Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, November 22, 2007


When I was a teacher in the late 70s, one of my students saw The Empire Strikes Back at least seven times in the theater. He had the movie pretty much memorized. This was back before people videotaped movies, and DVDs were long in the future, but it still seemed pretty funny to me, imagining someone so obsessed with a movie to see it more than once.

Over the years, I have seen a few movies twice, always when I was bringing someone to see it who hadn’t seen it yet. But I’d never seen a movie three times, much less four or five times, until October, when I found myself back in the movie theater seeing the musical Hairspray one last time before it left the big screen for good.

It was a no-brainer that one of my kids would give me the DVD for Hairspray for my birthday. It was released on the 20th, when I was still really sick. But of course I wasn't too sick to veg out on the sofa watching a peppy, uplifting movie.

What is it about musicals that appeals so much to me? In high school I got into an argument with my brother’s best friend when he said musicals were stupid—that no one on earth breaks into song during daily life. He seemed right--I didn’t know anyone personally who sang through daily life—but it seemed like such a lovely way to live.

Now, of course, I have plenty of friends who sing throughout their lives. They sing to express love every bit as well as Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, a longing for love as well as Frank Sinatra at his best, to shout out their territorial boundaries as well as the Jets in West Side Story. Of course, my friends are birds.

Maybe if Hairspray appeared in theaters during spring or early summer, I’d have been able to get my songs-in-daily-life fix in Minnesota woodlands and prairies. But the movie came out in late July, when bird song was ebbing. I don’t think there was mention of a single bird in the entire film, but the main actress, Nikki Blomsky, is as cheerful and plump as a chickadee, and the point of the movie was pretty much that we’re happiest and most successful when we live in friendly, inclusive flocks the way chickadees do, and when we sing and dance to prove our superiority rather than duking or nuking it out.

It’s easy to imagine a lot of musicals as bird productions. I could easily picture a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher greeting an Oklahoma sunrise to the tune of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!”, a crow collecting shiny objects and singing the Little Mermaid’s song, “Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?” or a Blue Jay squawking about all that trouble right here in River City.

Every love song ever written has been sung by birds, only in different languages and notes. Anticipating love. Falling in love. Mockingbirds without mates sing literally all night long, all about the tragedy of unrequited love and their hopes that one fine day someone will look at them and know their love was meant to be. Cardinals and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks sing their love songs as duets. Cranes, swans and geese sing their own version of “Together wherever we go,” while hummingbird males channel Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man,” making a lot of stops and having memorable one-night (or, for hummingbirds, one-day) stands. A young Merlin might easily break into a round of "Bohemian Rhapsody," starting with “Mama, I just killed a finch. Put a talon to his head, bit his neck and now he’s dead. And mama, it felt good to me.”

I think it would be hard to think of a musical or a song some bird didn’t sing first, in its own avian way. No—I take that back. There’s one musical no bird would ever want to take part in in any way, shape or form. Cats belong indoors, even in musical form.