I confess. I’m a big, nerdy lover of musical theatre. I performed in plays and musical throughout high school and started my college career at UT majoring in theatre and dreaming of moving to New York to pursue acting someday. That dream was nipped in the bud in my first year when I realized that a) I wasn’t nearly tenacious enough to act full-time and b) I really wasn’t that good. A withdrawal from school and subsequent six year break followed, which I spent traveling, pondering, and generally “finding myself”. I think this detour was necessary for my personality type. Some…probably many 19 year olds just don’t know what their passion is yet. I probably could have spent those years in more productive ways than traveling the east coast while living in a van for six months, then drifting through a comfortable but complacent life in the “velvet coffin” of Austin, TX. But all of that wandering eventually led me to fortuitously discover musical gifts which lead me to form connections with wonderful bandmates turned lifelong friends and then to my eventual career as a music therapist. But I digress…what is this post about? Oh yeah, musical theatre!
Being an extremely introverted, dramatic, and sensitive kid whose home life was rocky, musicals seemed to hold the key to channeling all of my suppressed, oversized emotions. While I generally hunched in a backseat in my classes and had few close friends throughout school, I could often be found belting the entire score of West Side Story, note for note, while prancing gracefully flailing around my living room. Maybe part of my affinity for musicals was my introversion. Although plenty of extroverts love musicals too (and often star in them), there was something truly cathartic for an introvert (especially a gawky, misunderstood teenaged one) to lose themselves in the lights, colors, and songs of musical theatre. As mentioned my home life was unstable at best. An atmosphere tense with aloofness, verbal abuse, depression, fits of rage, and too much alcohol helped craft me into a classic “parentified child” and taught me how to mostly stay quiet and out of the line of fire. During that time, musical theatre provided a suspension of reality at its sparkliest.
I discovered A Chorus Line at the onset of puberty and it became my newest obsession. I could easily imagine myself on stage with the line of ambitious auditionees…just waiting for my big break. Soon after, I discovered Rent, and that romanticized my impression of what New York living would be like someday. I would surely be singing from the fire escapes and living “la vie Boheme” in artsy cafes in no time. My high school theatre teacher fueled the fire by playing us the Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman recording of Phantom…often. I memorized every emotional crackle and belt in their performances and swooned along with Christine.
As I grew older, I met people who dismissed musicals as “cheesy”, “over-the-top”, and “a waste of time” and I felt truly crestfallen. Of COURSE musicals are over-the-top. That’s part of the beauty of them! When you’re having a spectacular day don’t YOU want everyone in your vicinity to bust into a spontaneous, perfectly choreographed dance number? No? That’s just me? It’s probably why I love watching artsy flash mob videos too. I think we need more joyous outbursts to shake us out of our humdrum routines.
I also think that musical theatre can do more than help us escape. Its oversized qualities remind me of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. She said she painted flowers at blown up proportions because she realized, “If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small. So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”
And she was making that observation in the 1920s. I think it only rings truer today. We’re distracted, over-busy, and inundated with stimuli. Sometimes we need points to be illustrated IN CAPS and magnified for us to pay attention. Musicals do just that. They magnify human struggles and joys to the point of humor and absurdity occasionally. But they also contain kernels of truth about the human condition and our capacity to love, deceive, aspire, and inspire.
One example which illustrates this perfectly for me at this time in my life is THE BAWLER “Slipping Through My Fingers” scene in Mamma Mia. To be fair, there are several scenes in that show which could provoke a tear or two, but this scene where the mother sings to her daughter as she prepares for her wedding and reflects on how quickly time has passed….ugggh. That scene slayed me before I had kids but now that I have two daughters of my own, that’s a full-on, pause the movie and get a box of tissues moment. Is it dramatic, over-the-top, and set to an Abba tune? Yes, yes, and yes but the mixture of joy and pain the mother expresses at how quickly her daughter has grown up rings true. My own daughters are still just newborn and toddler aged and I already grow verklempt thinking about some of the momentous, emotional milestones ahead because they’re bittersweet. Parenting is a constant process of letting go that is joyous, heartbreaking, and difficult to put into words. The fact that two actors and a score can convey that tricky mix of emotions in under 5 minutes is the magic of musical theatre and the reason I’ll keep coming back.