and in her analysis-cum-memoir subtitled "How Musicals Changed My Life," British journalist Emma Brockes, 32, explodes the claim that musicals are nothing but chirpy artifice. The tacked-on happy ending of Oliver! is kitsch, sure, but "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy and Tevye's earned insights in Fiddler strain for happiness because they want to escape the abyss.

People complain about the phoniness of musicals' breaking-into-song moments. But the switch from speaking to singing isn't a movement from realism to unrealism; it's like Shakespeare changing from prose to poetry, or, as Brockes suggests, "It's a metaphor, like David Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk is a metaphor for anger. Nobody complains about that."

Yet people who hate musicals insist on telling the rest of us all about it; they get looks on their faces like the ones you see "on religious people when they're talking about gangsta rap. It's funny." There's a "presumption of crappiness that attends most things valued by women," says Brockes, that contributes to the contention that "musicals are for people who are too thick for opera and too square for pop music."

Brockes' taste can be suspect: She actually likes Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and she defends the Mary Poppins movie on grounds that P.L. Travers' books were feistier and more feminist. Her concluding sections dwindle into random observations about Stephen Sondheim (he's growing on her), Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer (better than you've heard) and the tackiness of Salzburg's Sound of Music tour. But her ability with one-liners (Mitzi Gaynor's name sounds "like the winner of the toy group at a dog show") is a strength.

Generalizing -- and aware of it -- Brockes says that straight men risk being considered effeminate, smarty-pants suck-ups if they like musicals -- and sexists if they don't. No wonder it's a clich & eacute; that only gay men like musicals. n

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