OKAY, HERE WE GO

Alright, here we go. This is going to be long, I can feel it.

I’m going to try really hard to make this clear. There is an attitude that is shockingly prevalent in the theatre world. It’s an attitude that comes from some – and I repeat SOME – actors and theatre professionals who only do ‘straight’ theatre. {Straight theatre being non-musical shows.} There is this bizarre opinion that musicals are some sort of lower art-form, that it somehow requires less skill or less talent. I don’t know how it started but this needs to be discussed. It’s turning into a bit of a disease in Canada. It is not the same in the States or in Europe. And it seems to come from the smallest, most frightened people in the business. Unfortunately, some of those people are in charge of some theatres or are rather prominent performers in the business. WHERE . . . DO . . . I . . . BEGIN . . . ?

This issue has several facets. I’m going to try to be diplomatic but honest about them as I see it and certainly, it is only my opinion. One, musicals are always a good way to make money for a theatre. Why? People enjoy music. Think about how you feel about your favorite kind of music – it can lift you, calm you, excite you. Well, musicals do just that, they elevate your emotional state. Even darker ones (emotions and musicals). Unfortunately, I think that gets mistaken for lack of depth. And therefore, musicals get passed off as not having emotional truth or validity. On the contrary, music can be a divining rod of truth when well written. This leads to my biggest problem. How any persons who are privileged enough (yes, being an artist is a privilege that must be earned) to call themselves artists can feel they have the right to decide what is art and what isn’t is beyond me. THE MOMENT YOU DECIDE THAT YOUR ART IS BETTER OR MORE VALID THAN SOMEONE ELSE’S IS THE MOMENT YOU STOP BEING AN ARTIST. When you close a door on someone else’s form of expression, you shut a door in your heart, in your soul, in your creativity and it begins a rotting in your artist’s core.

Great people know this truth. Nicholas Hytner, who ran the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and directed Miss Saigon and the wildly successful revival of Carousel on Broadway, knew it. Trevor Nunn, who also ran the Royal Shakespeare Company, and directed Les Miserables, knew it. Tyrone Guthrie, who was the first director at the Stratford Festival of Canada and helped marshall in the first few years there and used musical productions as an integral and respected part of the seasons, knew it. Mr. William Shakespeare, himself, frequently used musical numbers in his plays. He knew the power of music. He knew the stories it helped to tell. These great artistic minds understood how much could be told through the musical form and had the insight and respect for the genre to make theatrical magic happen.

I have to say, a HUGE pet peeve of mine is when individuals who don’t get it, refer to all musicals as ‘MUSICAL COMEDIES’. Musical comedies were basically over in 1957 but thanks for paying attention. Musicals come in every shape and size. To lump Anything Goes (a beautiful, sparkling musical comedy) in with Les Miserables (starving peasants – Hmm not so funny) or The Who’s Tommy (catatonic little boy raped by his uncle – yes, that’s hilarious) as ‘Musical Comedies’ is not just asinine, but it’s lazy and takes huge artistic egotism. It’s belittling and disrespectful.

And in the same vein. I worked on a musical once where the director had never directed a musical before. This director made it very clear that he did not like musicals and he was going to “fix” the genre. He would constantly insult musicals and if someone made a bad acting choice, he would say as a general note, “I don’t want any of that bad musical comedy acting”. Now allow me to paint a picture for you. We weren’t even remotely in a “funny” musical. We were at a relatively well-known theatre. And the cast was comprised of some of the best singing actors in this country. It was constantly shocking and insulting on a daily basis. I was so shocked by what came out of his mouth and so shocked that the more experienced performers didn’t speak up. Needless to say, the show was a disaster and a flop. To this day, it’s a regret of mine I didn’t call him on some of the things he said in the moment. I let myself get overwhelmed. (I was younger then)

I wish I could say this director was the only one I’ve worked with who felt they needed to “fix” the musical. But I think it opens up another issue. The fact that these directors and these other individuals don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve maybe seen a couple of musicals, done badly, and they’ve decided (because they clearly don’t understand the genre) they don’t like musicals – which is their right – and that musicals aren’t “REAL” theatre -which is not their right. And so they feel the musical has been waiting for their help for the last 100 years. Yes, that’s right, this thriving theatrical genre that is paying the bills of most theatres in North America needs your help to . . . . . . yeah, get back to me on that one.

Now in all fairness, we have a real lack of great musical directors in Canada. (Not that there aren’t any – relax everyone) I don’t pretend to know why that is. I think one of the reasons is as a friend said (could have been Sharron – and I’m definitely paraphrasing) “Musicals are one of the easiest things to do badly but because of the music, it can still be watchable unlike when a play is badly acted” (That was a terrible paraphrase) The point is, because theatres know musicals will bring them money, they don’t always bother to make sure it’s spectacular and just get anyone to do them. Then you have a mediocre show. Then you get people seeing it who don’t like musicals and they see a mediocre show and they decide musicals are no good and then they decide musicals aren’t valid and . . . . ahhh you see a cycle? Also, because someone can have a great voice and not be a great actor, they will often get work in musicals and that can also give musical theatre actors the reputation of not being good actors. So I get that there is that side to it. But I’ve seen my fair share of TEEEERRRRRRRIIIBBBBLLLLLLLEEE non-singing actors but I’ve never just decided all non-singing actors are terrible. And there are so many singing actors in this country who are fantastic. It’s just the terrible ones who get talked about. News Flash: BAD ACTING IS BAD ACTING, Y’ALL!!!

And then there is the patronization of musical performers by non-musical performers. The talking down, the belittling of ideas and input. You see it at the larger festivals by some – I repeat SOME – performers. You will often have musical performers cross-cast into straight plays. I’ve witnessed some appalling treatment of musical performers at the hands of some of the non-musical company. Now I say ‘some’ and I mean ‘some’. I’m happy to say that there are many who do not indulge in that abhorrent, juvenile behaviour. There are amazing, experienced actors and actresses who not only appreciate the skill and technique involved in doing musicals but, in fact are in awe of ‘how many balls you have to keep in the air’ in a musical.

In the States, they understand how talented you have to be to do musicals. And I don’t mean actors who do musicals are more talented than those who do straight plays. It’s just that musical theatre performers have to have a broader skill set. As you have to sing well and sometimes dance well . . .as well. But there are bad singing actors just as there are bad non-singing actors. But somehow, in Canada in particular, a bad non-singing actor is more ‘palatable’. Now, I have to say I’ve been so blessed by the universe in my career. I’ve been in plays and I’ve been in musicals. I love them both and I’m so honoured to have had a career in both with a certain amount of success. But it is very hard to cross over. And even having said that, it is much harder to cross from doing musicals into doing straight plays.

I often check out Playbill Online to see what new plays and musicals are being written, who the performers are who are out there right now; you know, just keeping informed. I’m always thrilled to see how much cross-over there is in the U.S. And we wonder why our performers run away. Canada has a hard time celebrating it’s own. We’re a shy country. And when it’s already hard enough, why make it any harder . . . and on each other? That’s the part that kills me, it’s performer denigrating performer. It’s like devouring your own family.

Okay, so I’m at the end of my rant. It’s not very well written but I was more interested in getting it out. So what I want from all of you is this. Whether you are a performer or not, don’t let trash-talk go unchecked. I encourage all of you to call people on their ‘off-hand’ comments – ie. “It’s only a musical”, “Well, it is a musical”, “I prefer REAL theatre”, etc. Ask individuals to explain their comments. I think if they heard themselves, it would make them rethink their own ideas.

We work so hard as performers and give up so much. We have 6 day weeks, no real holidays other than Christmas, we miss family weddings, vacations, reunions, just to do what we . . .LOVE. And all we can ask for is some respect for what we are putting out there. We can’t do anything about the public opinion, but as artist to artist, we can sure as hell be more supportive than that. We all work too hard.

Whew! I may add on to this or edit in the days to come but for now, I just had to get it out.

Take care of each other, y’all.

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Published in: on June 12, 2008 at 11:46 pm  Comments (13)  

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Loved this blog…so many things to say, agree with so much of it, CANNOT WAIT TO SEE YOU ON SATURDAY. xo

  2. PUNKT!
    Such a great german word, I believe, when all that needs to be said, has been said and really, there is nothing else to say!
    Except MY 2 cents of course!
    Just a little comment on how different it really is everywhere you go. Here in Germany, they LOVE LOVE LOVE musicals. You’d be hard pressed to find a town, no matter how small without a musical in it. To be honest, I am sure there are also plays around here, someplace, but here musicals are IT! We are NOT going to talk about bad actors in great musicals in Germany. I cannot go there. Just cannot. Let’s just say the talent pool here is limited. The genre is so new still…no opportunity to weed out the bad. What does my darling hubby say “Small infractions gone uncorrected become the norm” So true in this case. There are a handful of superb musical theatre actors out here but oops they are mostly North American and almost never get the lead roles. I don’t blame them for wanting to put their own up front but WOW…sometimes, it’s just WOW…public masturbation…ah…I digress. Of course operas are highly respected then I would dare to say the musical next and then the plays. BUT ABOVE ALL ELSE IS SOCCER! They’d be smart to write a musical about soccer. It would be everlasting….hmmmmm… wheels are a turnin!
    Love and miss you! Denise
    PS After having my 3rd precious little baby girl, Cecelia Grace I had one bout of vertigo. Luckily I had a friend visiting me. I don’t know how you got yourself to the clinic. My girlfriend drove me to the military clinic here and my hubby, Pete met me there. I couldn’t even walk straight. He would kid around with people who we walked by and and say, “She got into the sauce again!” That’s right…get me while I am down. I couldn’t respond. Then the admitting nurse thought i had post partum depression. I was so upset and crying because I couldn’t even hold my baby. AND I WAS NURSING AT THE TIME. Thank goodness I was able to do that…with difficulty but i had to. I too wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. I looked it up in Louise Hay’s book and it says: Vertigo-dizziness: flight, scattered thinking. A refusal to look. affirmation for healing was “I am deeply centered and peaceful in my life. It is safe for me to be alive and joyous.”
    Nausea: Fear, rejecting an idea or experience. Affirm: I am safe. I trust the process of life to bring only good to me.
    Freakin’ hard to understand when you have an infant…what…I am ‘refusing to look at what?’ That I have a newborn and I am completely overwhelmed? What ev’s…before I blog on your blog…I shall go….big hug and kiss…d

  3. Thom…. really… nice work!
    My my….I wish it wasn’t so late I would call you!

  4. And why is opera real art but musicals are not? That’s what really gets me.

    I recently read a review of a musical in which the critic claimed there is NEVER any “deeper meaning” in a musical, and then went on to use My Fair Lady as an example, saying there is nothing more to it than surface fluff (I’m paraphrasing) and stated a good director would not try to “add” anything to it, such as social commentary. Well, excuse me, but as My Fair Lady is adapted from a G.B. Shaw play, that claim struck me as utter stupidity!

  5. Thom – DITTO, DITTO, DITTO. Eloquent, down-to-earth and OH! SO! TRUE! – Unfortunately.
    Missing you!
    Richard
    By the way, my head was spinning and my eyes trying to re-focus after reading white on black for so long. Maybe consider another background colour … just a small, insignificant comment.
    Love ya, buddy!

  6. Hi Thom!

    Thanks for writing this. Sometimes, you go through this kind of crap. It gets said to you or you just hear it and it somehow stays in you hurting…
    I’ve had long arguments about this with artists and even other people. People someone who once said to me “well, I mean, it was ok for being a canadian play”. Well, first of, this person is not an artist so he’s no one to judge what canadian theatre is like and diminish it like that!!! and second of all; the show he was talking about wasn’t even something to base judgement about Canada, or theatre, or ANYTHING!!
    I’m not canadian, but I’ve lived here for the past 2 years and adopted the language, culture, weather, everything, JUST FOR LOVE FOR THE THEATRE.
    It seems so unfair to me that people will put it down without even knowing why. “how can you listen to so many showtunes, they all sounds the same” what????
    People are so ignorant, they think that because they know something very very well, may be because they are experts on something, they have the right to decide what’s good and what’s bad.
    My question is, how do we explain? I too had an experience once where I should’ve said something but I was so mad that I just left. I always regret that I didn’t speak up that time…. But I really don’t know… These people live in total ignorance and really like that! They feel invaded with disagreement and they shut themselves, they won’t discuss…
    I hope we find a way to bring this up, to spread the word… to show that a musical theatre performer can not only be as good as a theatre performer but can also handle 2 more disciplines sometimes all at the same time, and still make you feel, still be real, present… we still give ourselves to the audience…

  7. Well said sir, well said!
    What has always struck me as strange is the fact that we actually need MORE skills to do our job well when working in a musical.
    Of course our “reality” is heightened in musical theatre, that is where the form sits. but to assume that it is not based in truth because of that or to assume that one cannot shift into a different genre (“Straight plays” for example) is dismissive to a large portion of this community and to the art form itself.
    Your right> it is our job to politely remind our people that theatre in canada in any form has to be celebrated we must support each other!

  8. Thom, this post is a wonderful, passionate, insightful, big-hearted cry for respect. And – a manifesto of self-respect for anyone working in the musical theatre.

    And remember – those small-minded, insecure, imperious ‘straight’ actors and directors who belittle and mock their peers in the ‘musical theatre’ are much the same as the bullies in the playground whom we all remember. It is their own shaky sense of legitimacy, their own fear, which prompts them to try and diminish and hurt others. So, yes – the best way to meet a bully is to stand firm and, hopefully, start a conversation. Unfortunately, just about every kind of actor – not to say artist – in our country feels disregarded, dismissed and infantilized most of the time. Sometimes, the disheartened and unrecognized will simply lash out at their own, rather than stand up and speak out against the larger systemic problems which we all face in our fight for respect.

  9. Ah Thom. You are a man after my own heart. Those words could have come from my mouth….well, if there was more profanity and less concern about stepping on people’s toes. Thanks for reminding us all that it is UP TO US to be the change we want to see.

    Please continue to be fabulous.

    xxx
    Patrick Brown

  10. Yeah! What Patrick Brown said! Love you Thom, couldn’t agree more.

  11. Who cared about Spring Awakening before it became a musical and won eight Tony Awards? Exactly.

  12. was recently dialogin’ with koralee of this phenomenon and she mentioned your blog. all i have to say is AMEN, brother! artists who devour other art forms – in theatre and elsewhere – boggle my mind. glad to see i’m not the only one. xo

  13. Hey “W. Gray”! I always cared about Franz Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening”, (fer instance: mind-boggling Derek Goldby production at Toronto’s ‘Bluma’ in the late 80s – yes, old news, blah,blah), but saw the musical in NYC last year and genuflect before its fabulous, current re-incarnation. (The second act kind of sucked and capitulated a bit, though, c’mon…) Recycling and re-imagining our greatest cultural signposts — that’s the ticket!


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