“When you can’t speak, you sing, and when you can’t -” : musical theatre, Glee, and Naya Rivera

I never wanted to perform myself. Still don’t. The amount of interest I have in getting up on the stage can be measured in one hand. Musical theatre wasn’t – isn’t – for me. But watching it? I can’t imagine anything better. There’s something so intoxicating about watching people sing and dance their way across the screen to me, whether that’s the impromptu neighbourhood getting down to Shake Your Tail Feather (the dancer at 1:44 gives me life every time), or the iconic finale to Dirty Dancing*, where Baby realises that she can be whatever she wants to be (and the dancer at 3:31, I adore her so much), or the great legend that is Gene Kelly simply being his perfect self (I adore how the kids are actually cracking up all the way through the clip here). In fact, I’m going to pause for a moment there and let you watch the clips in question.

It’s difficult to define what makes these moments work so perfectly, for not everything in the world of musical theatre does. I could insert the whole of Showboat as evidence here, but I’m going to refrain. My point is that it’s difficult to capture perfection. Fred Astaire worked at it, so did Gene. Tales of their perfection are immense. Here’s a clip that took seventy-three takes to get right (!). Look at how Frank watches Gene all the way through it, just a brief – almost imperceptible – second behind him. They’re both amazing here, but Gene is – as ever – transcendent. His athletic, powerful dancing style is intoxicating:

We sing and dance in musicals because there’s no other way to express the feelings that we feel. It requires something more than what we have and so we rise to the occasion, singing and dancing and putting something magical together in order to wholly capture that moment. And it’s difficult to know what makes that moment work. I can snooze through a vast amount of Oklahoma (it’s a beautiful morning, we knooow), but I can’t take my eyes off Seven Brides For Seven Brothers** when it’s on.

When Glee first broadcast in 2009, I devoured it. I remember telling my friend at work about how perfect it was, about the sheer audacity of this show. It was sharp, sarcastic, and then – suddenly – iconic. Here’s Rehab by Amy Winehouse, as performed by the rival Glee club. (Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what a glee club was but I knew it was perfect when I saw this).

Glee fell off the rails fairly swiftly from that promising beginning, but two people in particular kept me watching. Amber Riley*** and Naya Rivera. And just over a week ago, Naya Rivera died.

I have been revisiting Naya’s performances in Glee ever since, emotional over many of them as I remembered and rediscovered the vibrant power and fierce eloquence of this remarkable performer. It is hard to know what makes somebody work on camera, but Naya’s performances worked every time in a way that I could barely understand:

It was when I reached the following clip in my rewatch that some thoughts (and indeed this post) began to crystallise themselves. A moment of context: Santana – Naya’s character – is gay. She has been recently outed to the school.

It’s the little moment at 0.56 that breaks me. “Don’t forget me, I beg.” The way she stands. The way she sings. The way she holds everything, all of it, so very precisely within herself. The way that even though she holds it, we know it’s there. Sadness. Heartache. Power. Don’t forget me, I beg. Remember me. Be aware of who I am.

And as I rewatched that moment, once, twice, a hundred times more, I realised how much that’s influenced me. I want to write stories full of girls who are remembered, who make themselves be remembered because they’re so wonderful that they can’t be forgotten.

There’s a quote from Firefly that is relevant here.

“When you can’t walk, you crawl. When you can’t do that, you find someone to carry you.”

When we can’t express feelings, we look to the world about us to make that happen. To help us communicate. We paint, we sing, we read, we dance. We look to find the expression of ourselves within things, we look for mirrors and reflections, for modes that express the feelings that can’t be expressed any other way. And those things that we find, they help us. They let us live.

That’s what all of these moments do. When we’re watching Gene Kelly, we’re not really watching him. We’re watching a man explore the infinite potential of his self, we’re watching emotions made whole. The same with Patrick Swayze and the way he could suddenly shift from vulnerable to raw, fierce confidence with only a slight change of bearing. When you can’t talk, you sing and you dance and you tell the truth of yourself in doing so.

Naya Rivera was a remarkable performer, and her vivid vulnerability astounds me, even now. She carried us. She gave her truth.


*Technically I know Dirty Dancing isn’t a piece of musical theatre in this incarnation, but I’m having it because of the later adaptation and because this is iconic stuff for girls of a certain generation. Plus that bit where Baby’s mum goes “I think she gets it from me” makes it worthy of inclusion in all lists, ever.

** Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, the most perfect and most offensive musical ever. There’s a whole separate article in that musical (and it would begin with a fifteen thousand panegyric to that incredible Barn Raising scene).

***Treat yourself if you haven’t, and watch Amber Riley here. She is a force of absolute nature:

7 thoughts on ““When you can’t speak, you sing, and when you can’t -” : musical theatre, Glee, and Naya Rivera

  1. I love Oklahoma, but I do wish they’d lose the pointless dance sequence that goes on for about 20 minutes, and the bit where Judd Fry imagines he’s dead. I love Seven Brides for Seven Brothers too, but the bit where the 6 guys carry off the 6 girls isn’t really very 2020 … although Milly does redeem things by chucking all the men out of the house and making them sleep in the barn with the animals 🙂 .

    Dirty Dancing was such an iconic film for me. I already had a thing about Patrick Swayze because I was obsessed with North and South – American history specialist even at the age of 11 🙂 ! – and everyone in my year at school was obsessed with Dirty Dancing.

    1. 7 Brides absolutely is awful in so many ways when you think of it, but it’s somehow brilliant all in the same way and I don’t understand why 🙂

      And yes! Dirty Dancing, iconic in so many ways. I swear there’s an entire generation who can quote every single line of it. 🙂

  2. The reason I haven’t been in musical theater is because I don’t have the talent. So have to spend time in the audience. I love the power of live theater- the energy, the emotional side, the dance and spectacle. It is hard to describe the power of live theater. You are never seeing the same thing twice.

    I love musicals- there are a good number I love. Wicked, Les Mis, Annie, Sound of Music, Rent, Phantom of the Opera, Newsies, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen, etc……

      1. Of all musicals that entered my life, Wicked and Les Mis are most responsible for the love I have for musicals today

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