The Music of My Life

'The Phantom of the Opera' photo (c) 2007, yuhui - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Even though friends of mine have threatened to block me from their feeds for this confession, I have to make it.

I am a musical theater fan.

I'm not a geek...because that requires a level of intense immersion and scrutiny that I have difficulty mustering for long periods of time. But I love, love, love it. I cut my teeth on Fiddler on the Roof, Annie, and The Sound of Music. Mary Poppins was my lullaby  As soon as I was old enough, my parents took me to see every musical performance at the high school where my aunt attended. I saw South Pacific, Carousel, She Loves Me, and more I cannot recall.  I watched the King and I and OKLAHOMA on VHS . I watched Into The Woods and Showboat on PBS. I watched The Mikado and The New Moon (operettas). I even watched some opera with my mother from time to time...I saw part of the Ring Cycle, and Bluebeard. I cannot recall a time in my life when records weren't playing and we weren't singing along, or my mother wasn't bringing home a new show from the library to watch.

There were large gaps in my education. My mother tended to prefer classics and eschewed Sondheim for Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe. She wasn't a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber either. Cats left her cold, Jesus Christ Superstar offended her, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? Meh.

Then my aunt discovered The Phantom of the Opera. It must have just opened in the US, because I remember her being about 16 when she brought home the original London cast recording. When I heard the overture with the rocking organ and driving beat It absolutely chilled me in the best possible way. And my mother loved it too, and we listened to it together, adored it together. We thought it was crazy that the Phantom was played by Michael Crawford, who I knew primarily from a Disney flop called Condorman that my family loved without irony. How did that goofy guy manage to sing so angelically? I didn't realize that he had been in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Hello Dolly, though I did see him in Barnum on television a little later.

A few years later my parents were able to procure tickets to see the touring company of Phantom in Louisville. The times were wrong, they only saw the second half, but they went back and were able to see the whole show the next week. My parents were  besotted by what they had seen. I was listening to the soundtrack non-stop and insanely jealous. When friends of mine were going to Chicago to see the show I begged them to drive me. I used my birthday money and procured my first ticketmaster ticket.

To this day, that performance remains one of the most important experiences of my entire life. My entire body was filled with adrenaline from the moment the chandelier rose above the audience to the haunting, terrifying organ refrain. It was electrifying. And when the climax of show happened in the second act...I cannot reveal it to you, because I myself did not know what was going to occur, and I was so startled, so moved, that I sobbed for twenty minutes. I had heard the soundtrack a hundred times, knew every song, but I did not know THAT was going to happen. When I met up with my  friends my face was swollen from the convulsive crying.

I can't tell you how long I was obsessed with Phantom, but it was your typical adolescent crush. I wrote love poetry for Erik, and drew pictures of the mask. I requested a mask from the San Francisco Music Box company for my wall (which has since been broken.) The only thing that damped my ardor was a boy in my Advanced Musical Theater Tech class who scoffed and said that the technical aspect of shows like Phantom and Miss Saigon were ruining theater.

YES. I was in an Musical Theater class. And did I mention I can't sing or dance? Because I can't. This was quite a blow to the girl who loved musicals so much they she would stage them for her family using Barbie Dolls. My mom always assured me if I just tried harder I could be a great singer, failing to note that I had limited range and was completely tone deaf. I did try...I sang in choirs much to the chagrin of the choral master at school  and even took voice lessons from a woman whose stomach made perpetual gurgling sounds. But I seemed to have an untrainable ear. As much as I loved learning to sing in German it didn't love me.

And dancing? Fuggetaboutit. I was raised Nazarene so that meant I had no practice in social dancing, and I was raised poor so that also meant no lessons in "cultural" dancing. Oh yeah, and NO TALENT. This became painfully clear in the Musical Theater class, where I was quickly stuck away in the back corner where no one could see me during performances. I loved taking ballet, even if we were dancing to John Denver and Kenny Loggins. But it became painfully clear that this is not what my life was about. Even more clearly when I auditioned for West Side Story and blew everyone away with my audition for "Anydbody's" as far as acting goes, but failed to impress anyone with my singing and frankly horrified everyone with my dancing.

I had always acted in grade school and middle school but high school's tendency to prefer musicals to ordinary plays meant I barely graced a stage the whole time I was in school. Occasionally they would toss me a bone in the form of a chorus part but I preferred acting artistic to actually making art, and my foolish snobbery kept me from getting any better at what I thought I wanted to do. But I did love the class I took, the way it familiarized me with music I'd never heard and having a chance to recognize true genius at work in other kids, some who have wound up on Broadway.

I continued to enjoy shows...I have seen Les Miserables twice, and Jekyll and Hyde (which had some truly impressive staging elements, like Jekyll and Hyde singing a duet with HIMSELF with only posture and lighting changes to differentiate the characters, and lighting most of the stage on FIRE at one point.) But for the most part I haven't really immersed myself in musical theater the way I used to.

A switch was flipped in my brain last week when the trailer for the new Les Miserables movie came to my attention. It looks to be a beautiful adaptation with all the actors singing live. I've been listening to the soundtrack and somehow while looking up things about Les Miz I discovered that a staging of Phantom of the Opera was filmed last year at Royal Albert Hall. (I barely acknowledge the movie from 2004...Gerard Butler? That's a travesty.) Some of the staging is different from the normal show due to venue constraints (no chandelier crash?)  but it was still enjoyable and I loved showing it to my kids.

The only thing is...I haven't stopped.

I have found video of Michael Crawford as Phantom that I never knew existed, and it has been a joy seeing him perform the character. His cat walk and the movement of his hands are a beautiful compliment to his unearthly voice. I have watched documentaries and interviews...it's been 1988 all over again. I feel like I am able to take part in something I missed over 20 years ago, thanks to technology.

This obsessiveness will burn out...it always does. Something in the winter always turns on the goth in my soul. I crave candles, velvet, darkness and drama. The Phantom has been the perfect companion to the season.

And thankfully my family has enjoyed going along for the ride. My daughter has decided she wants to perform Christine Daae when she grows up, and she definitely wants to be her for Halloween next year. I've already decided to buy her Merida's hair from Brave and a long white nightgown for Christmas. I've seen her dance, and I've heard her sing, and I'm a little worried she might be like her old mom. High on passion, low on talent.

Time will tell.

In the meantime, we are going to keep dancing and singing in the kitchen!