The Beauty Is – 10 Most Influential Musical Theatre Experiences

Tonight, I finally managed to carve out a little time to just sit at the piano and play some music. It’s rare these days to find the time to play simply for pleasure and not for work. I find that one of the major hazards of a career in musical theatre is that you lose sight of the pure joy of the art form. It’s hard to just give over to a musical experience without allowing analysis or criticism to set in. I was so happy tonight to just flip through an anthology of showtunes. Like visiting old friends, it was fun, nostalgic, and filled me with some much needed levity. In the spirit of finding reminders of why I love musical theatre so darn much, I decided to compile my list of the ten most influential musicals in the life (so far)…

1. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (20th Century Fox, 1965. Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, Directed by Robert Wise. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.)

This is the first musical that I have any real memory of. It’s actually a very early memory. It was Easter Sunday and I must have been about four years old. They used to air The Sound of Music on television every Easter (don’t ask me why). My parents had it on that year, and I was rapt for the entire 3 hours. I remember starting on the couch and gradually moving closer and closer so that I was sitting directly in front of the television. When people ask me how I first got into singing, I usually answer, “Julie Andrews.” I thought that she was some sort of mythical angel and that the kids in that movie were so lucky to have worked with her. I also remember bawling my eyes out at the part when Maria comes back from the Abbey. I’ll never forget hearing her voice singing with the children, and seeing the look on all of their faces (which must have mirrored the look on my own) when they realized she had come back. I still get a little teary every time I get to that section of the film. See what I mean.

2. SHOW BOAT (George Gershwin Theatre, 1994. Produced and Directed by Harold Prince. Starring Rebecca Luker, Mark Jacoby, Elaine Stritch. Music by Jerome Kern. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.)

Oscar Hammerstein and I seem to be well matched. When I turned nine years old, my grandfather took me to see my first Broadway show. In the spirit of the epic musicals of the 1990s, Hal Prince had created a sweeping revival of the 1927 classic, Show Boat. Perhaps a bit high brow for a 4th grader, it took a few embarrassing moments for me to subsequently learn that using the term “negro,” which I had picked up from the show, was not a sign of culture or intelligence. Luckily, the show opened my eyes to some more important and appropriate lessons. Namely, that classic musicals were still accessible and important. I was a modern, nine-year-old girl from Washington, D.C., yet I was completely engaged by a musical written in 1927. I was deeply impacted by the story of an ill-advised love affair, racism, and a single working mother – themes that are still extremely prevalent today. It is no wonder that Show Boat changed the face of American Musical Theatre when it first premiered. I played the CD on endless repeat, read the liner notes until they were worn out, and avidly followed young Rebecca Luker’s career. My friends roamed the hallways singing Alanis Morrisette, while I was singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

3. RENT (1996. Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Starring Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, and Jesse L. Martin).

I first heard Rent in the dressing room at the Adventure Theatre in Washington, D.C. where I was starring in a show called The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. At eleven, I was the youngest in a cast that was otherwise comprised of teenagers and adult professionals. It was late 1996, and Rent had exploded on the scene in New York City. The cast of my show was obsessed with it. Each day, a DiscMan outfitted with small speakers would be stretched to its peak, as “La Vie Boheme” pounded in our ears. I didn’t grasp the nuance of every concept in the show, but I knew enough to know that a little scary, but awfully exciting, and incredibly important. It was my first non-traditional musical experience. Rent sounded nothing like Rodgers & Hammerstein or the classic MGM musicals that I had come to love. It was Rock and Roll. It was full of bad words. And people died. It opened my eyes to the fact that there might even be more to New York City than the theatre district and my grandfather’s Upper East Side Apartment. It was also my first indication that theatre could be a tool for some sort of cultural commentary. I had certainly never seen anyone so excited over Oklahoma! By the end of our production, I too knew every word to the score, and had successfully convinced my skeptical parents to take me to see it. Rent was also the first musical that my non-musical, school friends loved just as much as I did. Who knew that a rock opera could be the key to coolness in middle school?

4. KISS ME, KATE (Martin Beck Theatre, 1999. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Amy Spanger, and Michael Berresse. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter.)

I saw this production of Kiss Me, Kate over Memorial Day Weekend of 2000. It’s also when I knew for certain that I would be having a career in musical theatre. I’d loved musicals and been performing in them for my entire life. This production, however, is what solidly convinced me that much more than an extra-curricular activity. Michael Blakemore’s revival was smoking hot, with fits of rage, incredible passion, side-splitting comedy, and color and light to take your breath away. I remember leaving the theatre just buzzing with excitement. I could not conceive of how Brian Stokes Mitchell could sing so beautifully, or how Marin Mazzie could be so damn funny, or how Amy Spanger could just belt her face off, or how the incredible Michael Berresse could scale the entire set without breaking a sweat. This was the kind of musical that I wanted to spend the rest of my life being a part of. Magic was happening in a little theatre on W. 45th Street, and I knew I had to find out how to create that for myself. I saw the show three more times and finally had the chance to play Lilli Vanessi the next year at my high school. A dream come true for my fifteen-year-old self.

5. COMPANY and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (The Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. June 2002. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Company – Starring John Barrowman, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, and Lynn Redgrave. Merrily – Starring Raul Esparza, Miriam Shor, and Michael Hayden.)

I pair these two shows because I saw them within a couple weeks of each other at the incredible Sondheim Celebration that Eric Schaeffer put together at the Kennedy Center in 2002. In my mind they are part of one greater introduction to the genius of Stephen Sondheim. I had seen a production of Sunday in the Park with George when I was in sixth grade, but it went way over my head. I had subsequently studied and listened to a bit of Sondheim, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2002 that I got my first good dose. The Sondheim Celebration produced six of his works – Company, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, and Sweeney Todd. Each had an all-star cast, and I was lucky enough to see three out of the six shows (the third being Sweeney Todd). Whereas the shows I had seen up to that point had all entertained, influenced, and inspired me, these productions of Company and Merrily We Roll Along touched me on a far more significant personal level. To be sixteen years old and seeing these brilliant works that dealt so fully with the human spirit was extremely enlightening. I valued that the stories were not tied up in a neat bow in the typical musical theatre fashion. In fact, both stories are left open ended. At the end of Company, Bobby has come to his conclusions about marriage, but we have no idea what happens next or if he ever finds his person in the universe. In the heartbreaking Merrily We Roll Along, we watch Charley, Mary, and Frank move backwards through time, ending at the night of their first meeting. I listened to “Our Time” with tears streaming down my face, knowing that their blind optimism would ultimately turn into cynicism and loneliness. Like Rent (but in a very different way), this introduction to Sondheim’s works confirmed the feelings I had that theatre could be about much more than pure entertainment.

6. THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (Marquis Theatre, 2002. Directed by Michael Mayer. Starring Sutton Foster, Gavin Creel, Marc Kudisch, and Harriet Harris. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Lyrics by Dick Scanlan.)

By mid high school, I was an official Broadway geek. I read broadway.com obsessively and spent every extra ounce of spending money buying out the Broadway section at Tower Records. To my horror, I couldn’t watch the 2002 Tony Awards live. I was probably studying for AP Tests, or something equally painful. I had to tape the Tonys and watch them after school the next day. It’s a good thing I had the 2002 Tony Awards on tape because watching Sutton Foster leading the girls in that electric rendition of “Forget About the Boy” became a daily ritual for me. A couple weeks later, the original cast recording came out, and I rushed to the store to buy it the second I finished my Physics final. I put in on my parents high-end sound system, laid down in the middle of the family room, and spent the next hour trying to visualize every moment of the show. That Tony performance had made my heart race. A modern classic musical! And Sutton Foster! Plucked from the chorus and an overnight sensation (happily enjoying some longevity ten years later). We bought tickets to the show, and I counted down the days until my dad and I would take the train up to New York to visit NYU and see Thoroughly Modern Millie. Those two experiences will be forever linked in my mind and heart. Like Millie, I was the little girl in the big city, full of big dreams, but with a few tough lessons ahead. After a daytime visit to the NYU campus, we headed up to the Marquis theatre, where I was just swept away. As Sutton Foster belted out “Gimme, Gimme” I couldn’t tell if the pounding that I heard was the bass drum or the beating of my own heart. New York. Theatre. Home.

7. CAMELOT (Arena Stage, 2003. Directed by Molly Smith. Starring Matt Bogart, Kate Suber, and Steven Skybell. Music by Frederick Loewe, Lyrics by Alan J. Lerner.)

I never really loved Camelot. I thought that Julie Andrews sounded lovely as always on the original cast recording, but the whole thing struck me a little more than pretty singing. The 1967 film starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero left me equally cold. The singing in the film was unimpressive and I was not a fan of the 1960s soft-focus film style. See what I mean. When my suggested seeing Molly Smith’s new production at Arena Stage for my 18th birthday, I was somewhat hesitant. Little did I know that this would be the first of many experiences where Molly Smith would take my skepticism and turn it completely on its ear. This Camelot was something entirely different. She stripped away all of the pomp and circumstance usually associated with the show. If you really look at the show in a historical context, it was a dark and dirty time. She made her characters – even the king and queen – human beings with their feet on the ground. Guenevere was a rough and tumble young girl from a northern Celtic kingdom. Arthur was a new king with his head in the clouds, but big dreams for what Camelot could be. And Lancelot was not a pompous boor, but a man of deep faith, searching for a place and people to believe in. Staged in the round, this Camelot was swathed in symbolism and humanity. By taking away the grandeur and oppressive scenery generally associated with the show, the words and characters suddenly sprang off of the page. The text and story were as rich and heartbreaking as any Shakespearean tragedy. I started weeping the moment that Lancelot and Guenevere were discovered, and couldn’t stop until well into our ride home after the show.

8. THE LIGHT IN THE PIZZA (Lincoln Center Theatre, 2005. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Starring Victoria Clark, Kelli O’Hara, Matthew Morrison, Mark Harelik, Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, and Patti Cohenour. Music & Lyrics by Adam Guttel.)

The Light in the Piazza challenged everything I thought I knew about musical theatre. It was musically sophisticated and contemporary, yet with a lush, sweeping classicism. It was set in the 1950s, yet highly sensual and electrifying. It was a modern musical, yet it featured legitimate singing. I had two major reactions to seeing The Light in the Piazza. The first was to call everyone I knew to tell them to go see it. The second was to say “Finally! Someone has written a role for my voice.” Until The Light in the Piazza came around, I thought I was going to be doomed to be in revivals for the rest of my life. My strength lay in my legit soprano voice, but contemporary roles for that voice type were few and far between. But “Clara” seemed to be just about as soprano as they come. (Actually, having subsequently played the role, I can now say that she actually runs the vocal gamut, from low and rich, to a mixed belt, to soaring soprano). At the time of my initial experience with the show, I had never seen or heard anything so beautiful. Every element of the Lincoln Center production – lights, set, costumes, casting – came together and transported me to this special moment in the characters’ lives. This was the first show that inspired me to go back to the source material – Elizabeth Spencer’s original novella – and search for clues into the characters and the story that they were telling. The Light in the Piazza has in fact changed my life twice. Once in 2005 when I first saw the show and was just bowled over by its beauty and sophistication; and again in 2012 when I was recruited to play Clara. The show is full of complexities and endless grace. It raises difficult questions about every kind of love and about the human spirit. It is a show that I could watch or perform over and over again and never grow tired of it. It also features what I consider the sexiest moment in theatre.

9. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Stage Left Children’s Theater, 2009. Directed by Ayn Lauren. Starring Lindsey Sherman, Sam Weinstein, Matthew Prigge, Patrick Gambuti III, Scott Galina, and Jordan Andelson. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Tim Rice.)

Who would have thought that a bunch of kids could so wholly change my life? I could put every moment of the three years I spent at Stage Left Children’s Theater under the umbrella of “most influential theatre experiences.” It was there that I discovered a passion for teaching and directing, and it was the best possible training ground in which to develop these talents. SLCT is a magical place where young actors put on professional quality productions that simply take your breath away. Beauty and the Beast was the pinnacle of my work as a music director there. It was an ambitious selection on every level. As the music director, I had to quickly learn how to teach difficult harmonies to 75 kids, nurture and encourage the leading players, and rehearse a student band. It was one of the best lessons in collaboration that I have every received. Director, Music Director, Choreographer, Stage Managers, Set Designers, Costume Designer, Parents, and Actors all pulled together to create something huge and beautiful. It opened my eyes to the possibility of community-driven theatre. It taught me to see the creation of art as something so much bigger than myself.

10. IN THE HEIGHTS (Richard Rodgers Theatre, 2009. Directed by Thomas Kail. Music and Lyrics by Linn-Manuel Miranda. Starring Linn-Manuel Miranda, Many Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, Andrea Burns, Karen Olivo, Olga Merediz, and Priscilla Lopez.)

After so many years in “the business,” I was becoming jaded about theatre. It was rare to be able to go to the theatre and just give over to the experience. I was hyper critical and over-aware of the various technical elements of a given production. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be embraced by the story. In the summer of 2009, I was also becoming incredibly embittered about the stage of contemporary musical theatre. No one was writing anything that interested or excited me. Everything just seemed belty and trite. In The Heights restored my faith. A true love letter to New York City, it was, in many ways, a modern classic musical. It follows a traditional music theatre format. Linear beginning, middle, and end with a couple of love stories, a life-altering chance, dreams, extraordinary circumstances, and catharsis. It features ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and, in classic musical theatre fashion, takes place in the span of just three days. It sounds like it could be any story set in any place. But this particular story is set to the vibrant beats and colors of Washington Heights. The whole time I was watching the show, I thought, “I’ve been to that street!” It all felt so real. The composers, writers, designers, and actors had hit the spirit of that particular neighborhood squarely on the nail. In The Heights achieves everything a modern book musical should. It is not overly heady and esoteric. It is story telling at its absolute best and some of my favorite contemporary music.

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About rachelrobinsonmusic

Rachel Robinson is a teaching artist, director, music director and performer based in San Francisco. She is a graduate of New York University’s Steinhardt School, and holds a degree in Vocal Performance. In addition to her work as a singer/actress, Rachel maintains a very busy schedule directing, music directing, and teaching. Rachel grew up in the Washington, D.C. area where she became an active performer at a very early age. She appeared many times with The Washington Opera, and she also played roles at the Adventure Theatre and with the Washington Savoyards. In 2003, Rachel moved to New York City to begin her degree at New York University. During the next four years Rachel appeared in many cabarets and productions, both at NYU and in the city. After graduating in May 2007, Rachel became the resident Music Director at Stage Left Children’s Theater in Tappan, NY. She was in residence there for three seasons. At the same time, she founded a private voice and piano studio. In September 2010, Rachel relocated to San Francisco. She began working as a music instructor at ViBO Music, Village Music School, and the San Francisco Friends School. She also was brought on as a music director at the Willows Theatre Company. In 2011-2012, Rachel spent a year as the Conservatory Director at the Willows, where she worked on developing opportunities for youth and up-and-coming theatre artists. No matter what level of student she is working with, Rachel believes in finding the student's "natural voice." Playing any instrument is a process, not an event, and her goal is to make that process as fun, productive, and insightful as possible.
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3 Responses to The Beauty Is – 10 Most Influential Musical Theatre Experiences

  1. Ed says:

    11. LES MISERABLES (Walter Johnson High School Auditorium, 2003). Boom. 😛

  2. jilrob says:

    What a wonderful experience it is for me to read this post! Having shared many of these moments with you, it touches me deeply to know how much they still mean to you.

  3. Steve T. says:

    Great stuff Rachel. For me…

    #1 – Uh, same as you – The Sound of Music, except I saw it, in the theatre, when it was released in 1965. I was 6 years old. Ruined me for life.
    #2 – Most Happy Fella – Goodspeed Opera House, 1991 (pre-Broadway). Spiro Malas, Sophie Haydn, Liz Larsen, etc. dir Gerald Gutierrez. Just when I was getting kind of sick of the business, I was reminded what a powerful experience theatre can be. I pretty much wept through the entire second act.
    #3 – My son Luke singing “No More” in Into the Woods, White Plains High School 2011. He actually showed me things I never saw in that song before. Take over, next generation.

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