Another Canon

Jonathan Bellman

This is the second weekend of my son’s high school musical. He’s a sophomore, this is his first theatrical experience, and he’s Nibs, one of the Lost Boys in the production of  Peter Pan. While I didn’t know the show* (my high school never did it, to my knowledge), the entire experience—rehearsals and performances (of which I’ve seen two) is somewhat nostalgic for me. I was in Technical theater in high school, doing sound and props and building sets and stuff, so I understand the pressure, the excitement, the climactic last night, etc. Debbie, of course, sang and danced in her high school productions, and both she and Ben are of the opinion that I don’t remember well enough what it was like. Possibly true. I, grumpily enough, think I do, and I’m the Dad.

The music didn’t strike me as particularly interesting (Mary Poppins, say, is much more memorable), but the show itself is a model of its kind: something for every stereotypical childhood fantasy: laughable and clueless parents, a big loving dog, flying, fairy dust, fairies, fleeing reality and having fun and never growing old, a slightly older girl who wants to be a mother and have a husband and have rambunctious boys to look after and scold and mend for and so on, pirates, Indians (correct spelling, here, should probably be Injuns), a pack of boys running around and getting into innocent mischief (shades of Leo Edwards’s Jerry Todd and Poppy Ott books, on which my father was raised and to the charms of which he introduced us). I don’t know how much of this was in the original Barrie story (play?), but it all seemed to me to be prodigiously well-conceived in order to excite virtually any youthful imagination. This is with Disneyesque slickness: no stone of a child’s psyche is left unturned. The actors had, and are having, a great time, including having Q & A and photo shoots afterwards with kids from the audience. What’s not to admire?

What struck me most forcefully, though, is the idea that high schools all over the country devote huge amounts of time, effort, planning (and, very occasionally, financial resources, though we all know how that goes) to doing these musicals—and the musicals themselves are not in any way current or relevant. The views of society found in these works reflect the idealized popular culture of decades ago—before Vietnam, the 1960s, Watergate, Reaganomics, the two Gulf Wars, the ongoing crisis in the Balkans, the Sudanese genocide…and the same kids who listen to new bands and download music and so on happily and unwittingly flip an inner switch and give themselves over, body and soul, to something that was essentially nostalgic when it first appeared in (perhaps) their grandparents’ youth. Is this not an odd thing? Why is this entire sector of musical activity—among youth, no less, who might be expected to be the most cynical and resistant and inclined to question and challenge received entertainment product—given a pass from cultural resistant reading?

A note, before I continue: I am not advocating a harshly critical reexamination, even one justified with the fatuous claim that it would “reinvigorate” these familiar works, and that we should all interrogate and so on. Obviously these musical fill some deep cultural need of parents and kids alike, and the value of the roar-of-the-greasepaint-and-smell-of-the-crowd aspects of a shared project, a project in which parents are marginalized to the point of bringing food, writing checks, and skeddadling, cannot be minimized. Nor can the deep and probably universal human need to strut the boards, somehow, in formative years: to discover who you are by making believe you’re someone else. Still, these theatrical works are often not immortal masterpieces, dramatically or musically, yet their currency is prolonged, seemingly in defiance of cultural pressures and market dictates. So my reaction is really wonderment; I am not calling for wholesale change, but rather am just somewhat awed that something so counterintuitively popular continues to maintain a not-unimportant cultural niche.

There is a largely finite repertoire of these things, and as I say they are not all masterpieces by a long shot. I remember some of the spring and summer musicals from my high school, in the late 1960s and 1970s, and if I’m not mistaken they are still in the High School Musical Theater Canon: South Pacific, Guys and DollsMameBye Bye BirdieCarnivalThe Unsinkable Molly BrownAnnie Get Your Gun, and of course Fiddler on the Roof. Think of the cultural phenomena these are playing off: sailors in the Pacific, emigration from the miseries of Eastern European shtetlakh, 1950s middle-class cultural anxieties about Rock and Roll (esp. Elvis), and so on. And kids in the 1970s, and the 2000s also, line up to act, and to act out, and to dress up, and to get into all of this.

On some level these must be works that transcend their time, at least for a substantial segment of the public (but not everyone; for me, a lot of these musicals are utterly unmemorable, but never mind). That, actually, makes for an odd parallel with our cherished classical repertoire, with its putative artistic universals and ability to speak beyond its time and place. For that matter, Classic Rock—the stuff my parents screamed at my brother and myself for liking (mostly him; he’s older)—shares that status too: young people now listen to it in addition to their own stuff, and the more discerning/snootier among them feel it is better than current stuff and are prepared to make the arguments, at great pseudo-intellectual length. (How relevant to contemporary views are the lyrics to the opening verse of I’d Love to Change the World by Ten Years After, after all?) By the way: a condescending assertion of “well, it IS better, so there” by anyone about classical music, or by my parents about musicals, or by me about Classic Rock, may or may not be true but is really beside the point. The point here is that there is something at work here beyond cultural relevance, beyond contemporary taste, and even beyond (frankly) actual artistic quality that grants artworks of whatever length a place in their appropriate Canon. After watching a gleeful group of young people put up with a great deal of indignity and directorial pressure and logistical upheaval and so on to put on the likes of Peter Pan, and to hear them theorize about what the next musicals might/ought to be, I confess that quite a few of my customary musings about canons and cultural relevance and so on are being quietly put out with the trash.

That always makes me very, very happy. I really like it when my habitual modes of thought have large holes blown in them.

Off for several days to California on what may be a very sobering family visit. Will catch you, as they said in the Days of Vinyl, on the flip side. Remember, to quote Ray Davies’s final song from the Kinks’s Soap Opera album, “They can’t stop the music playin’on.”
*Debbie points out that this is not a typical musical for high schools, because of the resources need to get the actors to “fly”; we brought in a company from Kentucky to set up all the pulleys and train people to do it properly and safely. This is true, but in all other ways (subject matter, values, worldview) it fits squarely within the musical theater canon.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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9 Responses to Another Canon

  1. patty says:

    We just survived three years of musical theatre. I will confess part of me adored it, while part … well … you know how it goes ….
    But reading what you are thinking gets me going in a different direction. I simply had never thought about all of this! And it hit me; some of the kids in these musicals (let’s see, they did: Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Bye Bye Birdie, Fiddler on the Roof, Frog & Toad, Cats (sigh), Footloose (double sigh), Pippin, among others) … the kids, some of whom were quite the 21st century sort, reverted to something “other”. At least for the short time. And there was no question about the validity of the musicals. Only after they were over did I start to hear, “That was a strange thing to do!” Of course the did choose some more current musicals, but even those are far, far from reality.
    In any case, it was grueling, attempting to be a “theatre mom” and I didn’t do well at it. I can’t say I miss it a whole lot, although our son was awfully good. He’s now moved on to opera ….

  2. Jonathan says:

    It’s the “other” they revert to that’s the most interesting, really–it’s like a sanctioned free space from being–of all things–cool. They can act out and be weird and get their ya-yas out onstage, flouting every last peer-vetted coolness protocol and taboo. Part of the escapism is, quite possibly, from what is supposed to be their natural, anti-grownup culture. Yeah, they’re at home there most of the time, but this speaks to the part of them that still wants to be *kids*, not badass pretentious (or sexy or whatever) proto-adults.
    This is probably not far off from why ANYONE acts or makes believe, kid or adult. And that my son and his friends do it as wholeheartedly as they do tells me 1) there’s a lot of comfort-in-own-skins going on, and 2) whether they know why they do it or not, they follow their bodily instincts of this-is-fun, a-good-thing-to-do, and if someone makes fun…eff ’em. Though for whatever blessed reason it doesn’t seem to happen here; Ben’s former soccer coach complimented me on his dance moves.
    I don’t see such a remark being made in the fearful days of the Old Masculinity. Really, it’s such a rush to see this sociology from a different angle now, and to realize the many ways it’s healthy for young people.
    Your son’s in opera now! Bravissimo!

  3. eba says:

    The kids in this production hit one out of the park, too. For example, this super low-res surreptitiously captured for-my-pirate-loving-newphew:

    A related/explanatory note, if I may: my nephew has taken part in Peter Pan three years in a row up in Washington state, in a production that is performed by kids and adults with special needs — aka the developmentally or physically disabled — and a bunch of relatives and community volunteers. They even let me be the croc on year. Talk about heart-filling experience. There’s tears of joy every night. This year they’re taking on the Wizard of Oz.
    Congrats to Ben and the cast.

  4. Ralph Locke says:

    I think a lot can be said for the artfulness and effect of many of the songs in _Peter Pan_, _Annie_, _Oliver_, _The Music Man_, and many other long-running shows. (The fact that some of them have lots of roles for children clearly helps.) The verbal-musical interaction is often delightful, making the songs more memorable than the music would be by itself. (I’m taking issue a bit with what seems to be Jonathan’s response to “the music itself”–how it would sound stripped of words and dramatic context–in _Peter Pan_.) Teenagers, I find, love discovering verbal-musical wit (and musicodramatic “fit”). And they develop a sense of ownership of these cultural products from 50+ years ago. It is pretty amazing, I agree, given the often sentimental or idealistic tone of the works (by contrast to, say, Amy Winehouse’s recent top-of-the-charts song about doing–or, rather, resisting–re-hab). I like Jonathan’s Comment about how the shows give the kids a space in which they can, for a change, _not_ act cool and blasé. My point is that the ongoing success of these works, even (especially) among high-schoolers, also has something to do with the high level of craftsmanship in these works. Words such as those in “I Won’t Grow Up” are hardly undying; the music, ditto. But somehow together the whole is greater than the parts. (Note the upward octave leap on the last “grow UP.”)

  5. David Cavlovic says:

    Back in my day, way back in the Mezozoic era, well, the 70’s-80’s, my high school did Shakespeare plays. Were we an anomaly?

  6. Sara Heimbecker says:

    You really should read the J. M. Barrie _Peter Pan_ which is fantastic literature. There is none of the Disney shine. It’s very clever and extremely well written. I’ve read it out loud to the boys twice and am always surprised at how young Peter Pan really is. In the book he’s described as still having all of his baby teeth and his “first laugh.” Only a parent can understand that reference.
    On to musicals: all of my cello students gladly play in the pit for these h.s. musicals year after year, even thought they complain during the production about the long hours, etc. I’m always surprised when they sign up again each year.
    I have to take issue with your contention that this is essentially a nostalgic thing to do and that the repertoire is dated and limited. Ben’s rival high school downtown just finished a production of “Children of Eden” (1998) and don’t forget the “High School Musical” (2006) phenomenon, which GCHS did last year.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Ben’s high school has a rival? Hadn’t noticed.
    All good points–I don’t know *Children of Eden*, but know *Godspell* pretty well (from my era, that one). I think there are elements of all of the above (especially including Ralph’s thoughts) in what is really happening. I also think microanalysis isn’t always necessary; according to Ben, “I did it because all my friends were in it.” But you loved it, and went around singing it and stuff. “Well, yeah!”
    Maybe that proves something. Or not. But I’m a lot more receptive to the entire business than I ever was before.

  8. eba says:

    And don’t forget that Ben’s OTHER rival high just finished “Guys and Dolls,” which featured one of Sara’s sometime/adult cello students in the pit with a mostly adult, community pick-up band helping out the high schoolers on stage. What a town!

  9. Thomasina says:

    1980s, Australia, the “official” school musical, chosen always by the two teacher-directors (and a great time had by all):
    The Gondoliers; Iolanthe; Orpheus in the Underworld; The Music Man; White Horse Inn, etc.
    Two years, during the summer holidays, largely unassisted by teachers, the same students rallied to present what might loosely be termed “rock operas”:
    Jesus Christ, Superstar; and a stage adaptation (that we made ourselves) of the movie Phantom of the Paradise
    The teachers who directed the operettas and classic musicals would have been at sea trying to produce the rock operas, but the experiences we gained in their productions were what made the independent shows a success. And my recollection is that we loved doing both. We were apparently blind to the oldness or newness of things and, for example, didn’t care or even much think about the fact that G&S were 19th-century creators. What mattered more, I think, was whether the shows were fun and entertaining to put on, and whether they gave us a chance to sing and dance and act and do what we enjoy.
    I think there are all sorts of practical reasons why schools would choose operettas and older musicals, ranging from the strengths and preferences of the musical and stage directors to the implications of expensive production/staging effects on which so many modern musical productions depend. More contemporary musicals might call for styles of singing that simply aren’t appropriate for young, growing voices.
    And, ironically, some relatively recent shows can actually seem more “dated” or irrelevant to young experience than a seriously old musical. I don’t think kids have ever been put off by stories set in the past or by fantastical themes, so it doesn’t surprise me that they could immerse themselves without question in, say, the story of an apprentice pirate who was born on February 29, or a travelling music salesman who doesn’t carry a mobile phone…

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