How Has Musical Theatre Inspired Us?
Someone recently asked me what inspired me to do what I do in and around publishing in the performing arts. I talked about literature, classic theatre – and musicals. For a language person, literature seems a good jumping-off point, but how do musicals hold equal weight? I began to talk to others, and it became apparent that many of us involved in performing arts include musical theatre as inspiration to pursue what we do best in the performing world.
Inspiring A Storyteller: “Confidence to delve into the world of words”
I am always intrigued by how a story is told as much as by the story itself. Storytelling is one of those incredible things that set us apart from other animals, along with those fabulous opposable thumbs (possibly evolved for piano playing). How a story is told is the underlying current in any theatrical piece, and musical theatre uses a myriad of languages to set that current in motion: speech, music, dance, mime, sound, lighting, costume – all conveyed by people. Of course, it can be daunting to want to be a part of the fun, to want to be a player in the storytelling. I was shy, young, and certainly scared when in my first show. But the feeling that other people – peers especially – were happy that I was a part of the same experiment and fun, went such a long way to make me feel welcome. Once I saw that everyone was in, and I was part of that “everyone,” I felt more confident to talk about what excited me. With each consecutive show, I felt better about my interest in words and how they are used.
Participating in musicals gave me confidence to delve in to the world of words. Scripts, lyrics, and interpretations of the language on the page were my fodder.
So how were others in the performing arts bolstered or influenced by musical theatre? I called a few friends in the business to ask them.
Inspiring A Musical Theatre Champion: “The ability to listen critically”
Before my conversations began, I saw several interviews with one of our new stars of musical theatre, Lin-Manuel Miranda. As a writer, teacher and performer, Mr. Miranda embraces so much of what musical theatre offers. He is a tireless champion for musical theatre, and in several interviews he addressed what about musical theatre prompted him to do what he does – act, write, teach, advocate.
“I think what a liberal arts education gave me was the ability to listen critically,” he explained to Josephine Reed of the National Endowment for the Arts in May of 2016. “I had an amazing student-run theatre program at my high school, and I was doing a play in the fall, a musical in the winter, and… student-written plays every spring… and that’s how I figured out who I was.
“Even if I’d never gone into theatre, the ability to make friends with kids from other grades (which is so important when you’re in high school and everything seems like the biggest deal in the world)… the values of teamwork, camaraderie, and, my god, just practice and rehearsal and how long it takes to get something right– those would have served me well in whatever I’d gone into, just by virtue of having done them. So to me, it’s the silver bullet that lets you do all the other things well.”
When talking to the Broadway Teachers Workshop in July of 2016, Mr. Miranda credited his time teaching for cementing his love of musical theatre, and as a tool in learning social and performing skills: “The best moments when you’re a teacher [are] when you’re laying back and the kids are making the connections for themselves and all you do is keep the ball in the air,” he said. “I think the best actors know how to listen… they listen to their fellow castmates and they hold them up. They realize they’re twice as strong when they are in an ensemble than when they’re center stage and in the spotlight… I’m always grateful for the way the arts can engender empathy.”
What about others who work in the arts? What prompted them to find their niche?
Inspiring A Publicity Agent: “Spreading the word about plays and musicals”
Susan L Schulman runs a successful public relations company in New York City (Susan L Schulman Publicity). She loves promoting and marketing shows all over the city, and she credits musical theatre as one of her early influences for working as a Publicity Agent.
“The first Broadway musical [I saw] starred life-size Bill Baird marionettes. My parents thought it was a good show to introduce my brother and me to Broadway, and it was,” she explains. “Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, I also attended Hunter College High School, but… it was still an all girl school at that time. Hunter girls were invited to audition for plays and musicals at McBurney School for Boys… Not only did we have fun learning the music and the blocking, we got to do it with boys!”
Susan tells me working in the musicals was just so much fun. She may not have been the best actor, but she enjoyed trying, and always got a big kick out of running around telling everyone about the show.
“At NYU I majored in English and Theatre,” she explains. “I wanted to be in the theatre but knew I wasn’t talented or tough enough to be an actor. In high school and college I’d always been the one beating the bushes and spreading the word about the plays and musicals…
My first job after college was at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, as Assistant to the Press Director, Jack Frizzelle. He trained and nurtured me, and I eventually worked for several theatre press agents before opening my own theatrical press office.”
After many years as a publicity agent, Susan still has unending energy and enthusiasm for musical theatre and for the work she does to promote it.
Inspiring A Performer and Teacher: “The bug bit when I was five”
Linda Kerns is a Broadway actress and singer, and Associate Professor of Singing at the UCLA School of Theatre, Television and Film. She has been on Broadway multiple times – and I’m pretty sure will be again – as well as on stage in many productions in Los Angeles and around the country. Even when in a show, Linda teaches voice at UCLA, guiding students who are learning to sing on stage. When she was quite young, her teachers spotted her singing voice, encouraged her talent and introduced her to musicals. Knowing how much they helped and influenced her, Linda now nurtures the next generation of singers. “It was my kindergarten class’s performance of THE LITTLE WHITE RABBIT WHO WANTED RED WINGS,” she explains. “I played the title character. God Bless my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Santee… I truly do think the bug bit when I was five, but when… finally in a show, I found that I was really valued and appreciated.”
“Mrs. Hatzfeld, my tenth grade music teacher, and when I was in college for music, a TA who taught a drama elective, woke me up to how much I loved theatre and how much regret I would be carrying with me the rest of my life if I didn’t give it a shot…. You know, I just have to say to all of the teachers out there that even when your students are really, really young, you have a profound influence on them. ‘Children will listen…’ If my kindergarten teacher hadn’t wanted to do that little twenty-minute musical, and invited the parents to come sit on those metal folding chairs, my life might have taken a completely different turn.”
Discovering her talent came by way of encouragement from teachers. Linda responded and went on to a wonderful dual career on stage and as a voice instructor.
Inspiring A Producer: “Theatre was how I introduced myself to the world”
Jamie Salka is the CEO and Lead Producer of The Striking Vikings Story Pirates, an education and media company that takes stories written by children and builds small musicals around them. Starting as a pilot program, The Story Pirates is now nationally recognized, with branches in NYC and LA. Children in the Pirates program build language and social skills, all while having a great time. Jamie was introduced to musicals as a kid, as so many of us were. He was also shy, as many of us were, yet he wanted to be a part of this world where a story could be told with so much fun.
“My family is a musical family and show tunes are the soundtrack of my life,” he says. “The first show I saw was PETER PAN and I just remember feeling like I had a religious experience, it was that exciting… I used to get in trouble when I was little: I cut up my mother’s satin sheets and hung them on my jungle gym to make curtains. I was the star of whatever show, and my siblings were the other performers. We had a professional operation going! We made tickets and charged our parents money to see the show. They were also required to purchase raffle tickets where they had the chance to win back their own television!
“I was heavily involved in theatre in every school and every summer camp I went to. For me, the theatre was how I introduced myself to the world. I was inherently shy, and theatre gave me the outlet to be a different person. People saw me and I was more accessible – it was a way to open my heart to the world. I loved my high school so much I stole names off the door of the offices of my teachers and took them to college with me. I credit my [theatre] teachers at Crossroads school, in Santa Monica, with creating memories that last a lifetime. Davida Hurwin and Scott Weintraub I would single out.
“I went to college to be a performer but by the time I got out, priorities had changed and I wanted to be a director because I didn’t want to be one part of the story, I wanted to be part of the totality of the story. I did some directing for a few years – but I got into producing. I found it was a way of being the ultimate ringmaster. I wanted the biggest storytelling job possible, and being a producer allowed me to tell everyone’s story. Especially the Story Pirates, because it’s about giving an outlet to the people whose stories are not often heard.”
One of the super secret successful ingredients to what The Story Pirates do is that their shows also appeal to parents, teachers, and any adult who happens by. In any show, the mix of ages having a good time and learning things would be the envy of any producer. Jamie jumped in to what he loved and now tells hundreds of stories.
It’s enlightening to hear other artists’ stories of how musical theater was, and is, an important part of all they do and love in the arts. Looking at all we have accomplished, musical theater is clearly an inspiration that continually helps us create, and keeps us going.
Eleanore Speert is the President of Speert Publishing, the Buyer for The Drama Book Shop, and has been working exclusively in theater publishing for over thirty years. For Spotlight on Musicals, she recently contributed a three-part series on the Benefits of Musical Theatre: Confidence, Community, and Education.