A few weeks ago, I sat in bed with a laptop propped on my lap. I went on the YouTube channel of The Show Must Go On! to watch Cats the musical, which was made available for 48 hours outside the UK (24 hours in the UK). To make it even better, they streamed the 1998 version with the original West End cast. With a cider in hand and in comfy dressing gown, I thought, oh, this is quite nice.
But to my surprise, I found myself almost dozed off after 15 minutes. I never fall asleep during a musical. But then again, this is just a show on a screen, and everything seemed either toned down or too much. I couldn’t see the subtle changes of the lights as the scenes changed, nor the vibrance of the colors on set. The expressions of the actors, which need to be acted out with such gusto on stage so the audience at the far back could feel the emotions, looked strangely exaggerated in zoomed-in shots. I thought I’d enjoy this little treat on screen, but I didn’t.
And that makes me realize, I really, really miss going out to the theater, especially to see musicals.
It all started during my master’s year in Southampton, when I volunteered to be an usher at the local theater. It was December, and the theater was playing The Nutcracker (the musical). It was a busy time as people enjoyed seeing the musical as a Christmas treat, and most performances had a full house. Meanwhile, most of the volunteers had gone home for Christmas. I ended up volunteering every day, sometimes twice a day. By the end of the season, I’d watched the show 12 times. The funny thing is, I wasn’t bored or became jaded at all. I noticed there were always subtle differences every time, brought by the audience, actors, or something else. Every show was unique, and I thoroughly enjoyed every single one.
Since then, I’ve made it a mission to see as many musicals as I could, starting with the classics. I didn’t have this experience when I was little, and I feel like I’ve missed out a lot. But the thing with musicals is, the magic is there, even when you watch it as an adult. I can only imagine it must be 1000 times more magical when you see it as a child.
I try to think about what makes me love musicals, but I can’t pin it down to one thing. I love every aspect of it, not just the show, but the experience of going to the theater.
The anticipation when waiting for the curtain to be lifted, and the cheers when it’s finally up. Amazing overtures that never fail to boost the mood, and are always welcomed with such rapture. Breathtaking cliffhangers just before the intermission. The wild applause at the end of an amazing number, and the standing ovation at the end of the show. Brilliant set designs that allow you to see the magic of theater – just imagine how they could transform a brothel in Thailand to a corporate office somewhere in the US in just 5 seconds. The incredible play of lights that gives such nuances to the scenes – sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly. The way the music moves you and breaks your heart into pieces as you absorb the stories and listen to the tales.
I relish it all, even the little things that seem mundane. Treating myself to a little (plastic) glass of wine before the show and during the intermission. Flicking through the programs, listening to the exciting buzz and babbles, and getting a glimpse of the set as I wait for the show to start. There’s no other thing like it.
With every show, there’s always a few parts that stick with me for a long time. With Miss Saigon, it was the amazing scene of The Fall of Saigon when I could feel the terror and chaos of the melee, and the heartbreaking duet between Kim and Ellen, singing I Still Believe. With The Phantom of the Opera, it’s the first view of the Phantom’s lair (so magical, so stunning), and the swift and unbelievable ending. Les Miserables broke me at the rendition of I Dreamed A Dream, the fate of Gavroche, and Éponine’s last scene. Wicked had me hooked from the very beginning (in fact, I loved it so much that I saw it twice), but the scene before the intermission, where Elphaba vows to pay her revenge before flying away, remains etched in my mind as my absolute favorite.
I really could go on forever, but let me stop here.
It worries me that theaters and the art communities are severely affected by this pandemic, but I hope they will pull through, and we can return to the stalls again once this is over. There are still so many stories I have yet to listen to and so many musicals to see, and I’m looking forward to it.