Saturday, April 14, 2012

Musical remedies

There aren't many things you can count on when you're feeling down. Of course there's family, hopefully friends, maybe a psychologist to talk you through things. But what about those times when it just doesn't feel right to talk things over with someone?

I turn to musicals.

In my deepest, darkest moments I've always found that the best medicine isn't laughter, it's a showtune. A lot of theater makes you feel the same way that real emotions do, but it does so in a way that makes you feel whole rather than broken, by giving you a way to think about your sadness and feel stronger instead of weaker. Or sometimes they just make you forget about it altogether.

Today I watched The Sound of Music for class. Listening to "Edelweiss," I realized there was no particular relevance of the lyrics, or even the story, to my own life. But the combination of Richard Rodger's music and the memory of my mom reciting Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics to me as a child made me feel calm and peaceful. And I forgot about the fact that I was watching the movie for homework. It felt instead like a personal study, instead of a filmic one.

Spring Awakening at the Novello Theatre in London
Even when I'm not watching for class, I tend to get absorbed in the music of Broadway in such a way that it makes all else seem trivial and stupid. When I feel lost without my mom, I might listen to "Slipping Through My Fingers" from Mamma Mia!. When I'm angry at the world, I'll throw on "The Bitch of Living" from Spring Awakening. When I've been wronged by someone, I turn on the song "Forget About the Boy" from Thoroughly Modern Millie.

And unlike the effect of most other music, I start to feel the weight of my soul lifting off when I hear these songs. The troubles I had are washed away as I dance or stomp around my room, warble loudly into a hairbrush, point at my walls and pretend that I'm singing directly to the object of my thoughts.

Because something happens when you let your feelings take over as you listen to a song like the ones I do - songs with stories behind them. Life gains clarity as you put yourself out of your shoes and into a pair of dancing heels, feeling how the character feels. It's not exactly transporting your mind out of your body, because in truth you're finding yourself in the song. But you're moving yourself in a way that requires that the only speaker and listener, sharer and confidante is you and the music itself.

I've always appreciated having people around me who want to talk with me about my problems. It's nice to have that person down the hall or a phone call away who will listen to you gripe about the mundane issues you go through every day. Until you realize that there's something you just can't share.

Whether it's because it's just too personal, it's become old news or you can't figure out who would care to hear about it, there's always going to be that one thing you can't talk about with anyone. And letting it weigh on you is no way to get rid of it.

So I listen to music, music that reminds me that I'm not alone. In the same way that calling home, my dad might share his own experiences that relate to mine, a good musical theater number is about sharing an experience with a character, relating your own life with the one that appears on stage.

One of my favorite songs from any musical is the ballad "I'm Not that Girl" from Wicked. Even if I've never been in Elphaba's position (watching a boy I love fall in love with someone else), the lyrics speak to me in a way that is everlasting and constantly relevant.

Elphaba laments on the faults that society pushes on her - she doesn't have gold hair with a gentle curl that will keep her the envy of all other girls at school. Boys aren't fighting over her. She's just simple and plain...and green.

Sometimes I feel green. I feel blue because I feel green. I stick out of the crowd, I don't fit in because I'm not the same as everyone else. And it makes me sad.

I don't want to be run-of-the-mill, and like Elphaba I've learned to accept my differences as assets, even if the general population might not agree. But that doesn't throw away those moments when I really feel the need to sing the song, to feel the pain of not being that girl.

A lot of musical theater is passed off as fluffy and unrealistic. The pep that some shows have detracts from the legitimate emotions that are present, even in those same musicals. Wicked is a perfect example with its songs like "Dancing Through Life" and "One Short Day," or even "Thank Goodness".

But I once read an article complaining about the fact that Wicked - which underneath it's pleasant surface is about the darkness of the world and the facades that are placed in front of it to make us believe it's a magical, beautiful place - is often misconstrued as a feel-good show.

It's not a feel-good show. And in reality, even the most adorable and fun musicals usually have some plot point that provides conflict and a much heavier theme. In Hairspray, race plays an integral role in a story that sounds like it centers around one girl's journey toward the perfect bouffant. In West Side Story, even happy-sounding songs like "America" are about difficult conditions in Puerto Rico and the problems of acclimating to a new society where immigrants are considered unwanted outsiders.

There's so much in musical theater that speaks to the world, to the collective human mind and to our own hearts. When you need a shoulder to cry on, but you can't figure out whose to use - sometimes the genius of a great song or piece of theater is just the right remedy. They're more thoughtful than you might think.

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