Theatre Lover's Journal for March 2001

Can Musical Buffs Go Too Far?

by John Kenrick

About a year ago, a friend invited me over to see the infamous home movie of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Back in 1971, someone snuck a home movie camera into a front orchestra seat and captured about fifteen minutes worth of the original Broadway cast on 16 millimeter film. The images are jumpy and often a bit blurred, but it is a priceless memento of a legendary production.

Thanks to home video, copies of this have floated among theatre buffs for years. I had seen snippets of this before, but this time someone had taken things one step further and matched the clips to a live audio recording – same cast, different performance. While the synchronization is sometimes clumsy, it is often uncannily on target. My friend and I marveled at the hours of effort that must have gone into this, as well as the detailed knowledge required to match up all these snippets of the show. I won a hearty laugh observing that some musical theatre buffs simply go too far. Then, as we segued to clips of Dolores Gray in Destry Rides Again, I had to back up. Considering the countless hours I've spent developing the 600+ pages of this website, who was I to poke fun at anyone's love for musicals? Can there be too much of this ostensibly good thing?

In December 1999, the NY Times published an alarming statistic – record companies now limit cast CD releases to a mere 5,000 copies, and are delighted if they ever sell that many.  Although hundreds of thousands of people attend musicals each year, the core group of fans is painfully small. With most of popular culture ignoring musical theatre, is it any wonder that the remaining fans of the genre should be the staunchest? Who else would invest the time and (gulp!) expense required – not to mention the trouble? Say what you will, it is not easy to be a musical buff. As a minority, we are the butt of jokes and often scathing contempt. Imagine how it feels to be in a gay piano bar singing away, only to have some 20-something ask, "Why would you bother knowing all these old songs?"

Mind you, I'm not complaining. So this hobby is neither popular nor easy – the really good hobbies never are. And none of us plans who or what we will love – it just happens. We just encounter and give our hearts to people, places and/or pastimes. I found musicals as irresistible as my Italian grandmother's lasagna – choice had nothing to do with it. Luckily, I had the sense to surrender to both with equally shameless abandon. But is there a point when a pleasurable hobby turns into a harmful obsession? There is, but I have never witnessed such a thing with musicals. Sure, an old friend shrugs off high ticket prices by saying, "I don't have to eat this week," but I have never seen him skip a meal for the sake of theatre seats.

So I have a message for whoever it was that synched the old Follies clips with the live cast audio, you go kiddo! In a world that glorifies football fans stripped half naked and painted in their team colors, you are gloriously sane! More importantly, you have an appreciation of style, wit and drama that WWF fans can but peep at, and that monster truck lovers will never aspire to.

Musical theatre fans go too far? Compared to the accepted behavior of fans in other areas, you have to be kidding me! Now if you'll excuse me, I have to re-alphabetize my 4,000 Playbills . . .

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