I used to hate musicals. I loathed the exaggerated acting and the tendency to randomly break into song during the most inappropriate moments. They seemed hokey and designed for children. (In some cases, Disney is actually responsible.) I saw Les Misérables at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and I laughed all the way through. It was excruciating: over the top and melodramatic. Inspector Javert was screaming “24601” every other minute. I wanted to plug my ears. (OK, maybe that’s melodramatic, but you’re getting the point, right?) Plays were subdued affairs. They featured well-written dialogue and realistic acting. They were intellectual and interesting. But musicals? Musicals were DUMB as HELL.
Until they weren’t. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to do the costumes for my school’s theater productions. I’m not sure why, seeing as these were often musicals. I think it had something to do with the fact that I was obsessed with clothes, and I wanted another extracurricular for my résumé. Anyway, the musical that year? Les Misérables! When it was announced, I felt like throwing a Veruca Salt-style fit. But alas, I was just a costume girl.
Then something strange happened. Over the course of working on that show, I started to like it. Suddenly I knew every lyric to every song (“ONE MORE DAY TO REVOLUTION, WE WILL NIP IT IN THE BUD!”). I found myself making excuses to wait in the wings and watch the performance, even though I maintained that musicals just weren’t “really my thing.” Over the next few years, the stage crew and I started to act out scenes in the darkness backstage, and whether we were pretending to be wedding guests in the ’80s (The Wedding Singer), or madcap cruise guests from the 1930s (Anything Goes), we were super into it. It’s hard to hate something that everyone else loves, and this collective appreciation for theater sort of swelled around me. Every song, every dance, every word was just, somehow, better than what I had experienced as an audience member. When I sensed the synchronicity of the cast and saw the excitement they brought to a number like “Be Our Guest” (Beauty and the Beast), the songs stopped being annoying and started sounding awesome. That jazz-handsy tone that was once so grating and fake to me was now genuine and full of emotion. The music took on a new urgency, and it was impossible not to be charmed and titillated by every number. I didn’t think I could experience the same energy that a performer feels as he or she prepares to take the stage, but it was contagious. I saw musicals in a new light, one that illuminated the joy of my classmates who lived, breathed, and sweated them (seriously, there’s a lot of sweating).
The Walnut Street Theatre version of Les Mis was technically better all around, but I prefer the unpolished quality of a high school production. Everyone tried to be professional, but they weren’t. As a spectator, I secretly longed for those rare moments of imperfection: maybe a singer didn’t hit the right notes, or maybe a table wasn’t placed on the stage at exactly the right moment. My friends who starred in these shows would probably be horrified to know how delighted I was by these glitches! There is something so strange about being completely engrossed in a story one minute, and then suddenly realizing you’re sitting in a high school auditorium, the same one that you had a P.E. assembly in the other day. It reminded me that something fantastic and creative, a whole other world, was being created in my boring old high school.
I never got to see any of these shows the way an average person attending them probably would have. Inspector Javert was never really Inspector Javert, he was just John, a senior who had played Otto Frank the previous fall, for which I had to dress him in a three-piece suit in total darkness in less than a minute—my greatest feat as a costume lady. And I knew that the skirt Emily wore during “All About the Green” had been hemmed too short, and then had to be replaced, and was literally changed about 15 times before the final skirt was chosen. And I knew the backstage gossip, too, like how someone really didn’t want the part of the flamboyant male keyboardist in The Wedding Singer, so they botched their audition only to be cast in that role anyway, because our director could tell he was acting badly on purpose.
Just wandering into the costume closet could be magical. The clothes represented different decades (a Victorian corset here, a pair of patched bell bottoms there), but they also came from different decades. A handful of costumes that were worn by theater students in the 1970s still resided there. The costumes, like the roles themselves, were inhabited by many different people over the years, and just thinking about that shared history added to the aliveness.
I felt a closeness to each production that can only be experienced by someone who was part of the show, even if my part was running around backstage, sticking people with pins and dressing them to look like they were years older than they were. My high school stage became everything from a castle to a cruise ship, and I watched my friends turn into bar mitzvah singers, dancing trees, and drunken peasants (all in different shows, unfortunately). You might be thinking, “Well, no shit, Hazel, it’s called THEATER,” but I honestly didn’t realize how much time, work, and talent goes into these things, even a flawed school production. That’s really why I changed my mind about musicals. They impress the hell out of me.
Now I go to college in New York City with hundreds of ex-theater kids, and the theater district is in walking distance from my dorm. In a few years, you might find me singing and dancing on Broadway! Just kidding, you won’t. I have the moves of a tube-dancer, and my voice sounds like that of a yowling cat. But you probably will find me sitting in the audience at Book of Mormon, and loving every minute of it. ♦