Theater Lover's Journal - Oct. 16, 2001

Take Two Showtunes and Call Me in the Morning:
The Healing Power of Musicals

by John Kenrick

I've been telling friends for years about the healing power of showtunes. Some have laughed, but others nod in agreement. They know I'm not kidding – it works.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when I was a college freshman. Despite a raging case of the flu, I dragged myself to see the Light Opera of Manhattan stage a rare revival of Victor Herbert's Mlle. Modiste. It was a gem of a production, and Herbert's luscious melodies worked their magic. By intermission, my aches and pains were gone, and a companion confirmed that my once-fiery forehead was now quite normal. I'll admit that I still felt a bit woozy the next day, but that old musical had set me in an express lane to recovery.

Recent studies have verified that certain kinds of classical music can promote anything from early learning to easier digestion. They have also proven that laughter raises white cell counts and speeds recovery from all kinds of maladies. I think its time someone launched a similar study on the positive physical effects of showtunes. Heck, if Mozart can stimulate mind and body regeneration, imagine what the Gershwins can do!

Now, I'm not suggesting showtunes work for just anybody. A clear pre-requisite is that you have to be into them – another reason why loving parents would do well to play cast albums for those in the womb or toddling in the nursery. If nothing else, this would reduce the likelihood that children will fall prey to the violent ear-splitting noise that passes for popular music today. Showtunes also promote an interest in language, rhyme, and other linguistic skills. You tell me who is getting a greater benefit – a child gurgling "Eensie Beensie Spider," or one belting out "Do Re Mi"? I submit that the answer is obvious.

No less an authority than lyricist Alan Jay Lerner wrote that musicals have medicinal value as a brief vacation from the pressures of everyday life. Like a weekend by the shore, the few hours one spends with a musical can give people a happy bit of distance, allowing fresh perspectives on life's problems.

In the wake of Sept. 11th, I put my theory to its toughest test yet. When Broadway re-opened two days after the attacks, I had to be there. I chose the happiest reality break possible – The Music Man. What better antidote to horror than Meredith Willson's heartfelt bit of Americana?

Getting into Manhattan by subway was quite easy, and there were excellent seats available to darn near every show in town. But people were still shaken. By curtain time, The Neil Simon Theater was barely half-filled. When the lights dimmed, leading man Robert Sean Leonard's voice came over the PA, dedicating the performance to all those involved in the tragedy downtown. He concluded a statement of sympathy by saying – "But our lives go on, our country goes on and in the great tradition, the show must go on!" The audience gave a hearty cheer, and the performance got underway.

As the evening progressed, the audience got warmer and happier. Then leading lady Rebecca Luker soared into the musical stratosphere with "My White Knight," taking our hearts with her. She must have been as dazed as any other New Yorker, but she put it all into the song. I saw husbands place arms around their wives shoulders, and found my partner's hand grasping mine. Luker's final, shimmering high note was for many of us the first real reassurance that there was still some beauty and grace in our fractured world. Cheers and tears rocked the place as she finished, our half-audience sounding like a full house.

The other emotional flash point was the barbershop quartet. Their all-American four part harmonies struck something deep in our collective consciousness. Why else would so many of us be moved by sunny ditties like "Sincere"? I've always loved "Lida Rose," but the innocent joy of its countermelodies performed by that sterling cast set me sobbing – and I mean big, heaving, healing sobs. A quick glimpse around showed I was not alone. All sorts of people were losing it.

If you have already seen this revival of The Music Man, you know Susan Stroman's marching band encore closes the evening with a patriotic bang, unfurling a massive flag at the final note. I need not tell you how that audience lost its collective mind on that Thursday night. Then the orchestra  struck up a chord, and the cast led us in singing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." The woman beside me took her teenage daughter in her arms, and the man behind me held his shaking wife close – and we all sang our hearts out.

With tears flowing on both side of the proscenium, we sang out the fear, the frustration, the pain . . . and a stirring affirmation that we would move ahead, and the big show sure as hell would go on. It wasn't just a corny, patriotic gesture. It was a genuine moment of communion, shared by everyone in that theater.

With all the terrible things that have happened since Sept. 11th, I can honestly say my healing began two nights later at The Music Man. It has continued with visits to Urinetown and Kiss Me Kate, and continues every time I slip another cast recording onto the CD player, or pop American in Paris into the VCR. The classic musicals I so adore are life affirming embodiments of hope. They are about finding joy and beating impossible odds. They celebrate the human spirit.

We need that kind of celebration now, as we face a perilous present and an unimaginable future. With so many things threatening to make this day our last, what better time to let the music of Broadway and Hollywood brighten every possible moment? If I must face dark realities, I'm going to do it with a Jerry Herman cakewalk, or a Rodgers and Hammerstein love song, or a Cohan march to keep me company. I am still mourning the neighbor who died, and the pain of what happened remains all too immediate. But the power of this music – my music – helps keep me going.

So musicals can be a balm for the soul. But I'm still adamant that they have physical effect too. When I made my return visit to Kiss Me Kate last week, I was coming down with a terrible cold. The current cast is brilliant. Although I laughed hysterically, my hacking cough disappeared. The next morning, I still sniffled a bit, but I was far better than I had been the day before.

You can credit that to Echinacea and vitamin C, but as far as I'm concerned, it was a Porter cure. So the next time you're blue or feel a bug coming on, take two musicals. You may be surprised at the results.

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