Ode to the Show Tune

show tunes

“I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play new music….”* A simple line of melody and immediately my heart soars. Suddenly all that is commonplace fades away; and life, stunning and grand, is beckoning to me to join the music. “Haunting me and somehow taunting me, my love was never half as true….”

“Please.”* A single sung word, clear, beautiful and so heavy with meaning that the moment I hear it my eyes begin to fill. By the time this short song is done, my heart wants to burst. Long before I had children of my own, the desperate cry of this forgotten mother was already piercing me to my core.

“There are giants in the sky.” * A silly tale, sung by a half-wit character grabs my imagination and speaks to me of lost dreams. I wonder what kind of genius can create such poignancy out of such simplicity. “And you think of all of the things you’ve seen, and you wish that you could live in-between….”

I like to believe that we all have beauty “triggers”—certain specific types of places, people, activities or things that, when encountered, fill us with awe, that refresh our soul and make the world seem like a brighter place. I think many of us share similar triggers: catching a glimpse of multi-colored sky at sunset, gazing out on a calm expanse of beach and ocean, holding a newborn. What strikes me as more interesting, though, is how often these triggers can be so radically different from one person to the next. What touches the deepest parts of one person’s soul can seem mundane (or perhaps even annoying) to another.

For as long as I can remember, show tunes have been one of my most faithful “beauty triggers.” No matter how I’m feeling, I can turn on a beloved soundtrack and feel an immediate lift. At home, the tunes give me an extra bounce as I go about chores; in the car, they compel me to sing along. On a deeper level, though, these stories set to music have a strange power to cut right to my heart. Somehow, while listening, I feel that the veil of the ordinary is pulled back and I’m stepping into the current of all that is real and significant about humanity.

My love affair with musicals took root early, initially ignited and fueled by annual television screenings of The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music and by trips to the movie theater to see an assortment of Disney animated films. By second grade, I had become obsessed with Annie. My life goal was to move to New York and play the title role on Broadway. In the years that followed, I saw 2 touring productions of the show (one in Alabama and one in Tokyo, Japan–in Japanese) and became a huge fan of the 1982 movie. In middle school, I became active in local community theatre; and by high school, much of my social life revolved around theatre productions. In fact, a passion for show tunes was one of the dominant common denominators in my friend set.

Thirty years later, I still have my Annie collection--poster and all.
Thirty years later, I still have my Annie collection–poster and all.

Now, many years later, certain songs, certain soundtracks bring back past seasons of my life, past friendships, long-ago joys and pains. My enjoyment of such musicals has become a multilayered experience, often as bittersweet because of past connections as it is beautiful in the present.

As much as I adore books and movies, I do not tend to re-read or re-watch them. If I truly like a musical, though, I will listen to it persistently until every note, every word embeds itself in long term memory. Amazingly, no matter how much I listen, the music maintains its power to make me cry, or laugh, or simply sing along. In fact, the better I know a musical, the more it becomes a springboard and background for my contemplations on the complexity of life and relationships.

I think it is interesting that although I can enjoy a show tune apart from its show, I only really begin to appreciate its power and brilliance once I’ve heard it in its true context. Knowledge about the characters, their histories and their current situations provide me with the pathway to understand and enter into the emotions, dilemmas, and joys they are expressing through song.

I’d like to think that in this way show tunes offer us a reflection of how we can best relate to people in the real world. We might admire someone from afar, but until we really know who they are, where they’ve been and what they are walking through now, we have no framework for understanding or appreciating them. We are not likely to be able to empathize with their struggles or participate in their joys.

Show tunes allow us to briefly enter into the experience of another. In that way, they not only entertain, but can enlighten, encourage, and engage us. This is also true of many other storytelling mediums, but somehow the well-executed combination of music and storytelling creates a magic more powerful than either has alone. After experiencing a great musical, my heart can honestly say:

“And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t know before….”*

*Musical Quotations are from: Ragtime, Miss Saigon, and Into the Woods.

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