Age, Identity and Embracing Musical Theater


Recently, Bill asked me to start thinking about an article for an upcoming issue of TMTP’s Overture Newsletter – something about my first year with the organization and rediscovering a love of classic American musical theater.

As I gather my thoughts, I’m particularly intrigued by how individual musical tastes change over the years and how closely tied they are tied to identity – More than our taste in literature or visual art.  Music is almost like shorthand for who we are and what groups of people we seek to associate with. As a young adult, I listened primarily to rock.  My friends listened to rock.  “Everyone” listened to rock and the fact that I occasionally enjoyed listening to music from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Camelot” or “Cabaret” was my little secret.

Musicals were decidedly uncool among people my age until “Grease” hit the zeitgeist like nothing in popular culture seems to do today. It didn’t really move me at the time, but other musicals did.  I loved “All that Jazz” and was delighted to see my first Broadway show, “Sweeney Todd,” but despite these brushes with musical theater, rock was still my primary listening choice – even as in college I began to gravitate more toward punk, new wave, and experimental forms.

An article I recently read suggested that — The music we like adapts to the particular challenges we face at different stages of our lives. So it made sense that My musical tastes changed during my late teens and early twenties.

“We come to music to experiment with identity and define ourselves, and then use it as a social vehicle to establish our group and find a mate, and later as a more solitary expression of our intellect, status and greater emotional understanding.”,to%20project%20status%20and%20family

By the time I reached my 30s, I saw my musical expand. Classical music and jazz interested me more, particularly because I could listen to them without being awash in emotional connections.  I discovered that I could enjoy unfamiliar compositions purely on their own merit.  Yes, the music of my younger years would always have a special place in my heart, but quite frankly, I wanted the music I played to do more than conjure up old memories.  Once again, it made sense that my musical tastes changed a bit.

I admit that I kind of got stuck for a while in my 40s and 50s.  I went through a period of feeling like I had seen and heard it all and that I didn’t really like much else.  I hated grunge and other new music.  Went I saw “Doctor Atomic” at the Metropolitan Opera, I fell asleep, and seeing “Newsies” at Playhouse Square was not to my liking. I nearly swore off musical theater completely. Wow!  I had become like the Muppet’s Statler and Waldorf sitting comfortably in my balcony seat jeering at (or snoozing through) the passing show. Then something miraculous happened!  At the age of something very close to 60, my musical tastes expanded again.

“When faced with an imagined scenario in which we wake up and our musical taste is the exact opposite of what it used to be, most of us say that that would not be us anymore, but a completely different person. We tend to consider our taste in music to be a more important part of who we are than our moral, political, or even religious views.”

It was during my interview process with The Musical Theater Project that I first began to realize how early the seeds of my musical preferences were sown and how precious those early memories are to me.  Recollections of those musical films I begged to stay up for and the songs my Mom, Dad, and Aunt Blanche sang on summer evenings sitting under our grapevine have poured forth in an amazing bounty. I also recognized how many vaguely remembered treasures of musical theater now truly resonated with me.  I told Bill and Jack that whether I was offered the job or not, I was grateful for the gift I had been given. 

“Music becomes that stake in the ground — ‘this is who I am’.”

I am very glad I got the job. I am grateful for very old memories and new vistas and for the person I am becoming.  Embracing the cheer, optimism, sadness, longing, and myriad of emotions evoked through the melodies and lyrics of classic American musical theater is remarkably easy at this juncture, and am delighted by meeting others with an appreciation of this art form. I wonder at the phenomena of aging into musical theater and wish others like me a similar pleasure.

Nick Cave says it very well, “We’re often led to believe that getting older is in itself somehow a betrayal of our idealistic younger self, but sometimes I think it might be the other way around.”