The Play’s the Thing

I received a call from our local school around noon on a Friday. At my desk (in an office, pre-COVID), I answered with some trepidation, fearful about news of an injured child. “Do we have your permission to pull your son out of class so he can rehearse?” the school secretary asked. “He’s going on tonight as the lead in the musical.”

Let me back up a moment. My eighth-grade son had auditioned for his school’s performance of High School Musical after being coaxed by some friends of the female persuasion. He was cast in the ensemble and seemed to be enjoying his first real experience of being on stage (save for a single line in a summer camp production of Frozen). Becoming a drama kid was just one aspect of his busy life, packed in among sports, academics, and other passions…a scenario eerily similar to that of HSM’s protagonist Troy who struggles to marry his persona as a jock with his new-found interest in acting.

When the boy playing Troy appeared visibly sick during dress rehearsal, my son paid special attention. And when the director informed the cast the next morning that he had the flu and couldn’t go on…my son raised his hand and said, “I’ll do it.” Having never rehearsed the lines, songs, or choreography (though he had been forced to watch the movie a couple dozen times by his sister), he had a lot to cram before opening night. Fellow students guided and encouraged him in the scant hours before the curtain went up. And when the spotlight shone on him that evening, he walked confidently down the aisle, belting out “The Start of Something New,” and danced with all the gusto of someone who had the benefit of months of practice. I was in awe of his bravery, enjoyed every moment of watching him perform, and shed a few tears.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved attending live musical theater — where talented performers sing and dance and act for the benefit of only those in the room. There’s something electric about a live show, a special butterflies-in-the-belly anxiety associated with the risk of mistakes, and each performance is a bit different than the last. I marvel at the athleticism and grace of the dancers. I am inspired by the singers whose voices are gritty or melodic or powerful. I watch the spittle spray from the actors’ mouths as they enunciate each line. I notice how the conductor of the pit orchestra responds to cues by the performers. I get lost in a story that has stood the test of time.

Me, I can’t carry a tune and I’m too self-conscious and rigid to be an effective performer. Perhaps it’s because of this that I hold performance artists in such high regard. I truly appreciate the talent and bravery of individuals who bare their souls on stage, who perform with joy and abandon, and who put in such hard work often for little pay, all because they can think of nothing they would rather do.

As a kid, my parents took me to community theater. I remember seeing an amateur production of Free to Be…You and Me and the important lessons in the song about a boy who wanted a doll (“because someday he is gonna be a father, too”). I recall Fiddler on the Roof and the “Matchmaker” song that captures the timeless struggle of marrying for love or money. In Annie’s unsuccessful search for her biological parents, she and Daddy Warbucks create a new family. And the one time when I got to tag along on my dad’s work trip to England, we saw Cats and sang “Memories” endlessly afterward.

In college, I was wowed by the talented students who brought to life Evita, The Fantasticks, and Cabaret. I remember my roommate with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, taking on the persona of Argentine First Lady Eva Perón while singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” While visiting Oklahoma State University for a summer physics project, I had a chance to see an outdoor production of Oklahoma, authentic with dust kicking up from the dry soil and bales of hay stacked nearby. I took my then-boyfriend, now-husband to Damn Yankees, proving we could combine our love of sports and musicals. I’ve enjoyed catching summer stock, dinner theater, and local shows, always relishing in the feeling of being there to witness something rare and special.

Musical theater has its roots in ancient Greece, and today there are vibrant musical theater scenes all over the world. In America, 50 million people attend a live theater event each month. Based on online searches, Wicked is the most popular musical in the U.S. and Canada; The Lion King is tops in Brazil and Germany; Notre-Dame de Paris in France and Russia; Rock of Ages in India and Afghanistan; Cats in China and Greece; Chicago in Sweden and South Africa; and Matilda in Australia and Uruguay.

Today, I’m fortunate to live only an hour from New York City and, for me, Broadway is the city’s biggest draw. Along with my husband and various friends, I’ve enjoyed the splendor of large-scale productions like Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera with their huge casts and elaborate sets. I’ve also appreciated smaller-scale shows like Once (performed theater-in-the-round style) and Come from Away (the touching story of how Newfoundlanders welcomed travelers diverted during the 9/11 attacks). I’ve laughed through the irreverence of Book of Mormon, The Producers, and Kinky Boots. Recent favorites include modern stories like In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and Waitress.

Broadway shut all 41 playhouses on March 12, 2020, due to COVID-19. Prior, Broadway attendance had been steadily increasing to almost 15 million per season, dominated by tourists. During the 2018-2019 season, Broadway employed nearly 100,000 people — including performers, directors, set designers, costumers, technicians, and staff — many of whom have been out of work for the past 16 months. Broadway’s reopening in September will be important to them and the broader economy, since Broadway grosses $1.8 billion a year and drives other industries like restaurants and hotels.

It’s been a joy to introduce my children to theater through community productions and, eventually —when they were ready — to Broadway. One of my favorite pre-pandemic family outings was going to Wicked in New York City. We were all enthralled witnessing green-skinned Elphaba take flight on her broomstick, rising above the audience in a puff of smoke while singing “Defying Gravity.” My kids know the words to most Broadway songs, played on repeat during long car rides.

Nothing compares to the epic historical musical Hamilton, which has become an international sensation since it debuted on Broadway in 2015. Playwright, composer, and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the compelling story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. With a diverse cast, tongue-twisting rap songs, hip-hop music, and extraordinary choreography, Hamilton is an experience for all the senses. The show has won nearly every award possible (including Drama Desk, Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer) — and deservedly so. My family admires Miranda’s ridiculous talent and creativity, so we all got quite a thrill when Miranda gave my son audition advice via Twitter and celebrated his successful stand-in as the High School Musical lead. My family will continue to relish in the joy of live musical theater, and we’re counting the days until Broadway’s reopening in September.

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