Musings on Musical Theatre

After getting cast in a benefit concert called “Broadway Beginnings” to raise money for Camp Musart and arts education (a cause very near and dear t my heart!), I got right to work rehearsing my appointed song– “The Worst Pies in London,” from Sweeney Todd.

My instructions have been to interpret the song as close to the original broadway recording as possible. Now, I love Angela Landsbury (she is in my Baller Hall of Fame), but this direction is notable to me because it illustrates the difference between being an imitator and being an artist. Musical theatre often toes this line which has lead to me having more of a love/hate relationship with it rather than just the love relationship I had before.

Musical theatre was IT as far as the school theatre back in junior high/high school. The annual musicals were more important– they cost more money, they made more money, and when it came to casting the fact that I could sing well made up for the fact that I didn’t look like a model. They brought in more attendance and brought us more small town glory. For many people who later pursue acting, popular musical theatre is an important starting place, and is often very close to the heart.

For me, it was always a passion, but when I graduated from college and thrust myself into the real world, I realized that I would never be happy doing national tours or regional shows of well known musicals for the rest of my life. Certainly, living the musical live on stage, singing a song when you’re really feeling it… there’s nothing like that. BUT, there’s a certain expectation in musical theatre that you’re going to do it just like it’s been done before. If you’re going to play Sandy in Grease, if you’re going to play Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, if you’re going to play Eliza in My Fair Lady– the audience is going to expect to see that person act a certain way, to hear the songs sung a certain way, etc. People buy tickets and come to the show because they want to see something familiar and something that they know they already like. To make changes to the essence of that character would disturb the vibe of the show that brought them there in the first place.

For nostalgia’s sake, I get it. It can be great to let music take you back in time and to hear songs you know so well– classics are classics for a reason, and that’s certainly why most theatre companies do them with some regularity and why it’s not difficult to get people to see them.

However, as an artist and a creative person, I don’t feel that’s enough for me. As is written about in Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin, people who replicate art are not artists. The originator of the art is the artist. Harsh, maybe, but it goes back to the whole Plato’s The Republic and the chair thing  (what is the TRUE chair, the drawing of a chair is merely an imitation of an actual chair, etc, etc). The further away you get from the real source of creation, the less one can consider it art.

Now don’t get me wrong– I love classic musicals, many of them are extremely special to me and make me super emotional, and I’d love to keep doing them from time to time. I LOVE to support arts education, and am happy to be a part of a show that focuses on that.

I also hope that I can spend most of my acting career being a creator, sharing new stories with people, and collaborating on brand new projects where one can play outside the confines of the past.

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