The first show I ever saw on Broadway was Cats. It was an excellent starter show for an 80s tween. When the sirens came on, startling the “cats” onstage, I almost went through the roof. Though, to be honest, it isn’t that good of a show. You either have to be really high or really young to really enjoy a show filled with people in actual, legitimate catsuits. I can’t imagine sitting through it stone cold sober now, but at 12? It had me at “meow.”
I know people hate musicals. That the very idea of someone just randomly bursting into song while everyone around them acts like this is perfectly natural is too bizarre to be believed. I get it. But I love them unreservedly.
From Cats, I graduated to more mature fare. I spent all of high school in thrall of both Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. I had an airbrushed jean jacket with the face of the Phantom on the back that I wore with pride. Not irony. PRIDE. I still think sitting through three hours of what my husband refers to as “ that show about the French revolution where everyone dies” is my idea of heaven. I am not such a snob that I think a touring production is automatically lesser than one in New York City. I saw a Thenardier in Boston who brought down the house and a Marius in Philadelphia who broke my heart. There is something about hearing those striking chords and seeing that giant red flag fly that just destroys me each and every time.
(But, after multiple viewing, I have come up with a few questions about the plot. First, after Valjean agrees to take care of Cosette, he asks Javert for three days to care of the situation. What on earth is he expecting to do in that little time? Kill her? Adopt her off to yet someone else? It probably took him three days just to find Cosette, let alone set up a new life for the kid. Second, why didn’t Thenardier recognize Valjean in the sewers? And third, if Marius sings about all his friends being dead and Cosette sings about living a lonely existence with no one but her father – then who are all the people at their wedding? And what on earth did Marius tell her to get her to agree to get married without her father in attendance? Anyway, back to the blog.)
I was lucky, living on Long Island, the theater was LIRR ride away. Back in the day, you could go to a booth on Times Square and try to get tickets to any show that day for cheap. Now, it’s a huge storefront and it’s all very professional, but back then, you felt like you were really in on a secret. Or at least I did. One day, I was able to get tickets to Miss Saigon. I called my mom on a pay phone and she actually left work early and hopped on a train to meet me in the city. Even more shocking, when she found me, she was happily eating a black and white cookie she had picked up from a random bakery. I could not have been more shocked if she had stopped for a bump of coke.
Think back to all the movies you have seen in your life. Thousands, right? And some have been great, some good, some terrible, but how many created indelible memories, moments that you will take with you to your grave? I have had those moments at the theater.
The moment the gunshot rings out in Miss Saigon.
The moment the witch takes flight in Wicked.
The moment in Once when she doesn’t tell him that she loves him.
To me, that’s the power of a musical. It can create a moment so visceral, so real, that you feel like you are completely alone, but can only truly be experienced with two thousand complete strangers. I’ve seen show stopping numbers that made me want to get out of my seat and dance. I haven’t seen many shows, a few dozen, tops, but the ones I have seen resonate. Not all. I’ve seen some crappy shows, ones that had unmemorable music or actors, and I will never see a production of Annie again as long as I shall live, but the good ones that are always touring, or the revivals that keep popping back up again, those shows have legs for a reason. It’s because they can take you out of your life, your body, even, and transport you to another world where you can sing about racist puppets, telekinetic children, suicide, AIDS, murder, religion, or any number of odd things and it all makes perfect sense.
(Though some shows age better than others. Go watch West Side Story and try not to cringe. I listened to Rent recently and realized that Benny, advocate of fair housing prices and new business is not exactly a villain and that maybe the people singing about not paying rent in the most expensive city in the world may be the actual villains instead.)
You don’t even necessarily have to see it in a theater to love a musical. I know its almost blasphemy to say a movie is better than the original production (much like saying a book is better than a movie), but let’s be clear – Grease is the word for a reason. It is a cultural touchstone – to this day, you can still see Pink Ladies on Halloween. And Sandy’s carnival ensemble, while completely impractical for anything excluding cat burglary, is iconic. “Tell me about it, stud.” Come one, just reading that, you know exactly how long to pause at that comma. And I bet every single person reading this blog has seen The Sound of Music at least once. You all know who tried to put Baby in a corner and why the Reverend doesn’t believe in dancing. And if you say you don’t, then you are my husband, who for some reason, seemed to have been raised in void of 80s and 90s pop culture.