“A must-see production”, “Enchanting, feel good musical”, “Stunning performance.” Such phrases are typical of the comments commonly made by critics when reviewing musical theatre productions. These critics are of course, knowledgeable professionals who are much more experienced in the world of show business than I am. But I must say this: the fact that musicals are described in such superficial terms always disappoints me. To talk of a musical in terms of the ‘entertainment’, the ‘charm’, the ‘fun’ is, I feel, to miss the potential power that an onlooker can experience when confronted with a well executed musical. When the final curtain comes down to a roar of applause or a standing ovation, the theatre embodies the spirit of each magical production and makes a subtle impact on all those cheering. This essay is an attempt to convey that now I am sixteen, I appreciate that each stage production I have seen symbolises my level of maturity and provided life messages I unknowingly required at the time.
Whistle Down the Wind taught me about friendship during my youngest years; Beauty and the Beast was a lecture on love as a pre-teen; Les Misérables was there for me when I was ready to learn about justice not to mention providing me with the greatest album a thirteen year old should have. The whole experience of venturing to the theatre, making the climb up the red velvet stairs and excitedly looking for your seat, obviously whilst praying that the tallest person in the theatre isn’t sitting in front me, is one that I look forward to. The excitement isn’t just to witness a story but to walk away and feel empowered, through listening to legendary songs and watching the magical art of storytelling in its finest form.
Singing, dancing, and a rainbow of brightly coloured costumes are things that would fascinate any inquisitive five-year-old. However I was unlike any typical five-year-old. I was painfully shy, I couldn’t even maintain eye contact with my closest family members without my face burning. I was never the kid who put on a show for the applauding family members in the lounge. That would be my brother; I was always the one observing, wishing I could have an ounce of his confidence. Until I discovered musicals. Here was something I could watch and even though my role was that of pure admiration, I still felt included.
My parents separated when I was young and around the time they split my dad took me to my first musical: The Lion King. As a child I found it even more magical than most. The Lion King offered a place for shy children to witness and be part of a room filled with energy and emotion and for me, I left with a spring in my step and that little bit more courage.
Shortly after my dad opened my eyes to musical theatre he moved to China, and I never saw him again. So you see, The Lion King is a major touchstone to my childhood and in many ways bittersweet; since that day I have seen the production eight times. I was this small timid little girl spending what I know now to be the final moments with my father. I really feel his presence when listening to the Circle of Life and looking up to the profound gold cornices of the Lyceum Theatre. This marks the beginning of my journey.
Turning thirteen signifies the start of your teenage years, so it was the biggest birthday of my life so far (especially since I have Jewish Heritage). As part of the Jewish faith, the birthday celebrates you becoming a woman. My mother wanted to make this a memorable day for me so we went to New York. Broadway is world famous for being the home of musicals therefore we couldn’t resist the playbills stacked on every corner and the double decker sized billboards promoting the latest musical extravaganza. We soon gave into temptation and followed the bright signs of Broadway until we found ourselves at the half price ticket stall.
I had to choose. Would it be Wicked? Or Les Mis? Wicked seemed the more fun and happy-go-lucky option but I was (or at least, I thought at the time) almost an adult and so went with my mum’s recommendation Les Misérables– even though it appeared the boring alternative; it’s about the French Revolution which is a bleak moment in time, I couldn’t imagine how it could be translated into a musical. To my surprise it was without a doubt the best thing I had ever seen, I felt mature and cultured, as I was eliciting emotions to a topic I would have previously yawned about in history class. To this day, I Dreamed a Dream is still my ultimate shower song.
At thirteen I thought the things I would relay to my friends about the trip was that I had made the journey to the top of the Empire State building or jumped on the piano in FAO Schwarz just like they did in the film BIG. As it turned out, the defining moment of the trip was going to watch the performance of Les Mis. Not only did I enjoy the show, I felt a sense of growth and maturity making me realise I had come a long way from that little girl looking up at the gilded ceilings in the Lyceum Theatre.
In place of the obvious gifts for my age such as makeup and clothes, I would receive musical tickets. It became a common gift, meaning mum and I would take a trip down to London a couple of times each year. We would often do some shopping, have ice cream at Harrods, go for afternoon tea and then see a musical. This quickly became a tradition for us. I have always been very close to my mum but sharing some of my favourite things with her on our trips has created such a special bond. She is my best friend, a statement many would be embarrassed to admit but I have grown with confidence over the years and have learned the art of just being me.
Together we have seen a host of stage productions: Blood Brothers, Miss Saigon, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent, Dream Girls, Matilda, the list goes on. We have even started to revisit old favourites. Recently we went down to London with no plans to see anything. We went for a stroll and passed the theatre showing Les Mis, mum casually turned around to me saying: “We should go in.” I was baffled until we went to the box office and sure enough they had tickets reserved for us both; mum had booked them months before. This was a strong reminder as to how much I had grown from that girl in New York: I was now excited to walk through the theatre feeling I was ready and mature enough to enjoy such a deep storyline. I still enjoy the Disney classics as they take me back to where it all started: recently I went to the opening night of Aladdin. Now I’m sixteen going on seventeen (yes, did I mention I’ve seen the The Sound of Music too), I can see that my first experiences at the theatre that afternoon I saw The Lion King encouraged me to be that little bit more courageous and not worry so much, I still whisper to myself Hakuna Matata if things get a bit tough.
Musicals have helped me mature into the young woman I am today, and each experience I have had at the theatre has truly helped me evolve. When I was younger they gave me confidence, then nostalgia and now I make cherished memories with my mum and I hope they will contribute to my progression into adulthood. The emotional twists and turns of the characters in many musicals in ways remind me of my own journey: I was young and vulnerable with my father leaving me at the age of five. And the musicals themselves have acted like friends, providing a stable background and scaffold from which I can now look forward beyond my teenage years to my own happily ever after.