Category Archives: Musical Theater

Music, Theatre and Education

When I left to study German in Bamberg, Germany for a month in 2005, I couldn’t even count to 10 in German.  I had studied German diction in grad school and had sung in German, but I didn’t actually know how to say anything beyond memorized text.  As a result, the teachers in the language program I attended were a little taken aback when, with my extraordinarily elementary communication skills, I would pull out the German word for “sorrow” or “weeping” or “trout” or “brook.”  To a singer, there’s nothing surprising in knowing those words.  You learn them the first time you sing a Bach aria or Schubert art song.  To a language instructor who is accustomed to working with the average business man or tourist, well, it’s unexpected.

The St. Louis Children’s Choirs

I remember learning words in elementary and high school in a similar, indirect way.  I had already been exposed to terms like “dynamics” in children’s choir before learning about “static vs dynamic” in science class.  When I learned “tiempo” and “fuerte” in Spanish 1, they sounded like and shared similar definitions to “tempo” and “forte,” common music terms I had been hearing for years.  Concepts reappeared as well.  Turns out, time signatures are little math equations.  The labels used for musical forms are similar to those used in analyzing poetry.  Organizing and understanding musical sections of a piece is just like outlining a research paper.

Community theatre productions taught me a great deal, too.  My director explained what “polysyllabic” meant when I was part of the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland when I was 10.  The Caterpillar sings about using “a polysyllabic word, or two.”  I remember when that word showed up on a standardized test.  The stage taught me about Hans Christian Anderson, the French Revolution and Cervantes, about reading dialogue, developing characters, thinking empathetically and understanding conflict and resolution. In the meantime, technical theatre nerds like my fiancé were spending hours learning and applying geometry and physics by hanging lights, considering color temperatures, and designing and building sets.  They were managing people, props and scene changes.  They were developing leadership skills.

I started thinking about this while spacing out in bed this morning.  I am recovering from pneumonia, so my job is currently to do just that, space out in bed.  Really, I was thinking about pneumonia, about the pains in my back and side, most likely some form of pleurisy, and then it occurred to me why I already knew that word when it was first mentioned as a possible cause of my pain.  I said a version of that word night after night when playing Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” a couple of years ago.  Laura is a girl who suffered from pleurosis in high school, which was mistakenly heard as “blue roses” at the time by her present day gentleman caller.  “Blue Roses,” he nicknamed her, melting her heart and solidifying her lifelong crush on him.  I looked up the word when prepping the role, and still it sits, like so many other learned concepts, somewhere in the back of my mind, ready to be pulled up at a moment’s notice.  You see, the learning never stops, and it never gets old.

I arrive at my point.

Dear Principals who doubt the value of artistic study, you are wrong. I, like so many choir and theatre kids, began my education with music and theatre.  I, like so many professional and socially conscious adults, continue my daily education through music and theatre.  I cannot think of a single reason why your kids should not do the same.

Blow your candles out.
Laura and her mother in “The Glass Menagerie.”



The List

I think most singers and actors, when pressed, would admit that they’ve got a little list of the roles they want to play before they can’t.  Without pressing, I shall admit that I get to take one off my list this fall. Don’t ask who else is on the list. For now, Johanna will do.

Sweeney Todd

Like mother, Like daughter

Growing up, my dad referred to my mom as The Wicked Witch.  It wasn’t because she was mean or green.  Nope.  It was, quite simply, her Halloween costume one year.  Maybe she should have stuck with something bolder, like Super Woman…or perhaps gentler, like Snow White or Rainbow Brite.  Really, anything that didn’t have anything to do with a witch.  Alas, she did not have that foresight, and the nickname stuck.  So did the melting jokes.

A few years ago, everyone in my parents’ office filled out questionnaires.  It was a game.  They anonymously answered questions about themselves and then everyone else had to guess the identity of the question-answerer: one of the office-place-community-development-fun-interactive-morale-boosters they enjoy.   One of the questions asked was, “Which actress would play you in a movie about your life?”  My mom had a hard time with that one.  I told her it was obvious: she’s a prettier version of Susan Sarandon.

I went to an audition a few weeks ago, and when I was finished with my song and aria, the auditor asked for a monologue.  I told her I had a few to choose from, and she excitedly asked for the Wicked Witch’s “Poppies” monologue from The Wizard of Oz.  When I finished, she said, “Has anyone ever told you you look like Susan Sarandon?”

My first thought was, “Wow, that’s nice.”  My second was, “Does that mean you’ll hire me?”  The third was, “Wait ’til I tell the Wicked Witch.”

Dorothy landed a house
My version of the Wicked Witch this year in the Variety Children’s Theatre’s production of The Wizard of Oz.

Cinderellas for hire

We’ve performed this show a couple of times now, once at Old Warson Country Club, and once as a house concert for 60 Union Avenue Opera patrons.  Our little story has taken on a life of its own, and we’re ready to share it again and again and again.

What’s not to love about 5 completely different Cinderellas?  One is sassy, the next a little dumb (actually, a lot dumb). There’s the overthinker, the mopey one (she’s French, of course) and let’s not forget the most important–the romantic Cinderella (she had her wedding planned long, long ago).

Oh, sweet Prince, what to do with this bevy of beautiful maidens?

In step

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas closed last Sunday night.  It feels like it was a month ago.  The next day, I made my way to Quincy, IL to start rehearsals for Muddy River Opera’s production of Pirates of Penzance.  When we walked into the Quincy Starbucks, my friend and traveling companion remarked that we clearly weren’t in St. Louis anymore.  The orders were placed slowly, the orders were taken slowly, and the orders will filled slowly.  If folks moved at that pace in the Central West End, there would be annoyed comments from the peanut gallery.  Let’s not even think about what would happen in New York City.

"Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?"

Michael Kelly, from Country Cork,
lost his sweetheart while on holiday in New York.
Last of the Red Hot Mamas, New Jewish Theatre
Photo by John Lamb

I went home for New Year’s, and on my way back up to Quincy, I listened to the fellows on Radio Lab.  The story was about cities: how they live and die, and what makes them feel the way they feel.  Do people make the city, or the city make the people?

They did some experiments.

They recorded the pace at which individuals from different cities delivered information: how fast they talked.  And then, they recorded the pace at which individuals moved down the street: how fast they walked.   Not surprisingly, people in bigger cities covered more topics and more ground in less time than those in smaller ones: the pace was faster.  And apparently, we all have an internal tempo that agrees with one pace more than another.  I wonder if the people who absolutely love NYC have an inherently faster internal tempo, or if they naturally adjust when they get there?  And if they can’t adjust…

Regardless, I feel my internal tempo slowing down in Quincy.  I don’t know if that fits into the Radio-Lab-guest-scientist theories, but it’s true.  Red Hot Mamas feels like a month ago, and I’m okay with that.  I’m enjoying the pace.  I’m happy to enjoy the resting time before I head back to St. Louis, the city that sets my metronome a few ticks higher–but not too high–day in and day out.

My National Anthem

Not surprisingly, participating in a production of Man of La Mancha can make a person spend some time both on and off stage in serious consideration.  Yes, consideration of intention, body language, facial expressions, lines, lyrics, and other actorly things, but also consideration of things like freedom of speech and religion and dreaming big, big dreams.  Don Quixote may call them Impossible Dreams.  Others might venture to label them American Dreams.

I'm only thinking of him

Laura Ernst, Conor Dagenfield, Elise LaBarge
Insight Theatre
photo by John Lamb

After Thursday night’s performance, when provoked, I explained that I couldn’t be out late because my next day’s activities included singing at a Naturalization Ceremony.  A friend of a friend’s ears perked up.  He had been to Naturalization Ceremonies before.  He understood how powerful they can be.  He even repeated something he overheard after one.  “My favorite part,” this new citizen said, “was when they got to the National Anthem.  I’ve heard it plenty of times, but for the first time, it was mine.”

Armed with that story, my Man of La Mancha considerations, and my collection of America’s Favorite Songs book, I walked into the Federal Courthouse on Friday morning.  I’d already been to several Ceremonies, and knew the joy of singing the Star Spangled Banner to 50-something new Americans.  The audience is like no other.  They seem to listen with a distinct kind of open heart.

This Friday, though, I started to sing, and very few people were listening.  No, not listening, but singing.  They had considered seriously, made an oath, and now they were singing.  The man who announced to the court minutes before, “I am from Ukraine.  I start new life now,” and the Bosnian housewife, and the Indian engineer and the Moldovan couple…they and all their fellow citizens were giving it a go.  They were making it their own.  They were singing the National Anthem with me.  And they should, oh, they should have been singing.  Starting that very moment, it was, after all, theirs.