Since watching the 2016 Tony Awards earlier this week, I’ve been thinking of Irving Berlin’s line: “There’s no people like show people…”
Theater has been one of my greatest joys since childhood. James Corden’s opening number — “That could be me” — brought those memories back in a rush: the mounting excitement of sitting in the audience next to my mother as a little boy, wondering what magic awaited us behind the closed curtain; the years I spent as an adolescent playing the smallest possible named roles, a testament to the kindness of my sweet directors, who saw my diligence, dedication, and inability to dance, but still found somewhere to put me. I felt sure then that my calling was to be on Broadway — as a performer, and then later as a director. I believed deeply in the power of that particular dream, convinced in my youth that my biggest problem would be fitting my name in so many places on a single marquee.
Spoiler alert: I did not end up on Broadway. I am a middle-aged middle school theater and chorus teacher, and dad living out a story different from the one I once imagined, but no less joyful. My masterpieces are not plays but students. They have names, not titles. They’re on loan to me during a period of their lives best described as a messy dress rehearsal, and will hopefully have running times close to eighty or ninety years. I am their director, but only for a little while. So I try to make the time count, to teach them as much as I can about not only the theater, but also about life.
I worry about whether they’ll remember their choreography on opening night, but I worry more about whether they’ll remember to be kind to one another. I want them to make authentic choices in the moment onstage, but I care far more about the decisions they make off-stage. I want them to create memorable characters in our plays, but I am infinitely more concerned about the content of their own character.
Because these things are always on my mind (even during summer), I hope my students were watching the Tony Awards or that they’ll find some time to watch the program online (available at this link). That’s right— your teacher wants you to enjoy two hours of screen time. Because in more ways than I can count, all the lessons I strive to teach my students played out in that show, gracious and generous acts shining among the lights and glamour of Broadway.
The importance of persistence? Consider Jayne Houdyshell’s poignant remarks about winning her first Tony at age 62. Or her co-star, Reed Birney, who quipped that the beginning of his forty-year career — the first thirty-two years or so — had been a bit rough.
Being part of a team? Renée Elise Goldsberry gave a stunningly beautiful speech paying tribute to her Hamilton cast-mates: “When one of us wins, we all win, because we are one.” Then in a moving moment, she held her award aloft and expressed her awe and gratitude for the blessings of both career and family: “God gave me Benjamin, he gave me Brielle, and he still gave me this.” She seemed to realize what will remain important long after the final curtain on her last performance.
Losing your ego? How about watching Steve Martin, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Andrew Loyd-Weber play "Tomorrow" in a spontaneous band with other composers outside the theatre.
Amid the showtunes and glitz, the participants demonstrated a deep, fundamental humanity.
And that brings me to my last thought. In a different year, any of the nominated musicals might have been Tony winners. But these shows all happened to open the same season as an out-of-the-box, hip-hop retelling of an 826-page book about America’s first Treasury Secretary.
As the Hamilton tidal wave swept through the theater, winning well-deserved award after award, the other nominees grinned and clapped with genuine enthusiasm, even as they pushed their own carefully prepared speeches a little deeper into pockets or purses.
Life can be hard. Heaven knows theater can be. You work and practice, you dream and hope, then work some more—and someone else gets the part. You sing your heart out and still, you might not win the award this year. Or even next.
Of all the lessons my students grapple with, dealing with disappointment is among the most difficult. That’s why I hope they watched the Tony awards. Because if they did, they saw people being generous in victory and gracious in disappointment. They saw people sharing in one another’s joy even though life is unfair.
They saw big stars say, “I didn’t do this alone,” and rising stars say, “This is wonderful—but it’s not what’s most important.”
If my students learn these lessons, they have a shot at genuine happiness in adulthood even if their Broadway dreams don’t come true. Or even if they do.
Braden Bell, PhD, is an assistant middle school principal, youth theater director, author of middle-grade and YA fantasy fiction, and lifelong theater geek. He blogs intermittently about teaching adolescents. Follow him on Twitter @bradenbellcom or on Facebook: Braden Bell, Author
Author's note: I'd like to thank Mary Laura Philpott for her encouragement and energy. She gave generously of her time, support, and expertise while I worked on this piece. You can find her on Twitter at: @MaryLauraPh
I have noticed a pattern over the years, and the more I think about it, the more it troubles me. I will freely admit that I have done this many times, and it came to my notice because I sat down the other day to do exactly the same thing. Whenever there is a high-profile terrible event--it doesn't really matter what, but we've had several recently--we say something like, "This was terrible BUT...." and then we insert our own two cents. Usually, we tie the tragedy to something we feel strongly about, and often, these statements at least imply anyone who disagrees is morally culpable for the tragedy. You get a template that looks roughly like this: "This tragedy was terrible, but it shows something I've thought for a long time. If only everyone would agree to [whatever we are saying] it would not happen again..." I will note up front ,that these response are very sincere, and delivered most often with the best of intentions. Or, someone is simply expressing an opinion.
Soon, someone writes a blog about it, then people who are like-minded agree, share the blog and soon, those who disagree find a blog that states their opinion. "There is no excuse for [whatever the tragedy is] BUT..." and soon, these discussions are linked to larger social questions, and soon, they are simply more ammo in our ongoing collective arguments.
It happens anytime there is a shooting, or a brutal crime. It happened with the gorilla shooting, and it's happening even as we speak with that truly tragic and shameful rape case.
Part of this is the way we work through things collectively, I suppose. But I'm not sure it's healthy or productive, and I've been thinking about the old idea of a moment of silence. I wonder if bringing some form of that to the digital era might be a good idea. Not as a rule, but simply as a matter of decorum and decency.
I wonder if we might reclaim some bit of humanity if, for a day or two, we simply said, "This was terrible--period. Those poor people." and then reflect on how we might feel if we or our loved ones were in the same situation. Perhaps we even think about ways we could help the situation. The key being each one of us does that for him or herself--not generously offering prescriptions to fix everyone else.
It's critical we have the freedom to express our opinions. We also need robust debate. Certainly we can learn from terrible tragedies. But I think the scale has tipped too far to one side. I don't think a bit more restraint--personally applied--would hurt us, individually or collectively.
I wonder if seeing these tragedies simply through the eyes of those who are hurt and whose lives are devastated might help us soothe some of the divisions we have, and perhaps turn down the temperature a notch or two on the always-boiling cultural arguments we have.
As it is, there is something a bit ghoulish and inhumane about the way we fall into the habit of using tragedies to advance (even sincerely) and focus on our own sincere point-of-view. I think it ends up dehumanizing us and slowly reinforcing our unfortunate human tendency to see others as objects, supporting characters in our own story.
Beyond the fact idea of simply being more humane, I wonder if this approach might actually bring about greater consensus and progress. It seems to me that when we focus on our core humanity and really understand each other, most differences are not as great as they seem, and arguments often resolve into some kind of shared consensus.
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