Saturday, April 10, 2010


All singing, all dancing. In my childhood home, the Broadway musical was king. For their favorite shows, LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE and THE BOY FRIEND, my parents were willing to drive...distances...for every student, amateur, community or professional staging they could find. The plays were always performed with great heart, and, as I remember, no cast ever disappointed. Imperfect diamonds are diamonds all the same.

The big shows sang throughout our lives, too. When all we had was a phonograph, the cast recordings of KISMET, CAROUSEL, SOUTH PACIFIC, GUYS AND DOLLS played again and again, music to indoctrinate young minds. When I think what the soundtrack of my story would include, I am conscious of many separate compartments, from my grandfather's World War I standards like, "There's A Long, Long Trail A'Winding," Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, all the show tunes, up to the Dylan albums that I was listening to when I left home and all that has been added since. That doesn't even touch upon everything we heard on the radio, which I started listening to like a religion when I was still in grade school.

When we purchased a stereo, my father positioned his chair between the speakers. One half of the combo had the turntable and all the dials; its companion, equally large, about the size of a double-door kitchen cabinet on legs, was all speaker...probably not ALL, as I imagine most of it was empty space. What he liked almost as much as the musicals were albums of what I think were called society orchestras, instrumental, dance-tempo renditions of familiar melodies. I remember one favorite was Lester Lanin. They went on to play (thanks, Google) at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. We were not a family that listened to classical music, something which I may still remedy, but we surely had music and as long as my long-term memory holds, lyrics by the boatload can be accessed in an instant. Additionally, songs (as performed by the original artists) will simply begin to play in my head. I wonder if there is some message being communicated or if it is merely part of the soundtrack, randomly selected.

In his newspaper job, which included a daily column, my dad was - over the years - in charge of a variety of sections and departments, like camping - which was a family joke since we never went camping together - but he wrote about sleeping bags and Coleman stoves to go along with his suggestions for back roads and tranquil destinations. He was the book editor, almost ever-lastingly - our mail arrived in canvas sacks like the letters to Santa being brought into the courtroom in MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, mountains of review copies, what joy. For a time he was, not music editor but somehow in charge of being sent review copies of records and, as such, would received original cast albums, occasionally for shows which had closed by the time the record arrived.

As he also wrote reviews of Civic Light Opera performances, for several seasons we were among the happy opening night audiences when Broadway went on the road. I do not under-value what a gift it was to have those orchestra seats, usually just a few rows from the stage, for such names as Ethel Merman in GYPSY. The theaters in which we saw them may be long vanished, yet the shows endure. Perhaps fewer in number and variety than 50 years ago, they come to Los Angeles, sell out and entrance current generations with their unique magic.

As I recently verified on-line what I remembered of the musicals, seeing if any videos existed of less-well known tunes, I found comments left on You Tube from people thanking their parents for raising them with the, "...good, old songs," crediting their success in life to the values represented by parents who played them Broadway shows. I wouldn't have expressed it in just that way, yet I don't disagree. For me it is, more accurately, another square in the quilt of my life, additional texture, more near-encyclopedic knowledge that will never appear on a resume. It does contribute to my way of seeing, of responding, of appreciating. While aspects of my earlier life have required repair, at the same time the continuous influence of my parents' enthusiasms has provided substance, sturdy handrails which have kept me from flying overboard. The arts enrich; it has been proven. Knowledge and experience of a wider, creative existence seem to balance the sense of being alarmingly insubstantial that results from childhood's unwelcome teachings.

Many of us emerge from our younger lives with pieces that don't seem to match. Art from found objects - assemblage, collage, constructions, anything that brings disparate parts together into a new and resurrected whole - offers a model of how our incongruent histories can make sense. Retain all that feeds your spirit, whether you remember the words or not, and forgive the rest.

1 comment:

Erin in Morro Bay said...

Both Margot and I, on different coasts and unknown to each other until 40 years later, listened endlessly to original cast albums of all the Broadway shows. Either one of us is liable, at any moment to burst into something from "Camelot", "Oklahoma" or any one of dozens of otheres. We've been spring cleaning here lately and had a blast doing the great room to the strains of Rex and Julie in "My Fair Lady".
Erin in Morro Bay