I grew up on Musical Theater in one form or another. My mother cleaned on Saturdays, and we had one of those stereos that took up the whole wall of the house. You remember the type. It was about 5 feet long and it had a flat service the center part was cut out and you lifted that and the turn table was there. The speakers were built in. You could stack albums on the spindle in the center of the turn table and the next one would drop and play when the first was finished. I know all you vinyl lover are cringing at that. On those Saturdays mom loaded that spindle up with original cast albums and soundtracks of her favorite stage and screen musicals. She would clean and sing and in the summer, anyone walking by could hear my mother’s wonderful voice as they walked past the house.
That was my introduction to Broadway and the wonderful world of musical comedy and drama. It wouldn’t be long before I would see my first stage show. I was probably four or five when I went to spend the night at my cousin’s John’s house. In the afternoon my Aunt Dee sent us to see a Performance of OKLAHOMA. This was a production by The Saint Francis Players a group that performed musicals in The Saint Francis Chrch Auditorium The performance was just for kids and as I remember it was pretty much pandemonium in the audience. I, however, was mesmerized. I can still see Curly singing Poor Jud is Dead. I had been to the movies, but I had never seen anything live before and I was bitten. In the years that followed I know I saw L’il Abner there as well as Camelot and I loved every minute.
From entering school until eight grade my interest in musicals waxed and waned. Every year as a family we sat down to watch White Christmas and The Wizard of Oz . These were family traditions and my sister and I scanned the TV supplement in the Sunday paper looking for when these favorites would be aired. In the fourth grade my class did a watered down version of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. I dearly wanted to play Linus and I got the part. I think I was one of the only kids that ended up with a solo and I pulled off well. Now not only was I watching musicals I was in one.
You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown was also my first original cast album. I wore that album out and to be honest still love it to this day. The whole show is amazing and stayed true to the characters created by Charles Schulz in the Peanuts strip. Fun fact one evening in December 1969 Peanuts was off Broadway in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, on television in A Charlie Brown Christmas and on the big screen in A Boy Named Charlie Brown and in the daily newspaper strip. I don’t think any other writer can claim dominating almost every form of entertainment in one evening.
Musicals waned again after this. I still loved musical films and enjoyed being taken to see Tom Sawyer with Johnny Whittaker and the musical version of Lost Horizon and The Phantom Tollbooth, but as we moved into the 70s movie musicals were disappearing on the big screen and my interest lagged until 1975.
One of the musical that my family watched together every year was Bye Bye Bridie. This was mostly due to the fact that my father was smitten by Ann Margaret. I loved that movie especially the song The Telephone Hour it was fun to watch all those kids talking to each other. In 1975 I was in 8th grade and it was announced that the All School Musical that year would be Bye Bye Birdie. I wanted in on that show, and I knew the part I wanted Harry MacAfee the father of the girl who was to be kissed by Conrad Birdie a thinly disguised version of Elvis Presley. Harry was played on Broadway and on the screen by Paul Lynde who I thought was awesome. To keep this short I got the part and was in my first full length musical.
Being in Bye Bye Birdie was a great experience. I found my spot in the teenage social order, I was a theater geek. Not the highest place on the social ladder but not the lowest either. I made friends in that production too. Some of which I still have to this day.
I would get into my share of shows over the next four years. My High School offered acting classes as part of the English Department. I took those and in my tenth-grade year we were taken to New York City to see A Chorus Line at The Schubert Theater.
I still remember that trip. It was a blast and NYC was at it’s lowest point so I saw much more than I bargained for, but when the lights went down in that theater and the show started it was electrifying. A Chorus Line was everything you can imagine on stage.
I didn’t get to NYC again until the mid-eighties but my love for live theater was kept alive. My parents bought season theater tickets at The Valley Forge Music Fair. This venue was theater in the round. With my folks I saw Godspell, Pippin, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Sound of Music. Dinner Theater was also very big at the time and I saw The Music Man and OKLHOMA at different venues.
My cousin Joanne lived next door to me and she was years older than I. She took me to see The Wiz and 42nd Street in Philadelphia. These were the national touring companies, and it was almost as amazing as being in NYC. When I got older, we went to see A Chorus Line together at Valley Forge.
Valley Forge would continue to be my place for productions. My sister Trish and I got season tickets there one year and saw West Side Story and South Pacific. The cool thing about the Music Fair is that these were professional productions with stars in the leading roles. In South Pacific It was Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet and The Sound of Music was Debbie Boone.
Valley Forge Music Fair was a great venue for all kinds of music events. It started in a tent and then they had a building and were very successful for several years then I guess things got hard. It’s gone now. There’s a shopping center in its place. That saddens me. Anytime a theater dies we lose something very special.
I could go on about the wonderful shows I saw in person and the wonderful experience I had working as an actor or director in amateur productions, but that’s not what this writing is about. I want to talk about the magic of musical theater.
The magic of musical theater comes from the songs. I believe that there is a song from some show about every life experience out there. There are songs about falling in love but there are also songs of losing someone, getting a new job, having a difficult boss, how hard it is to be old and how are hard it is to be young. Every human emotion and condition has been brought to life in some way on the Broadway Stage.
Musicals teach us lessons too. The Sound of Music is about putting faith before anything else. I already wrote about Mame’s lesson, “Life is a banquet, and most suckers are starving to death.” South Pacific and Finian’s Rainbow are both about the damage bigotry can do and both were teaching that lesson long before the civil rights movement. A lot of shows simply tell us that we can be all that we want to be if we work hard enough to do it. There is a song from the musical version of I Remember Mama whose lyrics say “When you really want something,
When you really got to have something,
And you feel that it’s the only thing in life worth fighting
Doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not,
You’ve got to try to give it all you’ve got,
And when you think you’ve given all you’ve got,
Give a little bit more.”
Musicals teach us life lessons; the songs can give us joy and comfort us. Song such as You’ll Never Walk Alone and Climb Every Mountain have even made it into hymnals and are sung at church.
There is a verse from the Bible that says “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. (Philippian’s 4:8) I believe Oscar Hammerstein must have come across that verse when he wrote:
Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens,
Brown paper packages tied up is string,
These are a few of my favorite things.
for Maria to sing in The Sound of Music. Interesting note on this song. In the film the song is sung to the children during a thunderstorm. In the original stage version, the song is sung by Maria and The Reverend Mother in order to prepare Maria for the news that she will have to leave the abbey. I find it more effective in the stage version than the film. Where ever it is sung I believe it actually reflects Paul’s instructions to the Philippians in his letter and I would love to see My Favorite Things added to every worship team song list and every churches hymnal.
Hello Dolly ranks as my favorite musical at least right now. Dolly is about older people having second chances. As I am now 60 this musical is reminder that dreams can still come true. That I have every chance to make life better. Dolly is also full of joy and that joy is expressed in almost every song in the show. It is a show of hope and great courage. It is a show that everyone should see just to feel good and hum the songs on the way out of the theater.
Mame taught me that life can be good, even in the tough times. When Mame is broke and jobless in The depression she sings We Need A Little Christmas, and celebrates the holiday a week after Thanksgiving because, “We need it more now.”
Musicals became musical dramas more and more in the latter part of the 20th century and moving into the 21st. Show’s like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Rent all told tragic though hopeful stories with memorable songs such as All I Ask of You. And Bring Him Home and I Dreamed a Dream.
I believe that most of my life philosophy has come from the hours and hours I have spent listening to musical theater albums. Memorizing the songs and singing them out with gusto. I remember having very difficult time at work for a season and every morning as I walked across the parking lot I would sing Oh What A Beautiful Morning and when I got to my job my stressed lowered and I felt good despite the bad stuff that was going on around me.
I’m going to be up front. I don’t get much out of worship music. I love the people that lead us in worship, but I never feel close to God while I am singing those songs. I feel close to God when I am singing the songs that I love. The songs from Broadway. I know I worship Him when I sing My Favorite Things. I know I am relying on Him when I sing, You’ll Never Walk Alone, I know I am praising him when I sing Happiness. As Eric Liddell states in the film Chariots of Fire. “I feel God’s Pleasure.” And I do.
I have so mush to say about musicals and their effects on me and others, but I’ll save it for another time. For now, let me encourage you to see live stage musicals as the world begins to open back up, Locally Anastasia and Hamilton are both coming to Philadelphia as touring companies. One of my favorites, Baby will be played at the Media Theater, Swarthmore Players Club is doing Anything Goes this year and on Broadway the amazing Hugh Jackman will open in The Music Man this fall. All of these are amazing shows and great opportunities to see the magic of the musical.
As for movie musicals almost every one that was ever made is available to buy or rent on Vudu through a Roku device or a smart TV. There is even Broadway HD which has many live performances filmed on Broadway or West End, London’s Theater District. On that channel I recommend 42nd St, and the stage version of Holiday Inn.
When I was growing up the songs from Broadway shows would become standards and would get radio play. Groups like the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits sang and recorded songs from musicals. The great soloist of the time Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and Edie Gourmet all sang songs from Broadway and made them popular. That doesn’t happen now and it’s a shame. Music is an amazing tool and kids, and adults should be exposed to all kinds. Not just what’s popular, but romantic music, classical music, folk music and musicals.
For me musicals are a way to keep the blues away. They are a way to feel my own heart break when I can’t find my own words to express it myself. The songs from musicals help me express great joy and the anticipation of a new day. There’s always a song in my head and heart and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Happiness is singing together when day is thru,
And happiness is those who sing with you.
Happiness is morning and evening, daytime and,
Night time too.
For Happiness in anyone and anything at all,
That’s loved by you.
(The Finale of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.)