In musical theatre, it's said that there is a song for every part of life. In the morning, my alarm is set to "Seize the Day" from Disney's "Newsies." I can't think of a greater wake-up call with a strong reminder: that it's a new day and it's time to make every minute of it. Recently, as I listened to "Avenue Q", I began to realize I related to it more than I did before. As a recent college graduate, I was now embarking on the same journey as the characters I had listened to many times before.
Musical theatre is far beyond just a form of entertainment. It also serves as a place of refuge for many people. In recent years, online fandoms have been formed around musicals that include "Newsies," "Hamilton," "Dear Evan Hansen," "Heathers," and many more. Musical theatre also holds an educational value and be a leader towards open forums and discussions.
On the historical front, musicals like "Les Misérables" gives an insight to the French revolution from a fictional perspective. Over time, people have become engaged in learning about the actual history of the French revolution. The increased interest in history also happened with the most recent musical to enter a pop culture phenomenon.
"Hamilton: An American Musical" entertains, but also tells the story of Alexander Hamilton (and the founding of the US) through hip-hop. While some parts may be only for the stage, there are many facts that are true about his life. Due to its pop culture influence, many others have purchased books about American history. There was especially a spike in sales for Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton, the book in which the musical is based upon. In addition, an increase in tourism and visits to historical sites, such as the Museum of American Finance, in which Hamilton founded.
Although, it's most important influences comes from the discussions it has created surrounding diversity and history. In a time of #OscarsSoWhite, Hamilton brought the discussion of diversity to Broadway. It expressed the importance of representation and diversity on stage and in any story. At the same time, it brought up the issue of how the history of people of color in the United States is often ignored. While people of color contributed to the founding and development of the country, their parts and influence are left out. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc. telling the story of the founding of America is a small way of claiming it back.
This same discussion leads to the unfortunate focus the education system takes on the founding fathers. The history that is taught tells us the accomplishments of the founding fathers, but leaves out their participation in slavery and other things considered to be negative.
If you're not taking the time to learn the real stories and history behind a musical, you're doing it wrong.
"Bandstand: The Broadway Musical", a musical that takes places shortly after World War II, does much more than tell the history of the war. It mainly focuses on the war's impact on the returning soldiers from a social and mental perspective. The stories of the soldier's PTSD and other inflictions focuses on a large issue that is still current with today's veterans. The way soldiers are expected to transition and resume normal life with sometimes little to no assistance is an ongoing issue. The show perfectly illustrates this issue and a visual display of the ghost/baggage that follows them back from war.
The cast of the musical dedicated each show to a veteran and honors many by hanging their pictures among the theater's wall. The show has opened a larger discussion around the treatment of veterans and how it needs to be improved. There have also been stories where veterans have opened up with their experiences, which led to them getting resources to help.
Without the aspect of the military, other shows have focused on the issues of mental illness and health. "Next to Normal" tells the story of a mother struggling with bipolar disorder and the effects it has on her family. As you watch, you start to become aware of the struggles of those living with bipolar disorder as the show visualizes the mother's thought process. In addition, you gain not only an understanding for the individual, but their family.
Most recently, "Dear Evan Hansen," tells the story of a teenager who struggles with severe social anxiety. The show explores the themes of mental illness among young adults, including youth suicide. The stories of mental illness need to be told about people of any age, gender, or demographic. Each show has brought awareness to the importance of mental health and how it not only affects the individual, but those around them.
As more of these stories get told, it can lead to larger discussions regarding mental health when it comes to not only everyday life, but the role it plays in work and school. This is in addition to understanding how mental illness affects everyone differently due to their environment and circumstance. Since its opening, many young adults have expressed their own struggles with mental illness and the effects of pressures from society. It's the hope that show's like these continue to guide more discussions about these issues and allow others to feel more comfortable expressing their experiences and seeking help and support.
A substantial portion of musical theatre puts an emphasis on culture and identity.
"In the Heights" is a musical that centers around a Latino/Puerto Rican community. Outside of "West Side Story" and "Man of La Mancha", not many roles or positive experiences exist for the Latino community on the stage. "In the Heights" provides an exposure to the amazing heritage and culture of the community, without regressing to the known stereotypes.
As an African-American woman, I understand the need for representation in all forms of media. This musical gave those in the Latino community who enjoy musicals, a chance to connect with something that represented themselves. It also helps to bring in more people to the musical theater community as they realize there is a place for them on the stage.
I remember watching the musical's Tony performance and becoming entranced at the beauty of Latin dancing and the culture being showcased on the stage. For me, it also sparked an interest in learning Spanish, which I have yet to master. Although, there are 3 words I do know in Spanish: corner, store, lightbulb. I only have "In the Heights" to thank for that.
When it comes to identity, the Broadway community has shown a large respect for the LGBTQIA+ community. There are many shows that embrace a love for one's self and their sexual identity. Musicals such as "RENT" and "Falsettos", feature gay and lesbian relationships while also focusing on the history of the LGBTQ+ community in the 80s and the AIDS crisis.
Shows such as "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", "La Cage aux Folles", and "Kinky Boots" (including Angel from "RENT"), provides stories of the trans community, drag queens, and those who do not conform to their gender.
For many, it becomes their first time experiencing the community. For those who have an identity within the LGBTQ+ community, these shows and their characters function as representation and support for who they are.
During pride month, I witnessed fans of the musical theater community share stories about how not only LGBTQIA+ characters inspired them, but actors as well. Actors such as Andrew Rannells ("Book of Mormon," "Falsettos") and Jenn Colella ("Come From Away") provide positivity and support towards their fans. Trans actors, like MJ Rodriguez ("RENT," "Pose"), have played trans roles while being an active voice for trans rights and representation in all forms of media.
There is a huge importance to actual members of the community playing the roles in which they represent. It ensures the community is properly represented and opens up roles for those in the community, creating more diversity and equality.
The musical community has become a sanctuary that has led to connections, discussions, relationships that have all worked together to create progress in equality, diversity and so much more. Each time I listen to a musical, it leads to new discoveries about myself and the world. The beauty of musical theatre is something worth sharing and enjoying with others. It's a world where you are allowed to be open and comfortable as yourself. Before you know it, it's a world you never want to leave and within your heart becomes a home.