A Theatre Geek’s Lament

I was recently watching a video that featured a clip from the new musical Hadestown.  I had tickets to see this show in New York City this month, before the world changed.  I was excited to return to Broadway and enjoy some new shows.  But that’s not happening now or any time soon.

I don’t listen to a musical’s soundtrack until after I see the show.  It may mean I’m a bit lost, but I prefer watching the story unfold for the first time without any lyrics spoiling something.  Then I tend to listen to it on repeat (obsessively) once I’ve seen the show.  It is a way I can relive the theatre experience at any moment, playing it out in my head while the songs play.

I’m a theatre geek and I love to sing, although others feel differently.  I miss the world of my undergrad theatre and working to create a show.  I helped every semester with building sets—it was a requirement for my minor—and I was part of the crew a few times.  I helped dress actors in 12th Night—I was the only one after the other student quit suddenly.  I was in charge of laundry, costumes, and helping the actors dress if they needed it.  I operated a spotlight for Sweeny Todd and had to rush from the perch to the bathroom every show during intermission.  I hid onstage to operate a pneumatic door for Medea; it required paying close attention and timing cues perfectly with the actors’ movement.  These are all college experiences; I was active in theatre at my high school while I was a student and a few years after to help.

Theatre is a collaborative form of magic.  When I watched Hamilton on Disney+, I realized how the screen flattened the experience of live theatre.  A well-made musical movie can usually overcome this barrier.  I didn’t dislike Hamilton, but it didn’t bring me the same thrill I felt seeing live shows.  Being in the same space as the actors as they perform with passion and heart is my favorite drug.  It can be fun and light, as with a show like Book of Mormon.  Or it can be intense and heartbreaking like my favorite musicals Spring Awakening and Next to Normal.  It is truly an experience when you feel raw and fulfilled after an amazing show.  It is cathartic.  Being in the same space, experiencing a show creates a charged environment that cannot be captured on film.  Sitting in my living room, watching an edited version of Hamilton will never live up to seeing the same show live.

I don’t know when Broadway will return.  It will never be the same as before; the world has changed so many parts of life.  I can belt out soundtracks in my house (alone), but it will never thrill and move me in the same way.  I hope I will see Hadestown one day; I’ve heard great things and I dig the slips I’ve seen online.  It is the Orpheus story by way of New Orleans in terms of music and style.  I’ll likely listen to the soundtrack one days, even if I never see the show.  I’m excited for shows that aren’t based on previous intellectual property.  New ideas are good, you guys.  I love classis Broadway shows, mostly from watching musical movies growing up.  But I love seeing new blood injected into such a classic artform. 

Theatre will endure.  It will outlast us all.  But it will never be the same.

“I’ll never be a theatre person!” Part 1

Driving down the highway on a rainy day in March, I sing-along—complete with gestures and choreography—to the original Rent Broadway cast soundtrack. This is just one example of what I find myself doing often: enjoying any of a variety of musicals.

I don’t sing well. And I’m not being humble. I know I’m partly tone-deaf and have the range of that only some witty comment could convey. My hands tend to be more coordinated than my feet, which is my excuse for lacking all ability to dance. I just love to sing in the company of my home or car and find an exciting, indescribable vibe from watching a live show. I don’t even mind if I can only get my hands on a movie version or just a soundtrack.

There’s something about a great musical, where the characters have no other way to express their feelings and find the only way they can communicate is through the power of a soaring musical rifts and some well-crafted lyrics. Musicals come in all forms: live shows, movies, soundtracks, Internet broadcasts, and even television. People bursting into song, alone or in a group, are not that strange in my world.

Though I am new to the world of the musical, green on the Great White Way, I do have some clear favorites: Annie, my first play I ever acted in; Rent; The Phantom of the Opera; Wicked, based on the characters’ of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz; Reefer Madness the musical movie; Singin’ in the Rain, a classic; Spring Awakening, an awesome, blasting show; and television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer… to name a few.

Joss Whedon’s excellent shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the spin-off Angel, along with Firefly and his other works, are insightful views into human nature. In his Buffy episode “Once More, With Feeling” (6-7), Whedon and his crew constructed and composed over 40 minutes of music, lyrics, and choreography. The show achieves all this while still carrying the story along and continuing the different character arcs. And it was all within an episode of your everyday television for Joss Whedon.

“Once More, With Feeling” may be set in the fantastical world of Sunnydale, but there are many awesome musicals set in the “real” real world.

One of my personal favorites is Rent, about a group of 20-something friends, living and dying in New York City within one year—from Christmas Eve 1989 to Christmas day of 1990. The musical, a world-wide hit that has been running on Broadway, finishing after 12 long years in 2008, is about the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and 90s and the lives of those infected and affected. All with rock, R&B, gospel, and pop music and story-carrying lyrics that move and let the audience laugh and feel along with the characters that reflect real people to connect with. Rent is what the world would be if every emotional moment resulted in a song.

“I’ll never be a theatre person!” Joanne, Rent.

I would have said this very phrase if I’d known it, about five years ago, during the summer of 2003. As I didn’t know this line, I said something to the effect of “I can’t sing or act.” Well, those raw facts may be true, but it didn’t stop me from taking an unseen leap into the world of live theatre via a high school play my junior year, Annie.

I could say that’s how it all started, a high school production, but I slowly realized that that is wrong. I was interested in musicals long before high school, before I knew what a musical was and that singing in the movie wasn’t typical. Apparently, I grew up with musicals, in the form of movies that my Mom would pop in the VHS player. From what I remember, the list includes the following: The Music Man, Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Singin’ in the Rain, and The King and I. If you played any of these classic movie musicals, I would be able to join in without even thinking about it.