musical theatre

Darkest Musicals I Know

Theatre isn’t supposed to be comfortable. This is something you have probably seen people say at least a few times. It’s something that has been somewhat commonplace in theatre for a little while now. Many musicals- even those that aren’t really dark have challenging themes. Even Wicked which is for the most part a relatively light-hearted magical family friendly telling of the story before Wizard of Oz. However, even something like Wicked has a bit more happening beneath the surface and some darker moments. While these days more musicals are challenging and have some heavier moments, some musicals go well beyond this and are almost 2.5 hours of straight darkness without a break.



Next to Normal

I have talked about this musical at length on the blog before so I’m not going to go terribly in depth and I don’t want to spoil anything if someone is unfamiliar with it. However, this musical takes the pain of living with mental illness and its challenges and shows them in a raw completely non-sugar-coated way. It’s beautiful.

Blood Brothers

Some of you may know this musical and some may not. To those familiar with it, it may not be something that immediately comes to mind when you think of dark musicals. However, when you give the plot and presentation some thought it really is. From the beginning of the show you know the characters are doomed from the start. The narrator makes sure you 100% know this. However, what puts it over the top is that the narrator is constantly on stage. Even during the character’s happy moments, he never leaves the stage. He is always lingering as a constant reminder that these people are doomed. To me that is really chilling. The doomed characters and the narrator are what put this over the top. It makes seeing the misfortune that the narrator is constantly prophesying play out that much more chilling.

Fun Home

Woof this show. This is another one I won’t go into super detail as it’s fairly well known (winning 5 Tony Awards) and like Next to Normal, I don’t want to spoil it. However, this is a heartbreaking story about a woman, her sexuality, and a heartbreaking tragedy with her father.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

This isn’t the Disney movie brought to stage. The stage musical sticks much closer to the Victor Hugo novel. A corrupt, abusive priest and a doomed love. While it’s certainly far from the darkest musical I’m going to mention in this article as it certainly has its lighter moments, the tragic story of all the characters certainly make it worth mentioning.

Kid Victory

Does it get much darker than child abduction and abuse? That’s what Kid Victory is about. It’s about a boy who was lured away online and is the stuff of every parent’s worst nightmare. The score alone is haunting, however in my opinion is certainly worth a listen.

The Boy Who Danced on Air

If it’s possible to get any darker than Kid Victory, The Boy Who Danced on Air managed to do it. This musical covers the issue in Afghanistan of Bacha Bazi which is a form of pedophilia where an older man gets to “own” a boy. They are often dressed in girls’ clothing and made to dance and perform for the older man. This is another musical where just the cast album can give you chills. It’s a heartbreaking show that takes on an obviously heavy subject.

Jekyll and Hyde

Some love it, some hate it; however the gothic and horror undertones of this show cannot be overlooked. I think the darkest part of this musical that often gets overlooked is initially Henry was setting out to do something good. He was trying to make a positive change as insane as it may have seen. And he turns into a literal madman. It’s heartbreaking to see the change take him over and watching his friends and loved ones start to wonder what happens to him and the hopelessness they obviously feel.

Spring Awakening

The dark sexual themes are heavy throughout this show and the things the characters go through are incredibly heavy. Just the subject of teens and sexuality is a touchy one and the presentation of this musical brings it to an incredibly dark place.

Assassins

Even the “lighter” moments in this musical are dark. I mean, it’s a musical about the assassination attempts on various presidents. That alone gives it a much darker context. However, when you dive deeper into the show we see that we don’t even know what is real and what isn’t real to the shooters. Literally every shooter is having their sanity questioned by the audience. That adds another thick layer to an already heavy subject.




Tell It Like It Is

 Darren Wildeman

How many times have you heard someone say something like, “we should acknowledge all shows on Broadway are in some way good; after all, they got to Broadway, so they have to be good. We shouldn’t talk down on any of them”. I’ve seen comments such as this and this type of narrative many times. People seem to think every show is somehow good in its own right and that people should be happy to just be seeing a show and they shouldn’t complain about it being bad or heavily criticize it. I’m not talking about straight up bashing a show, or saying it should close or things like that. That’s downright hateful. However, criticism of theatre and art as a whole is important. Moreover, it’s also important to acknowledge that no, not all shows are equal, not all shows are good, and some are downright dreadful. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that yes you can still like a bad show. Just because you like it doesn’t make it objectively good.

 

To discuss the first piece. Criticism is important. As I said, I’m not talking about hating on a show or saying things like “it should just close”. That’s just hateful and unnecessary. However, valid criticism of a show is important, I’ll even go so far as to say if there’s nothing to like about a show and it truly has no merits (yes these shows exist), it’s important to say just how bad it was with valid criticism.

If a show doesn’t get bad reviews, or get told it’s bad, then we won’t improve upon future shows. Of course, some critics write solely to flame shows and that isn’t right either. However, if we tell a bad show that it’s bad and it doesn’t sell tickets, we can look to that show as an example of what went wrong, and future producers, directors and other people involved in shows can learn and adjust their own productions. There really isn’t much room to coddle a bad show.

The attitude of “every show deserves love and is in its own merit good” is hurtful to actual good shows and simply not true. Are you really going to sit there and tell me that Amelie is equal to Hamilton? Even if you don’t like Hamilton you have to look at it from an objective standpoint. It checks off so many boxes of what largely constitutes a musical to be good. While Amelie checked off a lot of boxes of how not to put together a musical. As was later proved by the reviews and how quickly it closed. Not that a good show can’t be overlooked and close early because that certainly happens. However, when a show does close early you can usually find a reason; if not that the show was bad, maybe it didn’t advertise enough, maybe it didn’t have enough star power, etc. The point is you can usually find a reason. However, with a show like Amelie, the reason stares you right in the face. It has fun, but unsubstantial music and a book that drags its feet around every turn and is, for lack of a better term, pretty abysmal. To compare a show like this to Hamilton and insist that they somehow have the same merit and are on some level equal is a downright insult to the how innovative and objectively well-done Hamilton is. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you can’t like Amelie. However, just because you like a show doesn’t make it good. You can like a bad show.

This is I think a very important point. I’ll say it again. You liking a show does NOT make it good. Sometimes the bad shows can still do something really well or have a personal appeal to you. I think for me Ghost is a really good example of this. I love the score, and it’s a fascinating story. However, from an objective standpoint, I see a slow-moving book, with songs that don’t move the plot and cause the entire show to stall at times. You see, I like the show as a whole but I’ll acknowledge where it was lacking. I can still look at it critically. My love for the show doesn’t blind me to how painstakingly bad it is in some places. It’s important to distinguish between your love for a show, and how good it is. In fact, it almost makes me mad how disappointing Ghost was at times because without the songs that stop the plot and choppy book it would have been a fantastic show. Instead we get a show that at times completely stops and fails. So rather than letting your love of a show blind you, I encourage you to study the show from an objective standpoint and see if you can find the criticisms that other people see in it. This doesn’t have to take away from your love of the show; however, theatre is always evolving and it’s important to figure out what does and doesn’t work for the purpose of future shows.

For example, up until Showboat and Oklahoma! a few years later, musical theatre was almost unrecognizable by today’s standards. The plots of shows back then were very simple. Back then, a musical was closer to being a cabaret with just a series of songs loosely tied by a simple plot. However, in the 20 years following Oklahoma! where the music told the story this soon became the new standard. Now if the music doesn’t move the plot that’s largely considered a bad thing.

There was also a time when musicals were almost expected to be happy. Oklahoma! dealt with heavier themes and a few years later we’d get another heavier show. Carousel, and then a few years after that South Pacific also, was an early show that dealt deal with dark or challenging themes, and in the years after would follow we would get West Side Story. In this stretch of years and in the years following darker themes in the theatre would become more and more popular. It would take some time but it would happen. Today we aren’t surprised when a show deals with suicide, mental illness, racism, sexism, or other heavy topics. These early shows and the ones that came after it into the 60s, 70s, and 80s helped this happen.

The point is that in both of these instances people found a way to improve theatre. Without criticism and analysis of theatre these changes wouldn’t have happened. If people just took the shows they liked and called them good enough we wouldn’t seen new or revolutionary shows. Without mistakes we’d have no corrections. If you can see what a show- even a show you like- has done poorly, you can also see where it could be improved. Not that you still can’t like that show, but if you can see where improvements can be made, then you can understand how theatre will evolve and it may also help you to appreciate future shows, or what a different show is trying to do. As a whole you can appreciate theatre on a whole other level if you can understand the criticism. It’ll help you to understand where other people are coming from and why a show is largely liked or disliked. Even if you don’t agree with liking or disliking the show it can be helpful to understand why other people do, and why a show is considered a revolution or a flop. Understanding what other people think can lead to further discussion and contribute to the changing shows, which if you think about it is a really cool thing to think about and realize; that your discussion can in some way, even if it’s just a very small way influence theatre. Whether someone sees what you say online for many people to see or you tell a friend who tells a friend and so on and so forth. Either way the word gets out and indirectly has some influence.

The fact that your opinion can have influence is a very cool thing, however, that’s also why it’s important to think about how you’re forming it and understanding what others say. The better you can state your case and fully form your opinion, the more productive your conversation will be. And I don’t think anyone will argue with having a productive discussion.

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Community Theatre From the Perspective of a Theatre Kid

It all started when I was six years old. I had been involved in preforming arts for four years by that time since I started dance when I was two, but it was not until then that my parents noticed my flair for dramatics. They then decided to have me audition for the Wizard of Oz at a local theatre and I scored a role as a “principal munchkin” and I fell in love with being on that stage, not as myself like in a dance recital, but as a completely different person.

A photo from the second time I was in the Wizard of OZ (2009)

A photo from the second time I was in the Wizard of OZ (2009)

           

Over the past few years, I have noticed a few people online downing community theatre, which really irks me. One of the most common reasons I have heard for people bashing it is that they aren’t as good as their Broadway/West End counterparts. But here’s the thing: they aren’t supposed to be. The definition of “community theatre” from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is “the activity of acting in or producing a play in a theater for enjoyment and not as a job”. The people who partake in community theatre productions do it because they love it; not because they are getting paid to do it. I drive forty-five minutes to the closest theatre and stay there for many hours because I love the people there with me and the art we create.

So many people around the world have had beautiful experiences within its realm, whether they happen because they were part of the cast and crew or because they were part of the audience. So many performers have left their small-town stage and made their dreams come true by earning a chance to be on Broadway. Although for many, that dream may not become a reality, there are still many incredible features of community theatre that many people overlook when they harshly criticize it. 

First, these theaters create an atmosphere that you would not be able to find on a Broadway stage. Many people who participate community theatre, myself included, have done so since a very young age. Personally, I started when I was six, but I know of people who have been on those stages since they were literal infants. Community theatres tend to have recurring cast members. Especially in my theatre, since we are such a small area it is possible to spend years with the same group of people, which I have done. This in turn causes people to form very close bonds with each other. Because of school, I have not been able to be in shows very often, but most recently I was in Willy Wonka, in which I portrayed Mrs. Gloop. That was in 2016. Still to this day, we have a group chat and we talk regularly. We all keep up with each other’s achievements and support each other in times of hardship, as we recently lost a member of our group unexpectedly. I will be friends with these people for the rest of my days and I am so grateful for that experience because I never would have met some of my absolute best friends if I had not participated in these shows.

A photo from a 2011 production of Bye Bye Birdie

A photo from a 2011 production of Bye Bye Birdie

 

Along the same lines, I love seeing “regulars” in the audience and also being a “regular’ at other theatres in the area. I live in what could be described as a small town, so there is a very tightknit theatre community. There are people who go see every show, no matter what it is. If I am not in the current show, I still try to go see it if I can work it into my schedule. We also try to get groups together and go support other theatres at their shows. It is really uplifting to see people from another theatre come to your show and tell you how much they enjoyed it.

The final thing I'll mention which I love is the opportunity for growth that it bestows upon its participants. Most people start out in the chorus before moving up to supporting roles and then lead roles. However, those are not the only positions that need to be filled. Community theatre is a good way to delve into all aspects of the trade. In the past years, I have not only been on stage but backstage as well. I was the stage manager for a production of Snoopy in 2014. One guy I know started off as a chorus member and has now directed 2 shows. Another guy’s sister dragged him along once and he now does lighting for the majority of shows the theatre puts on.

Amelia photo 3.jpg

 

In closing, do not be so quick to judge a community theatre production of your favorite Broadway show. While they may not have the budget or the extensive training that a professional theatre has, they have just as much passion that they put into the production. These people have taken time out of their busy lives and gone to countless rehearsals so they could put on a show for you. In the end, it does not matter if their sets are perfect, or if the costumes looked a little cheap. All that matters is that everyone involved- the performers, crew, and audience- enjoyed the experience that the art of theatre created.

Maintaining Your Vocal health

 

As a singer and performer, your voice is your instrument. If your instrument breaks, you cannot go out and buy a new one so it is incredibly important to protect your voice. In order to give the correct information, I have attended voice health works shops, done my own personal research and also conducted an interview with a professional opera singer (Missie) who had vocal polyps. We will also discuss the most common types of vocal issues, how to prevent this, but also what to do if you happen to have any of these. First of all, how do our voices work?  Above our trachea (the windpipe), we have a fleshy structure known as the vocal folds, sometimes also referred to as vocal cords, except these really aren’t “cords” at all.

Photo by janulla/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by janulla/iStock / Getty Images

The vocal folds vibrate together to create sound. They can vibrate up to 1000 times per second which is what creates the sound we hear when we sing. If we misuse our voice, we can run into to some dehibilitating issues with our voices. There are three common vocal fold injuries that can occur by the simple things we do in our daily life: Polyps, nodes, and hemorrhaging.

The most common causes for these injuries are:

·         Singing/talking way too much

·         Coughing/ sneezing

·         Tension in the voice

·         Stress

·         Yelling

·         Acid reflux

 

HOW TO NOTICE IF YOU MAY HAVE ANY OF THESE ISSUES AND WHEN TO GET CHECKED OUT

·         If you have been hoarse for two weeks or more, it is time to get checked out by a voice specialized laryngologist. If they are certified to work with singers, they will be able to help you regain you voice the CORRECT way. It is important to not leave this untreated. Missie left this untreated from May to October and they did not know if she would ever be able to sing again.

·         If there is a SUDDEN voice change

·         If notes that were once easy for you are either not there, sounding squeaky, or hoarse.

·         If your voice consistantly feel tired.

·         Can’t talk as loud as usual

·         Neck or throat discomfort

The surgeries are often very invasive and can result in the removal of part of your vocal folds. Finding the right physician is the most important part in regaining your voice because not all surgery stories end happily. Missie, after recovery, built her range back up and now floats high B’s and C’s. Broadway’s own Julie Andrews (who had vocal nodes) lost her beautiful voice because of an error made in surgery in 1999. One of the most prestigious vocal heath centers in the country is Emory Vocal Heath Center in Georgia. Most of their staff are also singers and they work primarily with singers.

I know it is such a scary thought to lose your voice, so I am going to give you tips and tricks to protect yourself.

·         Hydration is key! Drink primarily water. You need to drink so much water that your pee is either clear or a pale yellow. (TMI, I know) Because the vocal folds are made up of mucous, this is the only way they stay hydrated.

·         Get enough sleep. If you’re tired, you won’t be able to produce a good sound therefore putting unneeded tension on your throat.

·         If you are in a situation where you are talking constantly to a large room like at work, buy a small microphone set so you can project your voice WITHOUT being fatigued. You can buy these for approximately $30 on Amazon.

·         If you HAVE to shout and project, learn to do them right. Use your diaphragm muscles. Breathe from your stomach instead of from you chest. Imagine your stomach is expanding all the way around even into your lower back. You shouls NEVER  yell from the throat.

·         Avoid unnecessary throat clearing.

·         Do a few vocal warm ups as soon as you wake up. These can be light and simple as you are getting dressed. Just something to wake up your voice.

 

Small Warm Ups To Begin Your Day

·         Lip trills

·         Any five note scale on the vowel “Ya”. Keep your jaw nice and loose and sing lightly. Let your jaw drop. Don’t tighten your jaw because that causes tension.

·         Vocal slides—starting at the bottom of your range and slowly and smoothly going up in pitch. Then, try starting from the top and sliding to the bottom of your range.