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
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