Beyond a Theatre Review: The State of Musicals, Maggie, and Toronto

I hope you weren’t expecting any more comparisons to the State of the Union address. No, I did not watch it this year. Bad American . . . except at least I can use the excuse that I’m in Canada. (Sidenote: I’m probably also skipping the SuperBowl this year–is it really worth it without the free snacks in the Martel Commons and the American commercials? Not for me.)

This is instead about a slightly contentious battle that has been taking place in me since about this time last year. Musicals: indulgent or worthwhile?

The battle began when my undergraduate theatre troupe began discussing shows for this year’s season. True, I would no longer be at Rice (as is definitely true since I’m in Toronto), but I was still included in the discussions and welcomed (at least some of the time) to join in because of my experience and wisdom. The younger members had settled on a musical. In fact, they had set their sights on what I saw as quite a reach, Avenue Q. They argued and pitched and tried to show that they had the support. Meanwhile I did my best not to lunge across the table when statements like, “Musicals just have a different feeling that straight plays can’t have” were thrown around. In the end, I had my say, I kept my cool, and the group did what they wanted to do: they decided to pick a musical for the second slot in the season (albeit a slightly less expensive one). I wasn’t happy, but then again, this displeasure passed as soon as I graduated and didn’t have to watch the production process move forward.

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To be clear, I am not against musicals. In fact, I would say they have shaped my life and my choice to be a theatre artist in many ways. The first show I remember attending was Annie. I remember walking out the theater at the same time as “Miss Hannigan” and being scared to death by her. My parents took my sister and I to see Wicked on Broadway–a somewhat uncharacteristic move for them, especially since they had already seen it before. In other words, they knew it was good and it didn’t disappoint. Most importantly, it was in the musical Company that I made my “stage debut” at Rice and made some of my best friends. After my family came to see it, my sister remarked, “It’s good to see that all your years of singing in your room have done some good.”

My problem with musicals is that in our culture–or at least the young, college culture I was made painfully aware of in those discussions–is obsessed with musicals in a way that passes over the equal power of straight plays. I have to search to find the plays premiering on Broadway, but the latest unnecessary adaptation of a film to the technicolor Broadway stage is all but blared over the Internet, Tumblr, Facebook, etc. At Rice, it seemed that musicals pulled in a greater crowd, but to my mind, the plays were better executed. The musicals were entertaining, but not usually because of the talent involved; it seemed to me more an exercise of attending a show in order to laugh at your friends stumbling through dance steps or fumbling for the right key with the rest of the chorus. I was tired of the straight play’s bad rap. I’d like to say this is because I truly believe in what straight plays can do and the variety of what they can express–and that’s true–but I’m also highly biased because I am a writer of straight plays. Unless I can find someone to write music or learn to do it myself (highly doubtful), that’s the way it will remain.

That all being said, in the past few weeks I’ve been back in Toronto, I’ve been presented with some new ways of looking at the musical. And they are leading me to realize that it doesn’t have to be a battle; we can get along together and respect each other once again:

1) London Road

This is the latest hit show at Canadian Stage. It’s all over the web banners and in every program in Toronto right now. Thankfully I found a great Cyber Monday deal and knew it would be one of the first Sunday matinees I would be attending in 2014. It fell at just the right moment academically, too. I had just started my performance ethnography course, one that was challenging the boundary between art and research, and then I found myself sitting in the Bluma Appel theatre reading program notes about how the entire musical was from verbatim recordings. The playwright, Alecky Blythe, interviewed the residents of Ipswitch, England after the deaths of five prostitutes on their street, the trial and conviction of their neighbor the murderer, and the London Road in Bloom garden contest developed to revitalize the community and then she and musical collaborator Adam Cork turned it into a full-length musical. I loved the concept and the speech pattern-like harmonies and syncopated rhythms intrigued me. I had heard of verbatim plays, but a verbatim musical?

Unfortunately, the concept wasn’t enough for me. A classmate pointed out that Blythe’s focus on the residents of London Road could have been a comment on how they took themselves as victims when the truly targeted victims were the sex workers in and around the London Road area. And Blythe only gave them one song to speak for themselves. I personally could not appreciate this point of view, not only because I thought it was too subtle, but because I thought it missed the most important part in constructing the show. By leaving out the prostitutes’ voices, for the most part, London Road missed the main conflict of the story and came out, frankly, boring to me.

But at least it wasn’t the same old song and dance, so it began to chip away at the ice around my musical-hating heart.

2) The Way Back to Thursday

Theatre Passe Muraille’s show had intrigued me for a long time. Not because of the content, but just the title. Friends who had seen the show before me gave mixed reviews: one loved it, one wasn’t impressed, and one was told by others to stay away because the plot about a grandmother would be too much emotionally. Regardless, I came to the theatre excited–especially since I had serendipitously signed up to usher and view the show on a Thursday night.

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My supportive grandmother. Best picture of us together, taken after she saw me perform in the musical Company.

The show itself hit hard in all the right emotional spots. A boy grows up watching classic films with his grandmother. He goes away to learn about himself and his newly claimed identity as a gay man and in the meantime forgets about his grandmother. They reunite at the very end and though she can no longer recognize him, they share a moment that is enough to heal the lies and distance that has kept them apart throughout the man’s adult life. I may not be struggling with my sexuality and I thankfully talk with my grandmother more since I moved away (coincidentally, she reads a print out of these blogs and will be excited to read this someday!), but I still understand the importance of those family relationships and the way they can both shape and haunt a person’s life. It’s struggle to grow up and “get away,” but to also realize that a part of a man or woman’s self is always in debt to the grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and other unofficial family members that came before.

I cried. More than once. For me, that’s not really saying much. But for me in this moment, it says that musicals do have a powerful emotional key. Even in the moments when they feel too expositional or my skin crawls from the awkwardness of watching someone sing through his or her life story, I have to admit that musicals do have that emotional impact that cuts through the conventions I would usually avoid and criticize in the theatre.

There’s hope here. It means that maybe I can begin to redefine the way I compare musicals to straight plays. It may seem straightforward (excuse the pun . . . he he), but musicals and straight plays do have different conventions. They don’t “tell” or “show” narratives in the same way. They share a space on stages and that should be honored, but in other ways comparing them is the cliched comparison of apples and oranges. And because they don’t have to be compared, maybe in my mind they can begin to live in harmony.

3) Belting it out on my own

I used to sing a lot. As was hinted in that earlier comment by my sister, during my middle school and high school years, it began to wear on my family members a bit. Thankfully in college it went to better use as I performed in two musicals and joined the chapel choir while abroad at Oxford, but I’m sure my roommates could have complained on many mornings as I belted to Taylor Swift or Barbara Streisand while getting ready for classes.

Since I have moved to Toronto, I’ve been singing a lot less. Part of it is that I don’t have a car. My favorite part about driving back and forth from Austin to Houston was the car drive, a three-hour patch dedicated just to me and my “Driving” playlist. I was also way too quiet in the apartment during my first semester. It is a shared space, but gosh darn it if the baby upstairs can drop toys on the floor at any point (which is great for my startle reflex, by the way) and my roommate can regularly wake me up in the morning by clomping around the kitchen or belting his own show tunes in the shower, then I more than have a right to my own torch songs.

This girl may have been an awkward 16 year-old, but she knew how to sing it out.

This girl may have been an awkward 16 year-old, but she knew how to sing it out.

I have my friend Olivia to thank for part of this. When I was at home in Austin, she came to visit and insisted on listening to the Wicked soundtrack as we drove through the hill country. Which meant that we were both singing at the top of our lungs. It reminded me of that last drive to campus before I moved at all my stuff and the times we went driving together (like the time she drove me to Spec’s after a bad break-up because her prescription for getting over him was “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and vodka) during my last two years of undergraduate. It reminded me how much hope singing in those moments gave me. Sure, it definitely has something to do with those shows–Avenue Q has been very relevant to me these days (but not the first song in particular, you English-major haters)–but it also has to do with choosing to sing out until I almost have no breath in my body, and then giving myself the time to breathe in as much of it as possible to sing all over again.

This all led to a bad day a few weeks ago when I decided that I didn’t care anymore. I was going to walk from my apartment to the bank and other errands while belting the Wicked soundtrack because I just needed to. I’m sure it was ridiculous (especially when I realized my backpack had also been partially unzipped for half the walk), but it was necessary and it was healing. It was easier to live in my crappy emotions and say, “Yes, this sucks and I’m going to sing through it and live through it, no matter how silly that looks or sounds” than to hold it all in.

And that’s how I am beginning to see musicals now. They can be hopeful. They can be wrought and overwrought with emotion. They can tell and be elaborate in ways that I don’t always like or appreciate as a playwright. And though I don’t want to say they hold some magic that straight plays cannot, I also cannot deny that they have a certain power to them that is different and yes, unique from straight plays.

I’m not sure how far I’d be willing to go to follow musicals or argue on their behalf these days, but for now we are reconciled. If you happen to stumble across one of my impromptu, genuine performances, I understand that the natural reaction might be to laugh or to wish I would shut up. But you have a third option: to join in.

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About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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One Response to Beyond a Theatre Review: The State of Musicals, Maggie, and Toronto

  1. Pingback: Beyond a Theatre Review: Spoon River at Soulpepper | gladlybeyondaustinausten

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