Why Musical Theatre? Pt. 1

Why musical theatre?

I get asked the question, “So when are you going to move to L.A.?” a lot.  I guess it makes sense; the obvious place to a non-theatre person to go to be an actor would be Hollywood.  Because if you’re pursuing a career as an actor, you must be pursuing fame and money.  Right?

And then people get confused when I tell them, “No, actually, I really have no desire to be a film actor at this point in my life.”

(which inevitable leads to: “So then New York?  Broadway?”

“No, I’m actually really happy doing musical theatre here in Seattle.”  Props to people who move to NYC and love it, but I just don’t know that that life is for me.)

“But you can’t become famous acting in live theatre.  You can’t get rich acting in live theatre.  And why else would you go into acting?  You want money and fame, DON’T YOU?!?!”

And at this point in the conversation, I usually just shake my head, shrug, and walk off, because GAH IT IS SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.

I always loved performing; musicals and singing were a big part of my life growing up, and it seemed like a natural choice to attend college for musical theatre when the time came around to decide what I was going to do.  I went to the University of Idaho, had some amazing professors for five years, made some unbelievable friends, and then was spit out into the real world to fend for myself.

Seattle has been amazingly welcoming, and I consider myself to be lucky enough to have gotten decent work thus far.  But still…why musical theatre?

About a year ago, I was talking to my parents about musical theatre and Audra McDonald came up in the conversation.  They didn’t know who I was talking about, so I immediately dragged them to a computer to watch one of my favorite Audra videos: the Jeff Blumenkrantz song “I Won’t Mind”:

I had heard this song in college and, and in my mind (not sure of the context of the song), this song was sung by a nanny who was unable to have children of her own.  A beautiful piece sung by a stunning voice, and I was excited to share it with my parents.

Barely a verse into the song, my mom was weeping.  I asked if she wanted me to turn it off, but she signaled to let me know it was ok.  We got to the end of the song, she was still weeping, and when she finally was able to take a breath, she said, “All I can think about is your Gamma.”

My dad’s mom, my Gamma Naomi, passed away at 93 years old in 2004, my sophomore year of high school.  My dad was an only child, as my Gamma had had him when she was 40 years old.  My dad moved her north to live closer when I was in middle school, but by that point, a series of mini strokes had taken away most of her ability to remember things.  I was unfortunately never super close with Gamma, but I do remember her loving and joyful spirit.

My junior year of college, I received a phone call from my parents explaining they had just been contacted by my dad’s half niece; apparently, my Gamma had gotten pregnant out of wedlock around the age of 21 (1930’s) and given the baby up for adoption.  She had been allowed to visit the baby up until the girl was two years old, when the adoptive parents explained that she was getting confused and they felt it would be better if Gamma stopped visiting; she never saw or contacted her daughter again.  The only other people who knew about the child were her sisters.  She never talked about it to my grandpa or my dad, and we had no idea until we received that phone call.

Where I’m going with this story, in regards to musical theatre, is that my mom and I heard the same song, but we heard two completely different stories.  One was singing to a baby she’d never have, the other was singing to her own baby she couldn’t keep.  Both are legitimate, truthful interpretations of the song.  I have to wonder…maybe hearing that song would have helped my Gamma feel more comfortable telling her story, and helped her feel less alone.

Another story:  In 2012, I was cast in the 5th Avenue Theatre’s Adventure Musical Theatre’s production of “Klondike!”.  The story, written by Bill Berry and David Austin, is a touring, 50-minute musical that follows two families’ journeys north to find gold.  About two-thirds of the way through the show, the uncle/caregiver of Katherine and Nicholas passes away on stage.  Heavy subject matter for K-8 kids, but death happened on the Klondike trail, and the writers did a lovely job honoring real-life journeys with fictional story lines.

We had the opportunity to take the show to my mom’s elementary school late in our tour.  Apparently, only a week or two previously, a student who didn’t really fit in with her classmates had lost her mother.  My mom, who had seen the show, was fully prepared to help get the student out of there if necessary during the death scene.  Instead, my mom said that when she looked back at the girl, there were tears silently streaming down her face, and the classmate sitting next to her had their arm around her; the rest of the class was leaning in and comforting her in a way to let her know they were there.  For that moment, this girl who didn’t really fit in, who was having a really hard time, got the opportunity to really KNOW that she wasn’t alone.

And that’s what I believe is the true beauty of musical theatre: you never know who’s story you’re telling, and you never know who needs to hear what you’re saying.  Musical theatre reminds us that no matter how hard it gets, we are not alone.  We as actors are blessed with the opportunity to create those personal connections from the stage, and to approach those hard subjects in the medium of live theatre.

I live for those moments; those moments of truthfulness, of vulnerability, told by means of song or dance, that are fewer and further between in today’s over-sung contemporary musicals or overdone classical musicals (those are broad generalizations, I know, and a whole other blog post).  As a performer and as an audience member, those are the moments that give a sense of oneness, of community.  Regardless of how sad the topic, there is pure joy in knowing that you are truly not alone.

And for that, for my own personal reasons, that is why I have no desire to ever move to L.A. and attempt to recreate that truthfulness behind a camera lens; while some actors have those skills (and are AMAZING), that just doesn’t call to me.  Nothing can compare to the thrill and personal-ness of live theatre.

*A quick note: I wrote this post specifically about musical theatre because that’s what I have experience in; I stand behind everything I say in regards to “straight theatre”, or even musical concerts, as well.  Just something about performing live, or being in the audience at a theatre…that’s magical to me.

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