Several years ago, I got asked to direct the music for a show…to which my response was “really? You want me. To teach people how to sing songs about dictionaries and erections?”
It didn’t pay very much money, and sure, I was in musicals growing up, but somewhat obligator-arily. At the time, I was more likely found in a practice room brushing up on my aria ornamentations, not teaching community theater people how to sing without hurting themselves (hint: your neck veins should not be popping out). I was half-honored, half-appalled that someone somewhere must have seen me as a good fit for the job, and frolicking around pretending to be a 12-year-old would be good for my career. Musical theater buffs – have you figured out the show yet?
So I went with it. I figured I was already spending a lot of my life suppressing little-kid-isms and being ridiculously juvenile, so might as well do that where it’s socially acceptable. It ended up being my gateway show. Fast-forward a few years and I’ve learned lot of things about the Wonderful World of Community Theater AND have sort of maybe grown into myself as a musician and teacher. Take that, Judy Blume.
What I learned Professionally:
My sight-reading skills shot from less-than acceptable to “oh, I didn’t know I knew that key!” If you’ve ever looked at musical theater pieces, they have the most. god-awful. rhythms you’ve ever seen, and are inevitably written in the key of Gbbbbb## major. Thanks, singers, for making pianists want to jump off a cliff with all your frivilous range demands (don’t worry, guys, I can say that…I’m a singer). There’s a certain level of “translation” that happens when someone sits down to accompany a show; they usually only play maybe a third of what’s actually written on the page. The rest is all made up crap that any decent pianist should know how to fake their way through. Do they teach you this in college? NO. I may have gotten a teensy taste in that one-year jazz piano stint that I had to beg the university to let me take. The rest I learned in community theater, and no amount of scales and arpeggios can prepare you for playing in the key of asinine.
My network of peeps suddenly became all 7-Degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon. Everyone knew someone who knew you, who knows someone else who knows you, and of those people, I was bound to work with some of them again in some future, semi-professional capacity. A lot of those people (and their kids or friends) ended up later becoming my private students. They knew I could sit down and somewhat-adequately coach them through I Hate Men without making them sing it operatically, a personal experience I wish I could say I made up.
Agreeing to do shows opened me up to a whole world of repertoire I hadn’t really ever been exposed to, which ultimately made me more legit as a voice teacher. Musical theater pieces can ingeniously pull together all those styles you never really paid attention to in music history. Sometimes I feel like there’s a private little joke going on between me and the composer. Today, I nerd out when I watch shows as an audience member. I have this friend and fellow voice teacher who I’ll sometimes go see shows with (that is, if neither of us are actually involved in them), and we will literally sit and take notes about future potential pieces to add to our studios. I keep a whole stack of programs with scribbles in the margin like “good mid-range tessitura,” “not for altos” and “screechy.” We’re like the really annoying “citizen” critics at movie theaters, the ones you give dirty looks to for talking through the movie, but with whom you secretly agree that Amanda Seyfried’s vibrato is out of control. So many sopranos in the world don’t do that and would love to be paid for it…just sayin’.
For however much my involvement in CT has played a role in my “career,” the most rewarding parts were never really professionally-related. Everyone who does MT wants to be there, albeit for different reasons. The only people getting paid, more often than not, are the director, choreographer (sometimes), musical director, and tech director. Everyone else eats ramen for 6 weeks so they can live the dream. Nowhere else in my life do I observe such an extreme polarity between “work hard” and “play hard.” MT people work their asses off, and conversely, are some the hardest partiers I’ve ever met. Could have something to do with the fact that a lot of them are just plain certifiable, but that’s neither here nor there. I have my limits when it comes to partying, but the nice thing is MT people understand that and don’t usually push me to do things I don’t want to do. They’re so directly in touch with their emotions; they have to be. After all, they are making out with people who are not their spouses on a regular basis (most of which is on the actual stage). So I always have fun, but only as much as I ever want or need. That is the kind of symbiotic relationship I seek, professionally and personally.
I’m not saying I have a wildly successful career doing local shows. I wouldn’t even really consider myself a prominent figure in the whole local CT scene. There are others that are way more involved, that do shows back-to-back, or even travel 40+ miles a day to get to be “Factory Girl #1” in Les Mis…because, well, it’s Les Mis! I’ve even had some really horrible experiences a few times, most of which can be attributed to one director. A director can really make or break the whole show synergy of a production (or, in my case, ruin it…)…but I suppose having a horrible boss is not exclusive to community theater.
The best part of all this is that I discovered a way to use my musical skills to create a product and share it with the world. Well isn’t that special. But really, at the heart of it, don’t all true creatives just want to contribute? To affect (with an “a”) someone? Yes. To have made an impact, however small or ridiculous, and through whatever means necessary, musical or otherwise. I just never expected that to happen while wearing a nun costume…but hey, to each their own.