During the course of my travels last week, I had a conversation with a musical theater artist of my acquaintance. (Let’s call him Pete.) Pete was somewhat flustered when I spoke with him; on top of his other responsibilities, he was frantically getting ready for a performance the next day. A benefit performance for a new(ish) theater company.
What company was this, I asked.
“Oh, man, don’t get me started,” replied Pete. “I don’t know what they were thinking, it’s got this weird name.”
“What’s the name?” I asked.
“Quantum, something or other, it starts with a Q.” He checked his emails to confirm. “Quintessence of Dust. I mean, who’s supposed to remember that? What the heck is that?”
“Hamlet,” I replied, delighted to be able to help.
“It’s the end of the ‘What a piece of work is man’ speech. You know?”
A stony look from Pete was my reply.
“Hamlet’s depressed,” I explain, “like he usually is. He’s wondering what the point is. Of everything. Of mankind. We’re just dust. In the end, you know, dust in the wind?”
The reference to the oeuvre of the band Kansas met with more silence, so I busted out my thespian skills. “‘What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’”
“It’s kind of a cheeky name for a theater company, if you think about it,” I said.
Pete thought for another moment, then replied, “I never really got into Shakespeare.”
Now, much to my chagrin, many people don’t get into Shakespeare. I wish that weren’t the case, and in my artistic life I do what I can to try and keep that from being the case. But ultimately? In the vast scheme of things? Millions of people live their lives, leading noble and virtuous existences, without reading Hamlet or witnessing a production. And while I hope someday they do encounter a good one, I can’t really be upset with them if they don’t recognize a quotation (however well known) from Act II, Scene 2.
Unless, of course, they’re a theater arts professional in New York City, in which case good lord what on earth is the matter with you?
For as long as I’ve been working in this field, I’ve been unable to understand the insularity that can affect musical theater practitioners, and the seeming lack of repercussions they experience for it. It isn’t acceptable for any of the rest of us – if I refused to do anything other than classical theATuh, I’d never do any theater. I’ve had to educate myself about contemporary musical theater – not ordinarily my area of interest – simply in order to function professionally. It’s crucial to every actor’s skill set to understand the mechanics of singing. Learning dance helps you move better on stage regardless of what you’re performing in. You may not care for Viewpoints, or Suzuki, or any of a hundred modern techniques, but being conversant with those techniques makes you better at what you do like to do. The more types of theater you study as a performer, the better you become – and for most of us, we have to study these different types to be employable at all.
And yet the rules seem to be different for musical theater performers. It’s not universally true – I know plenty of actors who started in musical theater who have made a diligent study of other genres and styles. But it’s not required of them the way it is for the rest of us. It seems like their entire careers can take place within this particular little bubble, and they can live their lives without ever leaving it.
This is never a good thing. It’s not just bad artistically, it’s bad for our business. Listen to Los Angeles based actors – friction with Actors’ Equity out there is at an all-time high, with plenty of small theater companies abandoning our union altogether, and when you listen to the actors themselves you hear resentment that the union doesn’t seem to care about anybody but New York chorus performers. This kind of festering resentment, at people who don’t realize the bubble they’re living in, tends to end badly – you may perhaps have seen an example or two in the nation at large over the past few years.
So, at the very least, Pete? And all you other Petes out there? Maybe pick up a copy of Hamlet someday soon. I promise it contains more than simply words, words, words.