Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Singing Statues

How can a leading lady compete with singing, tap-dancing statues? Warbling portraits? Sibilant siblings? Side-kicking sidekicks? Lyrical soprano mothers? Quarrelsome barbershop quartets? Grecian urns? The Statue of Liberty?

And a script that leaves out one of your only chances at getting in your comedy licks?

It’s enough to strain your voice and make you think you don’t have what it takes to make it to Broadway.

Still, if you’re a 13 year-old leading lady, you should take a bow just for having the guts to take on the role of Marian, the Librarian in "The Music Man Junior" - minus the key library scene, “Marian, the Librarian.”

A colleague’s daughter was perfoming in a junior high version of the classic Broadway musical. She was in the chorus. When he mentioned it, there was a wince in his voice. He’d be viewing it three times.

He needn’t have winced, though. School musicals have come a long way in just a generation, thanks to Grease, Disney’s High School Musical, music videos, karaoke, and the I-Pod.

This is a generation that loves to sing. They practice, and sing along, and even critique one another. They faithfully watch American Idol and Dancing with the Stars. This is one “musical” generation.

I’ve gone to a number of school musical productions in my town, and for friends whose kids were in shows, and I’ve never been disappointed. It’s fun watching these risings stars give it their all, and to their credit, the teachers did a terrific job training them in the choreography and musical numbers.

School musical productions have come so far that the drama department can now purchase pre-packaged musicals, completely with background CDs and scripts written just for the kids, shortened and sanitized (where necessary).

This was just about as good a production as I’ve ever seen. I had a hard time believing I was watching 13 year-olds. Only after I saw them up close in the hall did I realize just how young they were.

The young man who played Prof. Harold Hill’s sidekick, Marcellus, had such an adult voice, I wondered if he wasn’t a ringer, an adult brought in to play the role. But his parents were seated right behind me, his baby sister in their lap, gurgling and babbling.

The choreography was perfect, the backdrops beautifully painted (they were borrowed from the high school next door). The kids were endowed with energy, talent, and stage presence.

If there was anything wrong, it was with the pre-packaged CD and script. The traveling salesman/piano lesson’s tempo was much too fast even for grown-ups, much less junior high school singers. “Marian” and “Mrs. Paroo” wound up stumbling over the lyrics.

Subsequently, poor “Marian” was left with that tempo for her ensuing dialogue and it took her awhile to mentally bring the tempo down again as she was delivering her lines.

The other problem was the aforementioned elimination of the “Marian, the Librarian” scene in the script. Without it, the audience is left with a poor understanding of Marian and the predicament in which she finds herself and the actress is robbed of her opportunity to get some laughs reacting to the chaos that follows in Prof. Harold Hill’s wake.

No doubt, the scriptwriters deleted the scene due to the chromatic challenges of the song. Adult instrumentalists, when faced with this number, have to brace themselves for it. The editing was probably an act of mercy to young singers.

But it does leave the besieged “Marian” flat (no pun intended). In the film, the scene perfectly illustrates what she’s up against: a serious, reserved, quiet, sensible character cast adrift in a sea of merry mayhem.

The library scene is her stage, her chance to stand out in this three-ring circus of eccentric characters – a dancing statue (in this production – a brilliant innovation; we didn’t realize it was a kid in statue make-up as “Miser Madison” until he jumped down at the end to sing and dance with the rest of the cast) and warbling portraits, hayseeds and gossips, bickering politicians and businessmen – with Harold Hill as the ringmaster.

Without it, she’s hopelessly upstaged, which is what happened in this production. Where our young actress had any chance – in the bridge scene and the scene with the traveling salesman – she was wonderful, quite possibly the sweetest, most charming Marian in the history of the production of The Music Man.

I found her outside in the lobby after the play was over. She was off to one side by the doors, on the outer rim of the jumble of other cast members, thrilled and proud (and legitimately so) with their performance. “Marian” was standing in a draft.

I only saw her mother and a young friend with her. I wondered if she’d been congratulated for just having the courage to take on the thankless role of “Marian”? Obviously, she’d encountered the same singing problems other young leading ladies have had.

Looking into her eyes, which were red, I could see she was aware of her difficulties and that she hadn’t received as much applause as the other cast members. Her mother cringed when I complimented her.

Nevertheless, I assured her I had enjoyed her performance. Her little face brightened. As she smiled, the braces glinted on her teeth.

“Did you really like it?” she asked wistfully. I laughed lightly and assured her she was “Broadway-bound.” What the future will bring depends on how she develops her talent, how much encouragement she receives, and how much faith she keeps in her abilities, a hard task for any young performer.

For this night, after working so hard and enduring so much upstaging, she deserved that much hope.

There was a lesson in this musical, too, for those of us adult taxpayers headed for the school election polls this Tuesday.

When it comes to the school budget, I’m right up there with the other taxpayers, parents and non-parents alike, as well as our governor. The teachers have to face the realities of the recession just like the rest of us. Times are hard and they’re going to have to share in it.

However, while I have no financial sympathy for them – in fact, quite a bit of contempt – I feel a little less severe towards them regarding the job they’re doing.

Conservatively, they need to teach more of the basics and a little less politics. They also need to refrain from using our children (I use the word “our”, although I’m childless) as pawns in the budgetary wars.

Still, I can’t blame them entirely for the lack of progress students are showing. Our teachers are “Marian, the Librarian,” trying to teach in a three-ring circus world filled with music videos, I-Pods, cell phones, with cable television serving as the ringmaster.

In addition to all that, there are the usual distractions of adolescence, raging hormones, peer pressure, drugs, broken homes, and in poorer communities, poverty, violence, and ignorance. All that’s missing are the dancing statues.

They must stand in front of the Music Generation and try to teach with a ruler, a piece of chalk, and a book in their hands. Good luck with that!

When it comes to finances, wrangle away! But when it comes to discussing education itself, ask yourself what you’re doing as a parent. Are you serving as a good role model? Do you read yourself? Do you read to your younger children?

Do you take them to the library? The museum? Do you discuss world affairs and history with them? Do they see you doing work at home (that is, homework)? Reading the newspaper? Do you check their homework assignments each night?

Are you involved in continuing education? Do you take courses?

Or do you just come home each night and flop in front of the television, content to be merely entertained?

Good education begins much earlier than you realize. Children are little copy machines. They’ll copy everything you do when they’re small. Make sure they’re copying from a good source.

Your children are your legacy to the future, statues which you must mould and place upon a secure pedestal. If you want your little statues to stand up for themselves and stand on their own two feet, you've got to teach them to sing, dance, and “quote Shakespeare and all them other, high-falutin’ Greeks”.

Without falling off the pedestal.

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