Live Through This

How I Learned to Love Musicals

The songs are damn catchy after a while.

Illustration by Leanna

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. ♦

23 Comments

  • actressgirl September 27th, 2012 3:15 PM

    Great article Hazel! I have loved watching and performing in theater as long as I can remember and you really captured the spirit of performing in a high school musical, even if you were just “in the wings” as you put it. And yes the rare blunder onstage was horrifying for us but most of the time we could laugh about it later :)

  • haileyhallie September 27th, 2012 3:33 PM

    As a former high school theatre costume girl, I can totally relate. I also managed to sneak TONS of vintage swag from the costume closet.

    • Belinda September 27th, 2012 6:32 PM

      YES that’s the best part of costuming, if you ask me ;)

  • Lucas September 27th, 2012 4:10 PM

    I LOVE the musicals! And I’ve done the costumes for two!! It’s always great choosing the perfect clothes for each character! <3

  • runningfilm September 27th, 2012 4:48 PM

    My one regret in all of high school (I’m a senior) has been not being involved in the drama department. I was in middle school and went to acting camps in the summers then, but due to cross country and track didn’t have time in high school. If I could change anything, I’d find a way to squeeze it in… but now it’s too late.

  • ellenannmary September 27th, 2012 4:52 PM

    I just got out of musical theatre. Too many tears, being asked to sacrifice school work for rehearsals, people related to production staff being cast and all other parts constantly going to the same spoilt rich kids whose parents paid for their professional vocal training.

    It just wasn’t my scene.

  • ohidunno September 27th, 2012 5:03 PM

    You’ve most likely seen it, but I just have to recommend/mention Hair! I’ve seen it on stage a few months ago and it was incredible, but the film’s great, too :)

  • raggedyanarchy September 27th, 2012 8:01 PM

    I found my love for actual musicals when I visited New York with my Drama class and got to watch Phantom of the Opera and Wicked on Broadway. I met the cast of Wicked after the show and they were great.

  • Gabby September 27th, 2012 8:34 PM

    I say I don’t like musicals, but mostly I just feel hurt from the REJECTION of not being cast in them in 7th grade

    I HAVE NEVER SEEN A BROADWAY SHOW. LET’S GO!!

    • raggedyanarchy September 28th, 2012 8:50 AM

      Broadway shows are the best. They’re like school plays, but with actual talent. And the musical numbers? Gah!

  • llamalina September 27th, 2012 9:50 PM

    Oh God. Bashing of Les Miserables is literally painful to my heart, but I’ll get over it. Musicals are the love of my life and I don’t know how I’d get through high school without them. I’ve been hair and makeup, stage crew, lead, ensemble, the works, but I’ve never done costumes. Musical theatre, theatre anything really, is the best.

  • dearmia September 27th, 2012 11:01 PM

    I love this article so much! Now that I’m in college, I really miss performing in my high school productions. I never used to like theatre until I saw my senior friends perform in the fall play. Then I fell in love! My dramatic arts teacher made me audition for the next year’s play and I got in! Since then, I’ve performed in several productions and loved every second of it. There’s nothing like it.

  • RainingMiceAndMen September 27th, 2012 11:02 PM

    We are the same, Hazel. I’m not in any actual plays/musicals at my school, but I am despised by my family for feeling the need to belt out Wicked and Fame songs while making my lunch and doing my homework. I now know all but about two songs from Wicked and my sister almost threw her flute at me for singing so much.

    http://rainingmiceandmen.blogspot.com

  • Caden September 28th, 2012 12:07 AM

    My life dream is to be a costume designer for the theatre :)

    http://screenverdict.podomatic.com/

  • molly mazahs September 28th, 2012 1:21 AM

    thank you for writing this so much i love love love it!!
    i feel like this also just applies to drama in general bc people have ideas in their head about what it’s supposed to be like
    but teching and/or acting is SO. MUCH. FUN. i cannnnnt eveN
    #OHYAHIGHSCHOOLTHEATRE

  • mysteriousgirl September 28th, 2012 5:23 PM

    LOVE this article! I’m a wardrobe girl at my school…reading this was like reading about myself :) my wardrobe friends and i call ourselves the wardrobe goddesses!

  • Ben September 28th, 2012 7:17 PM

    ugh! I really want to do drama but i’m not signed up for any drama classes and i missed the auditions and it’s prob too late to join technical theater! I’ll have to talk to my conseler or whatever about doing drama!

  • lucylu September 29th, 2012 12:44 AM

    I just signed up for costumes for the school play! Reading this just made me super excited!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica September 29th, 2012 2:04 PM

    I had lots of fun reading this article. :)

  • eliselbv September 30th, 2012 7:47 AM

    I felt exactly the same not about Musicals but theatre plays. I went to see my friends who were on stage and thought it was stupid to “over act” like that. Until i realized it was because I would never be able to do it myself because I cared too much about what the other could think.
    Today I’m myself doing theatre and I don’t care anymore of what the other think :)

    http://www.iloveyourjokes.blogspot.com

  • cassiopeia October 4th, 2012 4:46 PM

    I’ve always had a deep loathing for musicals, probably because I have horrible stage fright, I’m starting to like them more though, thanks for this article.
    -Ha, I saw that same production of Les Miserables

  • Shmeredith November 6th, 2012 3:39 PM

    GAH!! I love this article, for I too am part of the costume crew and love it.

  • lishbish January 6th, 2013 3:57 PM

    I LOVE Les Mis! I didn’t think musicals were really my thing either, but after hanging out with a lot of people who know pretty much every musical ever written, I started to love them too (OH NO VICTIM OF PEER PRESSURE). I’m happy someone else knows what it’s like to secretly love something you want to hate.