Last night I attended a performance of Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom, presented by the DBU music department. I don’t really want to get into a critique of the performance, or a comparison between this musical version of the story and the Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera. Instead, I want to share some thoughts that were stirred up by the event – thoughts concerning musical performance in general.
As a musician and mother of other musicians, I have a more personal perspective on this type of production than perhaps your typical concert-goer. I’ve probably attended more performances of musicals and operas than the average person would ever want to see. I’ve enjoyed a life-long passion for musical theater, and as an undergraduate music student I learned to love opera as well. I’ve been privileged to attend many performances of the Dallas Summer Musicals series, but alas, I’ve never been to New York, so I’ve never been able to have a true “Broadway” experience. As an elementary music teacher, I enjoyed the opportunity to accompany my 6th-grade students to the opera each year, so I got to see a wide variety of Dallas Opera productions. Since entering college as a vocal performance major, my daughter has participated in many opera endeavors – full productions as well as scene compilations – and two years ago she sang in the Dallas Opera Chorus, so I attended all the productions of that particular season. I’ve also attended opera performances in Houston, Waco, and Fort Worth – but again, no New York means no real Met performances for me (at least not yet). I list all of these facts to establish my scope of reference – I’ve attended lots of amateur, semi-pro, and professional performances of operas and musicals, but only in Texas.
Whether the performers are high school students or seasoned professionals, productions like this have some interesting commonalities that I think make them attractive and important aspects of our cultural heritage. Even if the performance is flawed or not particularly successful, there are aspects of dramatic musical performance that I find compelling, and even inspirational. The people who appear on stage, whether in lead roles, support roles, or even as extras (supernumeraries, in opera jargon), have studied, practiced, worked, sweated, laughed, maybe even cried, and devoted huge amounts of their time and energy to the project of bringing a story to life through music. They do it for many different reasons: some are eager for attention and prestige through public performance, sure, but many of the performers that I have known over the years have gladly given of their time, talent, and energy out of love. Love for the music, love for the excitement of performing, love for the cameraderie and fellowship of their fellow performers, love of dressing up and inhabiting a personality other than your own. There is something so genuinely generous about the act of performing in a musical. The singers and dancers spend hours and hours in rehearsal, learning their lines, music, and blocking; waiting for their scenes, for their turns; standing in place while the lighting, set pieces, costumes, or props are rearranged, re-apportioned, or re-set; sometimes even waiting while people gain control of their emotions. They go through all of this willingly, usually for very little or no money. Sometimes they’re required to supply their own costume pieces, or to work on props or sets when not rehearsing. Backstage, they help each other out with costumes, hair, make-up. They run lines with each other. They encourage each other. Yes, there are those classic back-stabbing moments that take place occasionally, but overall, the players work together to make the play work. The price of a ticket doesn’t begin to compare with the personal toll of time and effort on the members of the cast and crew – the audience definitely gets the better end of that deal!
When I watch a musical performance, I realize that I am witnessing the result of many decisions, small and large, individual and corporate. In group scenes, the cast members have all agreed together to move this way, occupy these positions, sing these notes and words, compose their faces in these expressions. Whatever dramatic effect is achieved through these actions is oftentimes nowhere near as powerful as the drama that went on backstage in order to arrive at these results. The main characters carry the weight of responsibility for the success or failure of the show, because those are the people that the audience will focus upon and remember. It’s a very heavy burden. All those people, from the director to the stagehands to the chorus members, depend upon the success of the principals. Will they remember their lines? Will their voices be healthy and strong? Will they hit their marks and execute their assigned choreography? If one of the principals is off, or hasn’t adequately prepared, it won’t really matter how well the rest of the company performs. The audience will remember the gaffs and missed notes, and judge the whole show accordingly. So the principals not only bear the weight of avoiding personal embarassment – they also must shoulder the burden of everyone else’s expectations.
Outsiders look at the performers and assume that they’re in it for the glory. That may sometimes be true, but I have found that, more often than not, the performers work so hard because they truly wish to share something transcendant with their audiences. Their combined efforts culminate in a gift of profound beauty. The audience sits in darkness, breathless with expectation. The lights come up, the curtains part, and something almost mystical occurs. The audience suspends their sense of disbelief, in other words, they willingly and gladly determine to believe that the set pieces and props constitute a real house or park or dressing room; they tell themselves that the door in the set leads to the outdoors (instead of backstage); they decide to accept the obviously young man who has gray hair and walks with a stoop as an old man. That is their gift to the actors. They also refrain from attempting to interact with the people on stage. What I mean by that is that, when they see the bad guy creeping through the forest, they don’t shout out a warning to the helpless young maiden, even though they know that her life is in danger. Instead, they hold their breath and wait for the awful moment when he pounces upon her and drags her away. So they believe, and yet they don’t fully believe – a concept that is sometimes called the maintenance of aesthetic distance. That is also a gift. In exchange for their quiet acquiescence, the actors on stage give their best effort – they speak their lines, move in accordance with the reality of the narrative, and do their best to imbue their actions with emotional integrity and honesty, so that the audience’s belief is sustained.
And that’s what brings me back to the theater, again and again. It’s the wonderful mutual generosity of audience and performer, giving attention and performance and belief and authenticity, back and forth across the emotionally charged edge of the stage. I always leave the theater enriched, having learned something about myself and others while at the same time being blessed with beautiful music, laughter, and diversion. It’s a bargain I will most happily encounter again and again.