Though there are plenty of classics I’ve never seen on stage or screen – Les Mis, West Side Story, even The Phantom of the Opera – musicals have had a tremendous influence on my life. I’m not active in theatre now; it’s not part of the warp and weft of my life. Instead, musicals have often stood like lampposts in my life – beacons glowing on a darkened path, things to look forward to each year, things that cast new and different light on the world around me.
But, let’s approach things in order of appearance. Movies, first.
I’ve heard arguments to the contrary, but I still consider The Blues Brothers to count as a movie musical – and a damn fine one, at that. “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” puts a big damn grin on my face every time. Even my dad would watch it without too much complaint, and he’s usually allergic to musicals, comedies, and fun in general. But, while it’s pleasantly unifying, I’m not sure that it’s my very favorite movie musical, nor that any of its numbers are my number one.
Though I do try to resist going with the easy answer – and though I know it’s adapted from a stage show – I do have to at least put in a good word for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Hot Patootie / Bless My Soul” is indeed right up there among my favorite musical songs ever, though it’s understandable: I’ve always had a healthy appetite for Meat Loaf.
This 30 Days of Songs campaign has done nothing if not demonstrate that I rarely extricate the merits of a song itself from all its associated feelings and memories, and perhaps this is where that comes most clear. Rocky Horror is no great cinema, and if not for the ridiculous audience participation angle, it would probably have faded into arguably-rightful obscurity. If it ever becomes possible to travel between parallel worlds, that’s probably going to be a usefully unique marker for Earth as we know it: “Oh, yeah, that’s the one where Rocky Horror is still a thing.” If just because it was one of my life’s only occasions where I got to dress weird and go out late at night with friends, I loved everything about our midnight madness adventures. From the hours of androgynous pseudogoth primping beforehand – fishnets, miniskirt, and low-cut top paired with stompyboots, necktie, and fedora – to the inexplicable traveling music by The Coral on the way, to all the traditional (and novel) callbacks at the show, to the requisite meal at Denny’s on the way home, there were all these lovely bits of ritual. Each one was a variation on a theme. Though I’m no end of bummed, to this day, that our last attempted trip was such a bust – the last tickets bought by the people in line before us, the night turned to an evening of somewhat awkward drinking and videogamery in a friend’s apartment – including, on my part, a bit of overindulgence, a bit of throwing-up, a bit of having to crash at said apartment, and a bit of my first hangover the next day. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream of getting that band back together somehow, just once, and going to Rocky one more time. It’s a little dumb, perhaps, a little The World’s End, but also a little true.
But there’s another movie musical that I love to no end. And it’s got fun social memories attached to it, as well. A visiting Internet Friend shared it with me, and I’d later share it with another Internet Friend who’d share it to that same online community. But, even taken at face value, it’s ridiculous, it’s sarcastic, it’s hilarious, and it has Alan Cumming. (And, I ask you, who doesn’t like to watch Alan Cumming?) I have no strong feelings about pot, but I do have strong feelings that Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is one of the funniest goddamn things I’ve ever seen.
My favorite song from it is “Mary Jane / Mary Lane,” but it can’t be enjoyed out of context so easily, and so sharing it wouldn’t convey much – though the link’s there if you want it. As a consolation prize, here’s “Reefer Madness,” the opening song. It only gets better from here.
I don’t keep in good touch with that originating friend anymore – which is largely my own fault. I did that thing where things get awkward, you stop talking much for a while, and then you feel dumb and weird about ever trying to talk to them again because you feel like you should have something REALLY important to say, and who are you to just say “Hi” out of nowhere like it’s nothing, and they probably don’t even care about you anymore anyway, and everything just attains a degree of meta-awkward because you’re so intensely aware of how awkward things are, and how did everything get so weird and complicated? It had been such a regular old thing – me, him, and another friend, all just talking online together, playing games, goofing off, forging some of my first new friendships in… uh… quite a bit of time. Them being sometimes-obnoxious weirdos, me slowly coming out of my shell, them even coming to visit me at my apartment sometimes! But signals were missed, and others misread, and stupid things were done by me, and all the goofy, endearing fun just wound up dissolving and falling away like a pile of sugar under a cascade of warm water. That I spilled all over it. Because I am terrible and dumb. I dunno, maybe things didn’t really become that bad, and it was just my self-imposed awkwardness that made it so; I’m nothing if not good at making things worse than they have to be.
But this movie will still always remind me of that friend and his first visit, and our enjoyable – if arguably oblivious – nights of barbecue pizza and video games and Skyy Vodka and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and general awesomeness. All of it my first affirmation that the online friends I was making in my new community were, well, real and actual friends. It may be dumb somehow, or selfish, to let myself preserve those memories, given that I made such a colossal mess of everything in the year to come, but… well, if anything, remembering the awesome times just puts a finer point on that later cockuppery and makes me feel even worse, so I guess it’s still fair.
This actually does tie in to the TV musicals somewhat, believe it or not! Because, when I first started working on this entry, I couldn’t think of a single musical episode of any show I’d seen – until I remembered Clone High’s rock opera episode, “Raisin’ The Stakes.”
Clone High was, in significant part, how I’d met those two friends. I’d seen them around in that online community, had found them funny and weird and just obnoxious enough to be cheeky without being actually cruel, but hadn’t really talked to them myself. I think it was the sort of thing where we were all in a larger group which had started to disperse for the evening, leaving this smaller contingent of me and them and one or two other people. I was still hanging on to the social periphery – feeling like I should wander off myself, but too entertained to want to, even though I felt like I was basically a semi-voyeur, a laugh track at best.
But then, one of them made a reference to something that had happened in the ’80s.
Making the other interrupt with “WAY WAY BACK IN THE 1980s?”
The first returned the volley: “SECRET GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES”
The second, I believe, was prepared for this, and was already quick on the draw with “DUG UP FAMOUS GUYS AND LADIES.”
But I was prepared, as well, and butted in with “AND MADE AMUSING GENETIC COPIES.”
There was some surprised boggling on their part , some “You’ve watched Clone High?!” – and probably just some surprise and bafflement that I actually said anything at all – and, somehow, I got to be part of the conversation. I had no idea how I was accomplishing this, and was expecting them to shoo me away with a broom at any point – or reveal it all to be some complex setup to make fun of me – but I ran with it.
And, to my surprise, they let me talk to them again in later days. Sometimes, they even instigated conversations with me! I was still – obviously – incredibly socially awkward at the time, but they both were instrumental in my great, slow, thawing-out.
So I would point to “Raisin’ Us Higher” as my favorite TV musical number, despite that faint post-dated tinge of social upfuckery, if just by dint of it being the only one I’d ever seen. BUT!
As of this very night, I’ve finally watched the full series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And anyone who knows that show knows that one of the best episodes is, in fact, a musical.
It’s handled realistically, strange as that may sound – though the fact that the main character regularly fights vampires and demons means that it’s already a show with quite a lot of latitude in the Implausible Things Happening department. But the fact that everyone’s suddenly expressing their secret feelings in song is, well, not exactly approachable to anyone who hasn’t been following along. When I say that someone who hasn’t watched Buffy wouldn’t appreciate it, that’s not a nose-in-the-air belittlement of ignorant philistines – it’s a caution that, just as they couldn’t jump into any sixth-season episode of a seven-season show and understand who the hell these people are, how they relate to each other, and what the flying purple monkeyballs they’re talking about, they definitely couldn’t just enjoy “Once More, With Feeling,” either.
Which is a shame, because trust me, you guys: this episode is absolutely great, and this song is my favorite of the lot. No, it can’t be enjoyed as well out of context, but it’s probably the most accessible out of any of them, so here it is regardless.
I’d say some interesting or clever things here about how I relate to this particular bit of media, or what pleasant associations it has – but, honestly, it’s all too live and present to have crystallized in my memory like that. Ask me again in a year or five, when The Summer Of 2015 is a distinct and encapsulated bit of history, rather than just, y’know, my life as it is right now.
But it’s safe to say that it will always remind me of yet another friend of mine – and of thousand-mile, distributed-networking, two-man Buffy Marathon pizza parties.
I guess there’s just something about me, pizza, dudefriends, and musicals.
But there’s also just something about me and musicals.
I grew up not only on Disney movies with Ashman and Menken, but with my mom’s VHS tapes of Rogers and Hammerstein. When I wanted to watch a tape, there were strong odds I’d put in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin, but when I felt like being a little more grown-up — mature enough to enjoy live action — I was likely to pop in South Pacific, The Music Man, or The King and I. I might not have understood everything that was going on in them at the time – and I don’t even remember their plots so distinctly now – but I surely remember the music.
Perhaps the song that charmed me most was “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific. It was unlike anything else in the show, and it sounded as strange and mysterious as the island itself. The then-innovative Technicolor extravaganza didn’t hurt, either. I remember wanting to go to Bali Ha’i on vacation, and being sad to learn it was fictional. Though a little research now shows that it was based on Aoba Island in Vanuatu, so perhaps there’s still hope.
I don’t count that as my favorite movie musical number now, though. Nor as my favorite stage musical number, even though that started out on Broadway. But it is an important part of my musical background – though not nearly so much as stage musicals were.
My sister was in high school when I was in elementary school, and she was involved in school plays. Only backstage, however; she never trod the boards. But my mom and I would go twice each school year: to the Fall Play, which fell sometime around October or November, and the Spring Musical, when landed somewhere around March or April. I went because it was something to do, only to find that they entranced me like nothing had before.
There was something ineffably magical about being in the presence of a live performance, even one put on by rural white-bread high schoolers. I could watch a story unfurling in front of me, with true, live people inhabiting those characters. There was no screen, no barrier, no pause button or rewind or fast forward – it was really there, really happening, there and then. They were reciting lines that had been recited by who knows how many people before, but never just this way, in just this place, on just this night, with just this audience. For me, theater bore all the awe and ritual of church. It was where people could gather, sit in silence, and let stories feel true and real. And when singing and choreography matched up with the swell of strings and horns, it raised the little hairs on my neck, it sent chills down my spine, it brought the blood hot to my cheeks, and it made the world feel, somehow, just right. Despite that my only comparable feeling was the one I got when thinking of just the right word or just the right rhyme, it was something I had no word for. I do now, though – frisson – and yet it still seems unnameable.
I don’t remember as many of the plays, now, but I do remember the musicals: in no certain order, “Guys and Dolls,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Anything Goes,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
It was “Fiddler” that struck me – and stuck with me – most. Given the rural white-bread nature of my town, I genuinely did not know that religions other than Christianity existed. My family didn’t go to church, we weren’t made to do bedtime prayers, we weren’t taught to fear God or a Devil or Hell, but it was so culturally prevalent that I absorbed the notions anyway. Ambient dogma. So when I watched this musical with all its unfamiliar language and customs, it was a window on another world. I suppose its says something about the uniformity of my town that Judaism could sound so alien and “exotic,” but so it seemed. I actually wasn’t sure, at first, whether it was fictional or not, but – nerd that I was – I did my research, and was amazed to learn that Judaism was an real, still-existing religion.
I still remember, sitting at my desk in second grade, likely the week after the show, breathlessly gushing at the kid next to me.
“Did you know that there are religions that aren’t Christianity? I thought they were all extinct!”
And I still remember his response, too:
“Yeah, but we’re working on that. Everyone will believe in Jesus someday.”
I don’t know what shocked me more, what he said or how he’d said it – so casually, so hopefully, without a shred of malice. The idea of all those ideas, those stories, those languages, those customs, going away… it felt worse than the endangerment of anything else. I watched plenty of Nature and Wild America, so I knew all about endangered species and worried about them with a sense of helpless shame and guilt – but this was on a whole different level. Save the whales, sure; save the tigers; mourn the dodos – but to think of an entire way of seeing the world falling away into history, never to be thought or believed again? To think of people wanting that to happen, trying their hardest to erase that belief and replace it with their own? I felt this curdled blend of horror and anger and disgust.
So I read everything about Judaism I could get my hands on, throwing information from library books into my brain as if I were throwing them out of a burning building. I thought it was only a matter of time before the missionaries won and Judaism – and whatever else was out there – died forever.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I found information on the Holocaust, which was only fuel for that fiery fear. How anyone could have let that happen then, or stand on a remotely similar side now, I just couldn’t fathom.
But I never really wanted to convert, though I’m sure people practically expected me to, by one point. The YHWH of the Torah was – surprise, surprise – no more credible than the God of the Bible to me.
I’d never been able to make myself believe in God, prevalent as the idea was around me. I’d try, but it felt like my little mind games of trying to look at the green grass and convince myself I was seeing red. No matter how hard I tried to imagine, how hard I tried to believe, how much I tried to persuade or punish myself, I couldn’t see the grass as red, and I couldn’t see anything as made by God. The closest I could get was acknowledging that there was nothing in sounds of the word “red” that gave that noise any meaning, and that someone out there might speak a language where the word pronounced “red” meant the color I called “green.” Or acknowledging that some people were colorblind, and the “red” and “green” both meant the same brownish smear – they could look at the green grass and call it red, they could tell no difference, but it was because there was something skewed in the way their eyes detected colors. I wondered if I was the “colorblind” one or not, and worried frequently about whether everyone else was right, God was real, and he’d be sending me to Hell for being unable to believe in him.
Not only that, but he’d be sending all the believers to Heaven, no matter how they treated anyone, either. As a certain somewhat-friend would tell me, some years later, God wouldn’t let anyone do anything bad to a fellow Christian. Anything cruel that happened only happened because someone wasn’t saved. (It was an argument mirrored by a somewhat-boyfriend, some couple decades after that: a Baptist could never go to Hell, he said, no matter what he did – he’d just go to the skeezy outskirts of Heaven instead of the right hand of God. These beliefs may not have been true representations of mainstream Christianity nationwide, but they were certainly representative of what I saw around me.) So reading about the Jewish religion gave me no better insight on God or theology or matters of faith — but it did make me aware that there was more out there than Baptists, the Catholic “Mary-worshippers” they groused about, or the Satanists that were supposedly sacrificing babies to Judas Priest while reading D&D manuals backward, or whatever.
I liked the ideas of some of the Jewish customs and rituals, since I was fond of rituals of all sorts. I loved picking up words in Hebrew and Yiddish, since I was fond of words of all sorts. And the music sounded neat – assuming, as I was, that Fiddler on the Roof was anything to go by. I just wanted to understand everything about the religion and the culture, to absorb, to keep it as much as I could without being it – in hopes that, even if Nazi Klansman missionaries got rid of every single Jewish person in the world, and burned every book about them I’d ever read, their worldview wouldn’t totally die.
…Meanwhile, from all I could tell, my supposed peers were most concerned about how to convince their parents to buy them a pony, and who was cuter, Luke Perry or Jason Priestley.
Yeah, I was pretty rad at alienating myself. Maybe everyone had such hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing daydreams of saving something – a culture, a pony, a Priestley – and I was the only one with poor enough social skills to blather about my interests so much. Regardless, it certainly didn’t help me relate to anyone, which didn’t exactly help me gain the social skills that would let me de-pariah myself.
That one simple night of watching a high school performance of Fiddler had a massive impact on me for years to come. It made me aware of other ways of thinking, yes, but my fandom was probably the #1 factor that took my social status from “quiet ugly nerd kid” to “grade-wide verbal punching bag.” Objectively, I’m sure it was only to be expected; I was probably completely insufferable. But from adults I got nothing but the usual platitudes about “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve” and “Ignore them and they’ll go away” and “Boys will be boys,” rather than anything that would help me actually figure out how not to be – as a classmate so accurately put it – a social reject. So, in due time, I gave myself up as a lost cause, internalizing that idea that God didn’t let bad things happen to people who didn’t deserve it, and accepted that I should never have, show, or share strong feelings of any sort.
The Judaism jag passed in a few years’ time, and I learned – with much more muted interest – about Islam and Sikhism and Hinduism and Jainism and Buddhism (and psychology and philosophy and biology and astronomy, and paranormal and unexplained phenomena, and sci-fi and fantasy and…) and I continued my fascination with all the different ways people could see and believe and think about the world. I grew all the more convinced that no religious belief was right, but that it was our ability to tell ourselves these stories about the world – to look at the world and imagine it otherwise, then try to bring it into being – that really made humans something special.
That said, I still couldn’t seem to understand the people around me, and I figured I was a complete cipher to them, as well. But, in a depressing but tidy way, my belief that I wasn’t allowed to feel things or be happy kept me from feeling too bad about that life-permeating unhappiness. At least I was dispassionately absorbing and processing information in my own way, influenced relatively less by other people. I wasn’t trying to keep up with the Joneses, I wasn’t hoping to be popular – I was just trying to avoid being noticeable at all. And so, while I learned to subdue as much visible personality as I possibly could, I “cultivated a rich inner life,” which is a respectable sounding way of saying I spent a lot of time alone reading books, listening to music, and playing video games. But, in that near-anaerobic isolation, my ideas got to swirl and ferment into new and interesting thoughts. Especially when I got Internet access. Sure, I was convinced for decades that I was fundamentally worthless, undeserving of the human experience, and so transparently, inherently contemptible that nobody could ever like me in any way. But at least I felt free, in my mind, to think about whatever I wanted, to try on any idea, tailor it in any way, discard it, repurpose it, or reassemble it.
And so I can’t help but wonder. How might I have turned out, if I’d stayed at home that night and never saw the show? Would Judaism have fascinated me as much, if my first glimpse didn’t come with art and song and frisson? Would I have found something else to obsess and ostracize myself over? Would I ever have gotten so isolated and probably-depressed? Or would I have latched on to something my peers also liked, found a group of friends, learned better social skills, and turned out normal? Would I have tried to keep those friends by stomping down my other ideas and interests, picking up theirs, and trying to follow the fold, to quote a different show tune? Maybe I’d be typical now – married, churchgoing, working a steady day job; or a homemaker even, on my second kid, if I’d really decided to care more about social expectations than my own feelings. Or maybe I’d be even weirder, having had encouraging friends who spurred me to identify and follow my interests earlier on.
But it’s incredibly likely that the following is true: that, without being a social outcast all through school, I wouldn’t have some of the issues that I came to bear. I wouldn’t have been able to relate to and appreciate my weirdo friends from theatre, all of us, in some way, the outcasts’ outcasts. I wouldn’t have had the college experience that I had – wouldn’t have made some of the same mistakes that drove my personality further underground than ever. …And, seeking to make my way back out again, in as distanced a way as possible, a way that was on my own terms, a way that was mediated by a few thousand miles of fiber-optic cables and a freedom to just log the hell out whenever I felt in over my head, I wouldn’t have made my way into that online community that’s been so overwhelmingly influential and important to me these past few years. I’ve forged so many genuine friendships through it – some of which I’ve somehow managed not to ruin. And, honestly, I can’t really fathom a world, a me, that isn’t touched by all these people. I don’t know where I’d be, what I’d be doing, what I’d be putting up with.
If I had to do every single stupid thing in my life over again, just this way – the same obnoxious fandom, the same utterly unviable responses to the constant mockery, the same isolation and drama and awfulness – in order to get to the parallel world where I meet all these incredible weirdos from all over the world… you’d better believe I’d do it. I spent a very big part of my life wishing that someone fundamentally better were living it instead of me, and wishing that I could do everything over, and do it right this time. I’m not entirely sure whether this new feeling is one of competence or complacency, but it is what it is. I wouldn’t change it.
Life’s a weird thing; you never know what all will result from one seemingly-minor thing on one seemingly-unimportant day. You’re probably doing everything wrong, but the absolute mistake that is your existence may be setting you up for other, more interesting things to come. You’ve just got to run with it and make the best of it, even when everything is truly, objectively, pants.
So. I looked forward to those high school plays each year my sister was in school. And, by the time she graduated, one of our second cousins was in high school and working as a techie. And his mom was the person in charge of tickets. So we still got to go: my mom helped out in the ticket booth, I came with, and I got to claim front-row seats (and even catch little bits of the behind-the-scenes preshow buzz.) Then that techie’s younger brother, only a couple years older than me, became a high schooler – and a rare freshman-year Thespian, since he’d actually been coming to help his brother out while still in junior high. So my aunt still did the tickets, my mom still helped, and I still went.
And, finally, it was my turn.
I didn’t have great expectations of myself; I never expected to be on stage, not even for a minute. But I did want to be involved with theatre, in whatever way they’d let me.
I don’t remember, now, how exactly I fell into it. I think I just turned up after school one night, and tried to help, and tried to keep out of the way. I’m sure I didn’t audition for anything my first year; backstage would be daring enough.
And was it ever. Everywhere else in school, there was clear control. Teachers taught classes, classes were subdivided by grades, grades were subdivided by Honors, College Prep, and Tech Prep tracks. Everyone had a place, and except for a few (almost universally awful) classes, the castes did not intermingle. But behind those huge blue doors, the world was different. Upperclassmen taught the underclassmen, there was barely an adult in sight, and nobody seemed to care about anything except what needed to be done, who could do it, and who could teach the people who didn’t know. Except for best-guesses based on who looked older than whom, it was hard to even tell who was in what grade. It was the first time that I’d seen anyone even approximately my age given any degree of power or decision-making. And when those decisions were about making art, constructing that tangent reality… it was, by far, the most influential thing of my high school career. I’d go through the whole of high school all over again, every bit of stupidity and awkwardness and stifling frustration, just to spend more time in that experience.
However, for whatever reason – perhaps a rumored long-simmering feud between the choir teacher and the theater teacher – musicals fell by the wayside some years before I started. We didn’t perform any musicals during my time there – except that I think we did “Bye Bye, Birdie” one year and I didn’t participate in it because… Quiz Bowl? Because choir preps wouldn’t learn anything? I don’t really know, now.
So while my love of musicals is definitely part of what brought me to high school theatre, made me a Thespian, and allowed me to meet some of my most influential and enduring weirdo friends, all of that experience isn’t really pertinent to the topic. But I absolutely had to mention it, at least in passing – or what passes for “passing” in my writing.
Sadly enough, musicals have never been as big a part of my life since then. I went to the opera a lot in college, and I saw a few musicals – most notably Rent and Avenue Q – at the campus auditorium. Rent just didn’t speak to me much, and felt like a cheesy high school assembly. Implausibly upbeat caricatures trying painfully hard to be cool, insistently trying to inspire some revelatory social awareness of shocking, hot-button issues like Some People Are Poor And Some People Are Gay And Some People Have AIDS But They’re Still People. I realized, watching that, that I was just immune to its supposed power. I wasn’t a hip, trendy young person who was just now discovering the power of musicals as an expressive art form. I wasn’t a fussy well-to-do patron who was just now discovering the plight of the poor. I found no engaging contradictions or juxtapositions, just hokiness and an almost palpable sense of self-importance. Avenue Q, meanwhile, was clever in is execution, but the music and plot was often inane – much like the sort of life it portrayed, I suppose, so… success? I did end up working for the opera theater, post-graduation, for a single season, but left due to layoffs and injury – then got a comfy desk job after that, which bore very little risk of nearly amputating my fingertip in jerry-rigged industrial equipment. I haven’t been on either side of any stage since.
I miss it, though. Quite a lot. Maybe I should find some way to go to some performance, somewhere, sometime this year. Once a year might not be too hard to arrange, if circumstances ever start looking up. It doesn’t have to be world-class. It doesn’t have to just set all my brain and limbic system afire with ineffable, nigh-holy frisson. It just has to be, and I just have to be in the presence of it, in much the same way that I just need to go out and have grass underfoot and trees overhead once in a while, or else something at the base of my brain begins to gnarl.
I think I need that again – not just the conjunction of music and motion, but being in the presence of it, live and raw and ephemeral, one fleeting iteration of something that’s been recurring possibly for decades and may keep on going for decades more.
So I think I’ll see what I can do. See if I can’t get live theatre into my life again. See where it takes me this time.
Once more, with feeling.