Like others before me, I am fortunate to be able to say that theatre was part of my upbringing. When I was quite young, my parents used to pile us all into the family van and drive to visit our family members in other parts of the country. They would pop in the cassette tape soundtracks of “Phantom of the Opera” or “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and my sister and I would sing our hearts out in the backseat (my younger brother grew up and eventually jointed in, although he will never publicly admit it).
Our great aunt lived in a small town in eastern Canada, and we spent several of our summers visiting her. The small collection of locals all knew us by name, and the downtown core consisted of a general store, two restaurants, a one-room library, the church and a gas station/video store. Yes, my friends, these were the days of video stores. Thanks to that store, I was introduced to Rodgers and Hammerstein classics collection and my world was never the same. Those summer nights were spent watching Julie Andrews spin through the hills of Austria, Mitzi Gaynor dance across a tropical island and Deborah Kerr waltz through Siam. I desperately wanted more.
In the small town I grew up in, “theatre” was a foreign word. If you wanted to see a show, you had to drive to Toronto or fly to New York. My parents did their best to take us to see musicals that came up to Toronto on tour, and it was from those experiences I realized that I needed to be a part of the theatre world. As a nerdy child, I struggled to find where I fit, and watching those productions made me feel less like an outcast.
It wasn’t until I started teaching theatre and music that I realized how few young people have access to life theatre. A touring production of “Memphis” came through Toronto, and I picked up a DVD recording of the show at the merch booth at intermission. I showed clips of it to a class of students the following week. It was so quiet in the room that you could have heard a pin drop. They loved the musical so much that I spent the next two weeks listening to them hum it to themselves. I got similar results when I showed the “Hamilton” cast’s performance of “Alexander Hamilton” from the Grammy Awards. Hands went up, and the kids asked where they could see more of that.
But even matinee student tickets to a show cost more than many young people and their families can afford. That leaves recordings, which are the closest thing to a live performance some can get so that even kids in small, rural towns can be transported to Broadway and beyond.
In an interview on Late Night With Seth Meyers, actor Andrew Rannells recalled that he discovered Broadway as a kid in Nebraska through filmed broadcasts of Broadway shows. The actor recently starred in a revival of “Falsettos” that aired on “Live from Lincoln Centre” on PBS back in October. Like Rannells, having access to recordings of Broadway shows opens the arts up to everyone, in all parts of the world, regardless of age or socioeconomic status.
Television is doing its part by staging live musical versions of popular hits such as “Grease,” “Hairspray” and the upcoming “Rent.” But what about shows with less of a cult following or recent hits such as “Dear Evan Hansen?”
There needs to be an investment in making Broadway more accessible to the public, or future Audra McDonalds or Lin-Manuel Mirandas may slip through the cracks, never knowing theatre is within the realm of possibility.
Access to the dramatic arts allows young people to enter another world that they might not otherwise know. It gives a voice and perspective to those whose stories go unheard or misunderstood. For young people who are forming their view of the world and themselves, the exposure to a new way of thinking could be the turning point. This is especially true if they are struggling to see themselves and where they belong — because everyone belongs in the theatre. In the theatre, we are heard, and we are not alone.