As I've mentioned (1,009 times), last week I had the absolute joy of directing 133 students in our school's production of Hello Dolly.
It's such an old-fashioned musical--a musical from the late 60s based on a play from the 1930s about life in the 1890s. Many of the major plot points rest on cultural practices or beliefs that simply don't exist anymore (clerks living with their employer and being fired for going out on the town, matchmakers, widows shocking the world by working and so on). In fact, when I first started rehearsing, I almost felt like I was directing a Shakespeare piece in terms of having to fill the kids in on various cultural and historical details so they could understand what was going on. So much has changed since this musical was produced. So much has changed since my high school performed it in the 80s.
So, why do it? Why do these creaky old shows? I've been thinking a lot about that. My students all want to do Wicked and Hairspray and High School Musical each year (never HSM!!!!!) A lot of other theatre educators choose to do lots of edgy social commentary stuff. So, I'm definitely marching to my own beat here.
My first priority is always to find the play that provides the most opportunities for the most students and that fits the talent profile of a given class—which this play did--I had some boys with great voices. I had some strong altos and very few sopranos. I needed a play with an expandable cast--and so on. Dolly was uniquely suited to these specific needs in many ways. But, logistical demands aside, I believe that there is tremendous value in being acquainted with some of the great works of the past—and that is true in literature, art, music, as well as theatre.
Hello Dolly is not great art. I know that. Even within the genre of musical theatre, it didn't break ground like South Pacific or My Fair Lady or Oklahoma. But it's a well-crafted musical and, at one time, had great appeal and took it's place as the longest running show on Broadway for a time. Even today, audiences still enjoy it. I was amazed at how many people commented on how good they felt as they left the theatre.
So, although I wouldn't call it great art, I do think it's a classic in those terms. Something becomes a classic because generations of people find it funny or poignant or meaningful. It tells us something about the human condition that we find resonant with our own lives.
It is the great bias of the living that they occupy unique, usually uniquely difficult, times. And while it’s true that many things have changed over the years, human nature remains remarkably consistent. The value of a classic is that it helps overcome our bias for now by lifting the curtain of contextual details to reveal something about the human condition.
Some parts of this play are dated, and are linked very specifically to a certain time and place. But there are other parts that are more universal, that deal with concerns humans have expressed as long as we’ve been recording our thoughts: love and loneliness for example.
I believe that at least one purpose of an education is to gain the ability to understand and appreciate a classic—to gain the interpretive tools and background knowledge to allow us to transcend the bias of our contemporary mindset and appreciate and enjoy the classics in any genre or discipline.
The truth is that Hairspray and Wicked are fun shows that have things to say. But the students today need no help to access those. They can do that on their own. And, as wonderful as those shows are, they are only the latest creations in a rich and robust theatrical tradition that spans thousands of years! The job of a teacher is to help unlock this rich heritage.
That is why we still perform old shows like Hello Dolly; On a more elevated level, it's why we read Dickens and Shakespeare and look at pieces by Degas and VanGogh. It’s why we listen to Bach and Beethoven and Handel.
These pieces have shaped our culture and world. They have informed our culture today and they belong to us! And I believe our lives are richer when we have the ability to enjoy and learn from them. That's why I am proudly old-school.
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