I’ve Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway
29 Apr 2011
Inside the Classics

This spring has turned into a ridiculously busy one for me, and I may not have time to write as many new posts as usual for the next several weeks. But I don’t want to leave the blog bare, lest you all get out of the habit of coming here, so I’ll try to make sure that something new goes up at least every few days. Some of it will probably be even sillier than normal, or only peripherally related to orchestra music.

This particular post is both silly and peripheral, and I wrote it ages ago, when I was young and foolish and had a pre-blog-era website called 4th Stand Inside. It occurred to me to revisit this particular essay this afternoon when I was asked, for seemingly the 342nd time this year, whether I watch Glee. I don’t, and I sort of resent that I’m expected to like it just because I’m gay, but that resentment was undermined by the fact that the reason the question was asked this afternoon was because I had brought up the subject of Broadway musicals.

Anyway, my stock response to the Glee question has become, “I don’t have to watch it. I lived it.” And that’s where this silly old essay picks up the story…

It is one of the great shames of my young life that, for the better part of four years of my adolescence, I was a fan of that most unforgivably silly of American art forms, the Broadway mega-musical. (We’re not talking Sondheim here, who actually went to my high school, and whose brilliant work I still treasure. We’re talking Andrew Lloyd Webber and downward from there.) More than just being a fan, I was a participant in several episodes of the long-running experiment in social awkwardness and misplaced confidence known as the School Musical. Worse than drama geeks, worse than band geeks were we, the Broadway geeks, our zeal for simplistic tunes and bad lyrics outdone only by our capacity for self-delusion in the area of our ability to hit that high B-flat in Miss Saigon. We cruised the back roads of Bucks County, Pennsylvania in our parents’ Volvos, ‘rehearsing’ at the top of our lungs, trying to figure out what the lyrics in Starlight Express mean (nothing,) and planning how we were going to make this year’s production of Godspell the greatest production of Godspell in the history of the George School musical theater department!

It was all Amanda’s fault, really. I had met her when I was a freshman and she a world-wise sophomore. I was a textbook teen dork, with glasses, braces, and a case of facial acne frequently mistaken for late-stage leprosy, and the one saving grace I had to offer my new high school was my ability to accurately sing a pitch, any pitch, on command without hearing it first. It had not occurred to me that this might be a useful skill until Amanda came along.

Amanda was that most dangerous of creatures – a lover of the geekier elements of musical theater, certainly, but in no way any sort of geek herself. Beautiful, kind, and self-assured, she was a deadly come-on, a siren singing to me of the glories of stage life, the thrill of standing in front of a crowd and belting out sappy ballads. I was easy prey, desperate for attention and a sucker for any kind of applause, and within two weeks of meeting her, I would have followed Amanda anywhere.

Where I followed her first was straight into the gaping maw of mediocrity that is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I hardly had a starring role, but so dazzled was I by the chance to exhibit my talents in a real live musical that the lack of glory escaped me completely. Playing one of Joseph’s evil brothers, my big moment consisted of a single line in the song Those Canaan Days, but I delivered it with a gusto and panache that would have been appropriate for a portrayal of Hamlet running Laertes through with the poisoned sword.

My parents did their best to be supportive of me during this difficult time, just as they were encouraging when I started my own detective agency at the age of 6, but there was a definite uneasiness in the house as I became more and more obsessed with the worst examples of the genre to be found. I had no use for South Pacific or Merrily We Roll Along, but knew every word to such gems as 1776 – The American Revolution, complete with the entire declaration of independence read more or less in real time, set to music! What could be better? – and the aforementioned debacle on roller skates, Starlight Express.

Eventually, Amanda left for college, and I was forced to take a hard look at my obsession. I had already begun to lean towards the view that Andrew Lloyd Webber really wasn’t a composer so much as a sampler of other people’s work, and there was never really any escaping the fact that while I was an accurate and reliable singer, I was not actually a good singer. These were hard realizations, but not terribly surprising ones.

By the time I hit college, I had purged my CD collection of nearly every musical I had ever loved, and had resolved never again to waste my time with such trivial stuff. I broke this vow exactly one month into my freshman year, when I joined an all-male a cappella group called – seriously – the Oberlin Obertones, and spent several hours a week singing arrangements of ’80s pop tunes which would have made even Lloyd Webber cringe. The highlight of the group’s year was when we went on tour to a women’s college in Massachusetts over Christmas break, where we were hosted by one of that school’s a cappella groups, the star of which turned out to be, naturally, Amanda.

We two spent the weekend cruising around Northampton, downing tequila shots and belting out show tunes, a binge which left me drained, exhausted, filled with that old euphoric delusion that bad music could be good if you sang it loud enough, and with a nagging voice at the back of my skull telling me that it was time to make a clean break.

I don’t tell many tales about my former life as a budding Broadway geek these days. But there are those among my circle of friends who have noted with some amusement that, when our orchestra plays pops shows featuring Broadway numbers, I can sometimes be seen mouthing the words from my seat in the viola section. And, truth be told, squirreled away in the back of my TV cabinet is a well-worn VHS copy of 1776 which I’ve never quite been able to get rid of. And really, why should I? If I want to supplement my knowledge of American history with a three-hour extravaganza featuring such classic hits as “My Name is Richard Henry Lee” and “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” then who’s to say I can’t?

And besides, Amanda gave it to me. She always said I’d make a great John Adams.

<February 2020>

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