Confessions of a Former Musical Theater Fanatic

11 Jun

Most kids rebel in some way during their teenage years. Some get into staying out late and meeting bad news boys. Some turn to loud music their parents hate. Some drive fast. Some get way into musical theater. Guess which one I was. Oh yes. Broadway music was my wine cooler, first cigarette and my gropey, bad boy boyfriend all rolled into one, show-stopping musical number, complete with jazz hands.

Theater wasn’t a THING in my hometown. I mean, there was one drama production a year at my high school in a “black box” theater. For the uninitiated, a black box theater is a nice way of saying, “Hey. So we only spend money on athletics and maybe some new agriculture equipment…so we’re going to put you in a room in one of the old classroom buildings, paint it black, and call it a day, cool?”. The next town over hosted a small community theater, and I went to their productions faithfully. The closest major theater that hosted touring companies lied about 3 hours away. All in all, it was a bit of a musical wasteland.

My parents, against all odds, were musical fans. I knew the words to Cats backwards and forwards by the age of 4. My dad would often put on the soundtrack of West Side Story so my sister and I could dance to “America”. Before I had been born, my parents had even traveled to the very far away seeming city of LA to see a couple shows. And when I was 13, they happily and excitedly took me to my first show, The Phantom of the Opera at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. And it blew me away! The glamour! The crashing chandelier! And the music, oh, the beautiful, lilting, very Andrew Lloyd Webber music. I couldn’t get enough.

So, in a town where high school football is the thing on Friday nights, and most people couldn’t tell you which way was upstage and which was downstage, I decided that theater would be MY THING. Not actually performing in musicals, because I honestly knew that I was not talented enough or brave enough for that, but I would know as much as humanly possible about the Broadway theater scene. Then, I’d move to NYC after high school and find some way to work in the theater. Not as a performer, of course, but as a critic? Or a dramaturg? Or a….well, that was as far as I got. Take that, hick town!

If you asked me at the time, I was quick to say that I was NOT a “drama kid”. Calling myself a drama kid would lower myself to a level I considered beneath me. I mean, gah. All they did was hang out in the back of the drama room, talking as loudly as possible so everyone would look at them. Ugh. They too were rebelling against high school, but I failed to see that at the time. In true insecure high school girl fashion, I saw very few other people as allies, and instead, tried to feel above everyone. Musical theater was my thing and no one else’s!

So what did this lead to? Random trivia. Did you know that there was a musical based on James Joyce’s classic short story, “The Dead”? Yep. Or that Victor Garber was a musical theater actor, and a fantastic one at that, long before he was that evil lawyer in Legally Blonde? Of course! Or that Paul Simon wrote a flop musical called The Capeman? Indeed. Or that there were TWO musical versions of Joseph March’s poem, “The Wild Party”? I favored the LaChiusa version. I memorized the casts to all the different Les Miserables cast recordings (the Complete Symphonic Recording is obviously the best. Duh). Tracking down international recordings of musicals on the internet took up much of my weekend (The Australian cast recording of The Secret Garden was a prized possession). I read playbill.com every single day. I collected any show brochures that friends brought back from trips to NYC. I even got to go to NYC twice and saw a few Broadway shows in person! I soaked it in. All of it.

The dream of moving to NYC and going to NYU or Barnard evaporated when I realized just how far and expensive it was. UCLA was just as good of a school, and soooo much cheaper. Besides, LA has theater! I could keep up the obsession, even without moving to NYC.
And, at first, I did. I continued my obsessive listening to cast recordings. I tried my best to introduce friends to the wonderful, magical world of musical theater, and they put up with me because they are good, patient people. And I even made it to the Ahmanson and the Pantages to see a few shows. All was going well, until I studied abroad.

Don’t get me wrong, I have seen dozens of productions in London. Through the years, I’ve honed my asking for discount ticket skills, so I was able to fit as much theater in as humanly possible. But as I got more into the London scene, I my knowledge of the American one fade. It had become a hobby, not an obsession. And by the time I came back, it almost completely vanished.

Maybe I just didn’t need something to make me special anymore. I had come into myself as a person over that year, gaining so much confidence from my experiences. My musical theater knowledge had always been my private crutch that made me feel exceptional, but now I knew I was exceptional on my own. So musical theater faded into the past, just as other childhood obsessions had before.

Now, I still love musicals, but it’s more of a nostalgic fondness. I hardly ever get to the theater. Until I watched the Tonys last night, I had no idea what the new musicals were this year. And watching them felt as though I had a brief glimpse into a world I used to know. Many of the names were still familiar (Raul Esparza, Audra McDonald, Christian Borle…you guys still got it) but so many other ones were 100% unknown. I found myself vaguely embarrassed at the amount of glittery tuxedos on stage. The dancing seemed fusty at times. Neil Patrick Harris, who was hosting, made jokes that I didn’t get. And while I still had strong opinions about some musicals’ choices (UGH JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR THAT LOOKED HORRIBLE! Stop embarrassing me!!), I was able to simply sit back, relax, and watch as a fairly uninterested party. And that’s OK.

I’m so grateful that musical theater gave me a thing to latch on to in high school when I needed it most. And I’m so glad that I’ve been able to grow up, appreciate what was, and move forward. I may still have to incorporate jazz hands into my life now and then though.

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One Response to “Confessions of a Former Musical Theater Fanatic”

  1. Amy Estes (@amy_estes) June 12, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    I played in the orchestra pit of every musical in HS, sang in the choir, loved Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis and Cats, and was totally a show tunes geek. I still miss those days and wish I was more “up” on theatre related business. It really is an amazing industry and art form.

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