The Cult of Musical Theater
I think I was 5 years old when my parents took me and my cousin to our first musical, “The Phantom of the Opera,” when it was in residence in L.A. nearly 30 years ago. I remember waiting around back for an autograph from Dale Kristien, who played Christine. That launched to a lifetime obsession with this peculiar art form: stints in high school musicals (Naphtali in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was probably the pinnacle of my career), back-to-back days of double headers on a weekend romp in London (“Full Monty,” “Les Miserables,” “Fame,” and “Mama Mia”), five visits to “RENT,” and countless hours in line at TKTS on trips to New York.
All of which pays off handsomely when viewing “Something Rotten!,” the new Broadway musical about the imaginary first musical. The conceit is delectable: two desperate brothers in 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon try to one-up the (literal) rockstar Shakespeare with something original, like singing interspersed with dialogue. Utterly peculiar and perplexing. The show rarely lags in energy and checks all the boxes of a crowd-pleasing spectacle. But it is also, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, deeply satisfying for folks like myself who find the purest state of nirvana when song and dance get together in a dark theater.
Everybody has their go-to medium for digesting life’s truths: film, TV, novels, poetry, visual art, dance, etc. If you’re lucky, you can tap into them all. And I have examples in each that have spoken to me profoundly. But for whatever reason, musical theater speaks the loudest. The bravery of “RENT,” the sexy, scary warnings of “Cabaret,” the subversive wisdom of “Avenue Q,” the psychological insight of “Next to Normal,” the powerful politics of “Hamilton”: these are some of my most poignant and memorable cultural experiences. And in its fake and goofy history, and reverence for the form, “Something Rotten!” is a delightful ode to the strange wonder of musicals.