The Evolution of a Broadway Musical Enthusiast

The Evolution of a Broadway Musical Enthusiast

How does one evolve into a musical theatre enthusiast and a person who lives for documenting Broadway musicals and writing about them? I'm sure that, for each of us, there is a different story, but I also bet there are a lot of similarities that link our journeys. I thought it would be fun to share how I got to be where I am in my obsession with musicals and I am hopeful you will comment below are share your stories as well. 

As a kid, my immediate family did not watch movie musicals, did not attend Broadway shows, and did not listen to cast albums of Broadway shows. I did not inherit this love from my prior generations of relations. In fact, I was amongst people who thought Broadway musicals were "sissy stuff." They found no pleasure in it, I guess, but I think they were also never exposed to musicals. It is hard to judge them on what was not within their schema in the first place.

There were movies that were available to me that DID foster a love for musicals. You could always count on the annual presentation of The Wizard of Oz (you knew it had to be here) on CBS to ignite my Judy Garland obsession. That movie burrowed itself into my soul and set up shop with its melody and color. Disney films somehow escaped the sissy stigma, and we as a family saw Peter Pan, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, et al, at the local drive-in theatre. Disney and its happy-ever-after tales filled with glorious, CATCHY song, was really laying the foundation for the eventual explosion of musical theatre love that would overtake my life in junior high school. 

In 7th Grade, my music teacher Miss Zefers showed us the film version of South Pacific and we had to do a little project/report on Rodgers and Hammerstein. I instantly fell in love with the scores and scripts for Carousel, Allegro and The King and I, but found myself mostly turned off by Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music. It was at this point in my life that I realized I had strong, passionate opinions about musicals and the only way I could process by feelings was to journal about them. Rodgers and Hammerstein led to a love for Lerner and Loewe, and an obsession with both My Fair Lady and Brigadoon (I mistakenly thought they were Rodgers and Hammerstein shows for about a year). I basically decided I was Professor Henry Higgins (a la Rex Harrison) and began to treat my study of musical theatre like his study of phonetics. It was with rabid ferocity that I sought out new musicals to know and judge.  

Both of my parents worked, and in the summertime, they had my siblings and I come to the town where they were employed (we lived in the country and town was about twenty miles away). My brother and sister both went to a babysitter, but I was too old for that. I spent most of my day either at the pool or the public library. Fortunately, the town library was a good one, well stocked with theatre scripts, cast albums on LP records, and a wonderful collection of periodicals. Every day, I would enter the reading area and grab The New York Times, voraciously reading any-and-all theatre items. I would, day-by-day, work my way through the scripts, reading musicals such as The Pajama Game, Funny Girl, Man of La Mancha, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Mame. On Fridays, I would check out five records (the maximum allotted), take them home for the weekend, convert them from record to cassette, and set about committing them to memory. I can still remember that the first record I brought home was Finian’s Rainbow (my favorite musical) and the amount of times I played “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” until my mother threatened to send me there. I guess you could say that “A trip to the library made a new girl of me.” I managed to make cassettes of all 78 cast albums that they had in their collection.

Bobo Lewis in  42nd Street

Bobo Lewis in 42nd Street

Ms. Skeval, a ninth grade English teacher took our class to see 42nd Street (on the last legs of its successful run). Sitting in the second balcony at the St. James Theatre, literally looking straight down on the stage, I couldn’t breathe as I saw my first Broadway musical. I knew, instantly, I had to be connected to this world in some way. The showstopper “Lullaby of Broadway” awakened something in me that shook me up. I returned home and announced I was going to be a musical theatre performer (much to the chagrin of my parents). I started taking voice lessons (a twelve year endeavor) and built my courage to act and sing in public.  

Of course, my high school (a very small school, K-12 in one building), did a yearly musical that exposed me to additional titles. In the course of my time there, we put on a few staple musicals including The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, Guys & Dolls and Hello, Dolly! As a character performer, I reveled in roles like Mr. MacAfee, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, and Cornelius Hackl. Performing made me love musicals even more. My high school drama teacher introduced me to Stephen Sondheim and loaned me her record albums of Sweeney Todd and Company. This introduction to a darker, more complex side of musical theatre, evolved me as a student of Broadway musicals. Sondheim became an obsession, but so did seeking out different types of musical composers. Suddenly, Kander & Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cy Coleman, and Leonard Bernstein were creeping into my life.

In 1988, I started watching the Tony Awards when I accidentally happened upon them while channel-surfing. You have to understand, I was devouring musical theatre, but in bite-sized portions, so the Tony Awards were unbeknownst to me until that fateful night in 1988 when I witnessed the brilliantly intricate Into the Woods competing against the empty thrill ride that is The Phantom of the Opera. It was my first lesson on how awards don’t necessarily measure excellence, but pander to the masses and what is the most commercially viable show. As soon as I was cognizant of the Tony Awards, I had another whole area of musical theatre to explore. I would make myself flashcards and learn the winners of every season. Then I began committing nominees to memory. For a while, this was encyclopedic knowledge at-the-ready in my brain. With the advent of YouTube, it has been fun to go back an watch old Tony performances and remind myself of what I used to have committed to memory.

I can also thank high school biology for a better part of my encyclopedic knowledge of classic musicals. Bored to death in Mr. Pinkerton’s class, discussing the anatomy of a grasshopper, I would pretend to be taking notes, when I was, instead, copying the original Broadway casts of musicals into my notebooks. Upon close inspection, you might find the casts of Fanny, Flower Drum Song or Bloomer Girl written several times over next to a poor sketch of a uterus. Twelve notebooks full of nonsense, but I can tell you who played Jigger Craigen in the original production of Carousel.

Upon graduating from high school, I did an internship at a summer stock theatre. The artistic director was impressed (or maybe annoyed) by my knowledge of musical theatre history and told me that she had someone I should meet. She introduced me to Professor Thomas Hischak, a professor at the local college, who specialized in writing books about Broadway and Hollywood musicals. We hit it off immediately. Since I was joining the theatre department at said school that fall, my encounters with Hischak were regular. He was my advisor, and he taught most of the department’s history courses. I took his History of American Musical Theatre class four times, once as a regular student, next doing an independent study on flop musicals, another time doing an independent study on book writers of musicals, and once as his teaching assistant. Professor Hischak would make me approximately ten cassettes a week of rare, flop, or out-of-print musicals. Thanks to his mentorship, I learned more than I could have ever thought possible about musical theatre. He made me his research assistant on several books. He had me fact check some and proofread others. I continued to work with him long past my college graduation.

One day, about ten years ago, Hischak suggested that we write a book together. We are both enormous Disney fans, and the result was the successful The Disney Song Encyclopedia. I went on to write additional books, started my blog out of the insistence of my friend Robbie Rozelle, and began to write for Broadway websites including Playbill and Broadway Direct. You must know the humbling pride I felt seeing an article with my byline printed in the Playbill magazine. I still write about musicals whenever I can. I love the good, the bad, the problematic, and the ambitious. I love to keep the classics relevant and look forward to the new. Do I always love the shows themselves? No. But I sure do love how they fit into the legacy and story of an art form’s history.  

Please follow me on Twitter at @theatreguy22 or on my Facebook page Mark Robinson Writes.

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