I have no hard facts, but I believe a majority, or at least half, of those who have an interest in theater or are pursuing a career in theater, were probably initiated into the art form by seeing or being in a musical.
I remember quite well being in 2nd Grade, wearing a plastic boater style hat with a vest and bow-tie, participating in my elementary school’s Spring Program. We were charged with singing “Goodnight Ladies,” my 4 foot male counterparts and I, while the girls in my class sang “Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little” in synch. We were not expected to know what “brazen overtures” were, only to look cute, smile, and give our parents an excuse to dote over their snot nosed kids. And now, as a 21 year old man, I can carry the stylings of Meredith Willson around with me on my iPod, knowing full well what a “Sadder But Wiser” girl is (I may know a few).
Is it possible that my current life track was predicated on a song I sang when I was 8 years old? Is that why I auditioned for Candide my sophomore year in high school? Is that why I switched to my current major my sophomore year in college? Is that why I write here now to you at this moment on a theater blog? Well yeah, it’s possible. Everyone talks about when they were bitten or stricken with the “theater bug.” Well friends, there is something quite infectious about the musical, and I think we all know it.
I will admit, however, that I have a bad habit of being a bit more discerning when it comes to newer musicals, I do prefer revivals. I figure, “Hey, they are being revived for a reason,” and this mindset does not help my industry, so I’m working on curbing it. Before this weekend, the last “new” musical I saw was Next to Normal at the Ahmanson. It just wasn’t my cup of tea, and to be honest, made me think that maybe I just wasn’t a big fan of musicals anymore. Prior to that I suppose Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in New York was the last REAL GOOD “new” musical I’ve attended. However, anything else I’ve seen musical wise has been on Broadway and those aren’t always winners either, even if they are revivals. But then this weekend I saw a show called The Great American Trailer Park Musical in Philadelphia.
I was invited to go with a group of friends so I went, otherwise there are a few things that would have kept me from going: 1.) I tend not to trust musicals that have “musical” in the title of the show. 2.) I tend to think “southern” or “red neck” jokes are too easy and I don’t typically enjoy that kind of comedy. 3.) It was written in the last 5 years. 4.) It wasn’t on Broadway. These aren’t prejudices I am particularly proud of, but they are there, or at least WERE there, because Trailer Park was just so damn good it may have done away those prejudices for good. The smile on my face remained through out the whole show, even during intermission. It was quirky, energized, clever, hilarious, sexy, inappropriate; I could throw a thesaurus at it and not do it enough justice. Granted there were some technical elements that were a tad sloppy, but at the heart of the show is a delightful story about misplaced affection and reunions and finding yourself. It’s funny, slightly predictable, but a really good time all the same. The space was small and performers were engaging. It made me wonder how many of these little musicals are playing all over the country right now and how many I’ve looked past because of my unfounded distaste for contemporary musicals. As shows like Bloody Bloody and Trailer Park prove, much much more can still be said whilst singing.
So my plea to all of you is this: try on a new musical for size. Instead of running to see the next regional production of Anything Goes, find a smaller lesser known musical to attend instead. Remember, shows like Rent started in very small spaces and ended up taking American theater by storm. Be there at the ground floor, look for those exciting new projects. You may not know what you’ll be getting but at least you’ll be giving something new a chance. Sure, the musical gets a bad rap for being campy, loud, obnoxiously upbeat, but they can also be very deep and visceral experiences. From now on, I know that I will be a lot more open to the contemporary musical. If The Music Man has taught me anything, it’s that not every stranger that rolls into town turns out quite as bad as they seem. I look forward to finding those strangers and making friends of them.