Category Archives: Musical notes

What happens when you show your kids your favorite musicals

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I know there are many people in the world who would rather get a root canal than watch a musical.  I know that many folks – even intelligent ones of my acquaintance — have a deep-seated contempt for any movie in which characters suddenly get a manic gleam in their eye and stand up and break into song.  These people think musicals are hokey and lame.  I get that.

But I think they’re wrong.

I’m a musical junkie from way back, somewhere around the time my mom took me to a community theatre production of Brigadoon at age four and I was so enraptured that I wanted to be Fiona for Halloween (“But no one will know who you are,” my mom said.)  Around forty years later, I still adore them.

And it occurred to me recently that since I have two captive audience members here in the house with me (it would be three, but my husband has a means of escape),this summer is a great chance to revisit some of my favorite musicals and hopefully expose my two boys to a little culture.

I started with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which you really should see if you haven’t.  It’s the very definition of “rousing” and “robust” — focuses on seven backwoodsmen in the 1850s, so the dancing is pretty muscular. And the songs are wonderfully catchy.  I thought, “Gee, my boys will love the barn-raising dance scene,” which is justly famous.

What they really loved was the fight scene.  I had to replay it a few times, at their request, all the while adding, “But you know you should never fight people like that, right?  Right?”

“We know,” they said dutifully, eyes aglow as they watched Frank get smacked with a board.

And then we got to the part where the lonely brothers kidnap six girls to marry and bodily carry them off to their mountain hideaway, and I was thinking,  Oh man, I didn’t vet this one as well as I should have.   (“You know you should never force a woman to go with you if she doesn’t want to, right? Or anyone, actually?”) It was a slightly more complex viewing party than I’d expected.

Then I tried Kismet.

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I have to say, I was way more familiar with the music of this show (lovely) then the story (um — a little odd).  I’d seen it long ago but didn’t remember it well, other than that it was an Arabian Nights-type show with a bazaar scene (and several bizarre scenes, quite honestly).  For example, when Howard Keel was about about to have his hand cut off by the evil Wazir, he started singing to it, which led to the following exchange:

Son: Who is he singing to?
Me: His hand.
Son: Why?
Me: That’s what people do in musicals.
Son: That’s weird.

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Next, we tried State Fair by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This one is a sentimental favorite — homespun Americana, telling the story of a lovely and bored-out-of-her-gourd farmgirl who falls for a big-city newspaper reporter.  Her brother falls for a singer who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be married.  And other than a scene or two of drunken behavior involving spiked mincemeat (truly), there’s nothing objectionable here.  Good songs, too, and my kids enjoyed it. (And I didn’t have to say anything like, “You know you should never _______, right?”).

But this whole Summer of Musicals is making me think about them in a new way.   And as I think about which ones to share next, I am realizing that  all of these musicals have some sort of darker element.

Carousel: Oh, the music is so pretty.  It’s one of the most glorious scores. But then there’s that subplot about how Billy hits his wife, and she takes it and makes excuses for it.  I saw a stage production of this years ago that handled that icky part very effectively, but the movie doesn’t, alas.

Oklahoma: Cornfed goodness and a surrey with the fringe on top!  What could be wrong with this? Well, there’s Jud the socipathic farmhand,  who has a stash of girlie pictures in the shed and ends up with a knife in the ribs.

The King and I: Aww, best polka scene ever —  totally sexy in an understated way.  But I still remember being spooked as a kid by the big whip and how Tuptim almost gets thrashed. And concubines and slaves are not exactly light subject matter.

My Fair Lady: I love this musical, so I sort of hate to say it: When you stop to think about it, Henry Higgins is a raging misogynist.  Even worse, he gets rewarded for it at the end.  (In the original play, Eliza leaves him, which I kind of prefer.)

Fiddler on the Roof:  Such great music, but there are all those nasty Russians smashing things.  Pogroms are anything but light fare.  On the plus side, this one might lead to some good conversations about ecumenism.

Brigadoon: I loved the musical when I was a kid.  I think the only objectionable thing about it is the risibly fake scenery.  I may try this one with my kids, with the appropriate fashion warning (“You know you should never belt your pants that high, right?”).

Gigi: A girl is trained to be a courtesan.  I am so not going there with my boys.

The Sound of Music: Major Nazi unpleasantness.  But there’s a triumphant escape at the end, and no real violence, except to the curtains and the Gestapo’s car.

Anyhow, as I run through the list, I just keep realizing how substantial these musicals actually are.  They are not cotton candy fluff, most of them — they address real issues and complex human situations.  I’m not saying they all address them well, but there is much more to these musicals than meets the eye, and I can’t help but feel that maybe there are a lot of Teachable Moments lurking in there.  (So take that, musical detractors!  There’s more to them than relentlessly cheerful people singing and dancing in unison!).

But for our next one, we’ll play it safe and go with The Music Man.  I think I’m on pretty benign thematic ground with that one … at least until we get to the song “The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me.”

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What’s your favorite musical?  And why?

Carols you aren’t sick of hearing

I have a mad love for Christmas carols. Even so, I find that some are egregiously overplayed.  By December 3rd, I have already heard “Sleigh Ride” often enough to last me comfortably through the rest of the month.  So I have a fondness for the slightly more obscure Christmas carols, the ones that you don’t hear piped into malls and on the radiowaves.

Such as the Wexford Carol, an Irish carol of extraordinary beauty.  Here it is, sung by Alison Krauss with accompaniment by Yo-Yo Ma.

Another lovely carol is the Basque carol called “Gabriel’s Message,” about the angel’s visit to Mary.  It’s been covered memorably by Sting, but I like this particular group’s rendition for its simplicity.

For a more secular change of pace, there’s the catchy “The Christmas Waltz.”  Bing Crosby sings it here, in a production number that is the height of 60s retro awesomeness.

“Mary’s Little Boy Child” is also a moving song that I’d love to hear far more often.  Here it is, sung by Harry Belafonte. (Andy Williams also did a beautiful rendition.)

 

“The Sussex Carol” is lighthearted and lovely, and it’s sung here by The Priests (three guys who really are priests).  It always makes me feel like I should be wandering around in the snow with holly and ivy and wassail.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the English composer John Rutter, who has penned some astonishingly beautiful carols.  Here’s my favorite of them,  Angel’s Carol.  It’s not the Christmas season for me until I’ve heard this song.

What are your favorite underplayed Christmas songs?

Musical prayer: The Deer’s Cry

I first heard “The Deer’s Cry” on retreat a year ago.  One of the retreat leaders played it for a morning prayer, and it is, I feel confident saying, probably the best song I can think of to greet a new day.

I arise today 
Through the strength of heaven
Splendor of fire, speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind, depth of the sea
Stability of earth, firmness of rock.

The lyrics are based on a longer prayer attributed to St. Patrick, though apparently some believe it was written later, around the eighth century.

I arise to-day
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s eyes to look before me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
From all who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul

See what I mean?  This is very good thing to hear early in the morning.  Even if your resident cruel merciless power is nothing worse than a bad morning commute, it helps to be reminded that you don’t face it alone.

Christ with me
Christ before me
Christ behind me
Christ in me

Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ on my right 
Christ on my left

I don’t just listen to this song in the morning. It helps me at any time of day when I feel vulnerable.  When my mother-in-law was dying last summer, and Scott was in New York with her, I remember listening to this song alone on the sofa after the kids were in bed, and I cried and cried but it was the kind of crying I needed to do.  And I thought about Joan’s life, and all of our lives really, and how we may not always know it, but the world is positively saturated with the presence of Christ; we can’t escape it, thank God.

It’s a truly beautiful song.  If you don’t know it, take a listen.  There are a few versions on YouTube but somehow I really like this one, in spite of the bad video quality.  It’s a singer named Rita Connolly singing at the inauguration of the Irish president Michael D. Higgins.

It’s a shaky recording, but it’s a rare chance to witness the song sung in the context of real life.  You get to see all the people at the inauguration listening to the words and, I’d venture to guess, finding the day that much better for hearing them.   That’s always true for me, at least.

Do you hear what I hear? — Praying with the carols

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“Favorite Christmas Carols” is the book on my mother’s piano. Its paperback cover shows a 1960s-era drawing of Victorian carolers singing by lamplight. There are a few elongated circles scribbled on the cover, courtesy of my cousin Tim who, thirty years ago, spent several happy minutes alone with a pen and my mother’s sheet music. 

The pages are fragile with age, and are splitting from the binding. But within those covers are sturdy, beautiful memories of family Christmases, of singing carols around the piano with relatives and friends.

Simple line illustrations decorate each song. “O Come Little Children” shows a boy and girl on rocking horses, near a sign pointing the way to Bethlehem (“They won’t get very far on those horses,” my sister and I used to quip). “Go, Tell it On the Mountain” features a man standing on a jagged cliff, stretching to touch to a faraway star.

I know those images and lyrics by heart. I adore that book. Every year that I can remember, it has heralded the season of Christ’s birth, filling my mind with song.

Even today, I’m a Christmas music junkie. I delay my indulgence until after Thanksgiving (I believe in giving that beautiful holiday its due). But when Black Friday comes, I’m never at the malls. I’m at home, happily sorting through CDs of Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, and the Harry Simeone Chorale.

Though I love “Rudolph” and “Marshmallow World,” I have a particular affinity for the religious songs that we sang around the piano. They ground me during a season that feels far too frenetic. Though I try not to be caught in the spin cycle of holiday stress, I always am. Trips to the mall and post office, December weekend traffic – the immediate needs of the season can creep like frost over the windshield of my vision, obscuring my view of the Incarnation.

But listening to a religious carol – “Silent Night,” John Rutter’s “The Angels’ Carol,” or my father’s favorite, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming “— can melt those distractions away. Those songs always help my harried holiday self settle on the beautiful mystery at the heart of the season. My favorite way to pray during December is to curl up on the couch and listen to those songs, staring at the fireplace or a lit candle, letting that wavering light and those waves of music seep into my bones and saturate me with the beauty of Christ’s coming. The songs restore and renew me, always.

And now that my son is three, I’m realizing that the carols are not just for me. As I wonder how to help Matthew find Jesus among all of the tinsel and gifts, I’m learning anew the power of music. In the car, at home, my son hears what I hear. Just as these carols sank into my bones years ago, so they are sinking into his: one little child learning about the birth of another little child, the sweetest story ever set to music. 

Yes, this is one from the archives, from 2009 (!).  But though my youngest son is now older than Matthew was when I wrote this, my love for carols hasn’t abated.  And my mom still has the book of Christmas songs on her piano each holiday season.  

A song for parents

Sometimes, when I tell my kids to put away their toys and I have to repeat myself five times before they actually do, I wonder if they hear anything I say.

And then there are other times when, completely out of the blue, they reference something I said months earlier.  It comes back, that obscure comment I made, and I’m always astonished to discover that the kids not only listen to what I say, they retain it.  It makes me realize that a parent’s words are more powerful than I tend to think.

That’s why I love this song.  It’s  by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim, sung here by the incomparable Bernadette Peters.

Careful the things you say 
Children will listen

Enjoy the music, the singing, and – if you’re a parent – the gentle reminder.