Brush Up

When I was in college, back in another century, there was a pronounced divide in our little drama community between those of us who performed in classical, “straight” plays, and those who performed primarily in musicals. Those of us over in the theater department were steeped in Shakespeare and the rest of the Western canon, and filled with seriousness of purpose. It was the gloriously self-righteous early 90s; we’d just spent a decade being bombarded by the British mega-musicals, and more than a few of us felt we had a sacred duty to protect our little oasis from the onslaught of vulgar, meretricious musical cheese which we saw all around us. Meanwhile, as we were mounting Shakespeare and Shaw with abandon, a whole other group of students were setting up a musical theater program of their own, explicitly setting it up in opposition to the other shows happening on campus. In various student meetings, they were outraged – genuinely outraged, at a level not usually encountered outside of cable news programs – that this major American artistic genre was being ignored by the college.

Now obviously, the musical actors appeared in dramatic plays, and vice versa, and the university’s drama department eventually put up musical productions themselves, and the student musical group produced more and more challenging fare. But even so, there was always the sense that musical actors and dramatic camps belonged to two separate camps. Any overlap was incidental; they were two vastly different outlooks on, and approaches to, theater, and never the twain should meet. And this didn’t seem all that unusual to me, for in the overall culture at the time this same division appeared to be in effect. If you sang show tunes, you could be no true Shakespearean.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been participating in an ongoing workshop run by a friend of mine, largely focusing on Shakespeare. We’ve been reading the plays on a monthly basis for the past year and a half; recently, we’ve added more structured scene workshops into the mix. It’s been a little while since I’ve been in a Shakespearean production, so it’s been thrilling to work with these performers, mostly young, with such skill and such dedication to the art of classical acting.

And by and large, these aren’t performers with formal classical training. Their background is in musical theater.

And they’re every bit as good at this – at the mechanics of Shakespeare’s verse, at the understanding of the text, at the joy of performance – as folks with more formal Shakespearean training. And the love of Shakespeare (and this whole project of ours is being done purely out of love) in this group is equal to the love of American musical theater. Indeed, they’re similar in a many respects, if you think about it – in the physical demands on the performers, in the heightened reality they create.

And it makes me wonder; when did the rigid segregation that I remember so vividly from my younger days fall away? I’m glad it did; I’m just not certain when or how it did.

Was it purely a practical issue? Have we all realized that, given the scarcity of jobs in the performing arts, limiting your interests and your skill set is a suicidal decision? That there’s simply no room for that kind of self-importance?

Have the aesthetic fault lines shifted? Have a relentless few decades of Mamet and LaBute and other foul-mouthed, hypernaturalistic bleakness-fests with tiny casts made us realize that Shakespeareans and musical lovers need to join forces, in order to protect the larger theatrical forms and richer artistic experiences that we love?

Or is it simply that, in a world that’s getting more and more hostile to the humanities by the second, we’re finally realizing that we’re all in this together? That belonging rigidly to one artistic camp, in a society that would gleefully trash the arts altogether, is a wee bit counterproductive? Stupid, even?

I don’t know. But I’m glad I’ve found some friends to play with.

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