Confession time: I’m not only a techie. I certainly appreciate the tech world, and I recently described my iPhone to my friends as “the future of the universe in the palm of my hand,” but being a full-time tech junkie just isn’t me. In writing for Fueled, I’ve learned about countless amazing apps, websites, and startup companies that are changing the world as we know it - this writing has opened me up to the incredible ways that technology is connecting all of us. All of that being said, my tastes are eclectic, ranging from almost all sports to pop culture to theatre, opera, and the so-called fine arts. The best way to describe my tastes, in fact, is that one of the greatest days of my life was when I sat through a five hour German opera right after attending back-to-back tapings of “Maury”.
With that in mind, I’m introducing The Outsider’s Guide, a step-by-step instruction for techies who might not be fans of the things I love, like Broadway, hockey, and opera. The reason some of these get a bad rap is because people experience them without the proper training and background. There are plenty of innovative apps, entertaining websites, and entire companies that can aide in providing that knowledge. My goal is to get people accustomed to these events so that when they finally experience them fully, they can embrace them for how great they really are - all without being overwhelmed.
Musical theater is an art form lost on many, many people. For those who haven’t experienced it, the moment where the performers transition from speech to song is intolerable. It takes them completely out of whatever is happening on stage, a fundamental problem. A character expressing his or her emotions through song doesn’t happen in everyday life, and it’s jarring to people that aren’t used to it.
The Internet, of course, is richly packed with viewing opportunities, bringing the stage to your home and thereby increasing its accessibility. With proper employment, the sites and services can serve as a portal to this once-distant world.
I. Appreciating Broadway-Style Music in TV Comedy
2. “South Park”, Broadway Bro Down (NSFW)
These three shows showcase Broadway-style music in a flattering, accessible way - all online. In the first, an episode of “Scrubs”, titled My Musical, a patient comes into the hospital complaining that everything she hears is being sung. Scrubs makes the music work within the context of the show, in the same way that a good musical pulls it off. The music is written by Robert Lopez, creator of Avenue Q and co-creator of The Book of Mormon, two very popular recent musicals, and this episode has some great moments that are based around it.
For South Park’s recent Broadway Bro Down episode, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone skewer the entire Broadway landscape (one that they’re a part of, thanks to the staggering success of Book of Mormon, which they wrote with Lopez). In the episode, character Stan Marsh’s father, Randy, becomes a big supporter of Broadway after he learns what’s really being said in the subtext of the songs. Craziness ensues, and legendary Broadway composers Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Schwartz, Elton John, and, above all else, Stephen Sondheim (above left, in the Pittsburgh Steelers jersey) appear in cameos that only South Park could make work. Many current and classic musicals were a part of the episode, and even though nearly the entire episode made fun of the genre, it still treated Broadway with love and made it look like a happy place to be. Very happy.
“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” is the closest of the three to an honest-to-god, legitimate musical. It has all of the trappings of a Broadway show, with speech that turns directly into song without interruption. The music from this 2008 viral hit is astoundingly well-written, and can be used as an example of how to incorporate music effectively into a story.
II. Watch Some Clips: BlueGobo
A great place to watch some clips of Broadway numbers performed on TV (generally on the Tony Awards or on talk shows) is BlueGobo, a website compiled by Jeremy Aufderheide. BlueGobo’s extensive catalog contains musicals from the last 50 years, so there’s plenty to choose from. The site is searchable by show and by decade, and it also shows the cast lists from many prominent Broadway shows. After watching those three TV episodes, this is a great site to go to in order to make the switch from hearing songs in episodes to watching full Broadway production numbers. Some favorites:
1. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, from Gypsy, 2008. Patti LuPone at her greatest. Look out for the rabid applause by Inigo Montoya himself, Mandy Patinkin, at the very end. And may I say: Well done on the beard, Mr. Patinkin. Well done.
2. “Ragtime (Title Song)”, from Ragtime, 2008. A great ensemble opening number from one of the finest shows of the last twenty years. Bonus points for finding a 12-year-old Lea Michele in the cast! (It’s not that difficult.)
3. “The Internet is for Porn” from Avenue Q, 2009. Yep, that’s the real title of the song.
III. Watch a Full Movie Musical: Netflix
We’re at the point now where you should be used to the musical theatre genre, but only in small pieces or isolated in TV shows. It’s time to watch an entire show, music and all. Movie musicals had a rise back to prominence in the mid-2000s, highlighted by Chicago nabbing Best Picture at the 2003 Oscars. Chicago is one that’s worth watching, since it isn’t entirely a comedy and the music is expertly intertwined with the story. It’s a movie musical that completely works, from start to finish. You can watch it here if you have a Netflix streaming subscription, and if not, it’s readily available in many places. Hairspray is another one that worked well, as the film gave off the same feel-good vibe that the show did.
IV. Listen to Some Cast Albums: Spotify
In addition to the current hits that Spotify streams, many shows’ soundtracks are available for free on Spotify. Here’s a good way to get a feel for any show before spending big bucks to see it in person. In The Heights and Spring Awakening are both shows from the last five years that released strong soundtracks. They’re worth listening to, if only to get used to hearing multiple songs from a Broadway show in a row. Look around Spotify, and see what Broadway gems you can find. It’s worth your while.
V. Pick a Show to See. Pick Wisely.
This is the make or break moment in The Outsider’s Guide. Picking the first show to see is absolutely crucial. There are a few apps to use to make the big choice. BroadwayWorld, a popular theatre website, has an app that offers news about shows currently playing, reviews, ticket offers and much more. It’s a great reference for everything about Broadway. Another go-to app is the TKTS app, which gives real-time updates of what’s at the TKTS booth in Times Square. Broadway shows that haven’t sold out their theaters for their show that night often give TKTS their remaining tickets, and TKTS sells the tickets at their Times Square location, generally for 50-percent off the listed ticket price. The TKTS booth helps shows recoup money that would be lost if the tickets weren’t sold, and gives theatergoers the chance to get a really good seat for a Broadway show at a relatively cheap price. While hit shows like The Book of Mormon and Wicked probably won’t be available, many quality shows will.
You’re going to want to pick something that moves quickly and won’t bore you, but instead, will have you leaving the theater thinking you’ve seen something special. While theatre snobs (you’ll know them when you see them) will usually turn their noses up to musicals that feature only the music of an established group, otherwise known as Jukebox Musicals, Jersey Boys is an excellent choice for a first Broadway show. The music is familiar and fun, the show moves at a nice pace, and the story is concrete enough that it leaves people with a nice feeling.
From here, it makes sense to slowly engage in other musicals that explore the genre more deeply and more traditionally, continuing with but moving beyond your new technological dependence. A traditional musical comedy like Anything Goes or Oklahoma! might be a nice next choice, leading into more dramatic pieces like Phantom of the Opera and two of my personal favorites, Les Miserables and Ragtime. Then there’s the entire Stephen Sondheim catalogue, straight plays (shows without music), writers, and musical scores. (Follies is on Broadway right now. It needs your business...that’s the last plug. I promise.) It’s unfair for this theaterphile to impose any more suggestions. If you’ve gone this far with your immersion into Broadway, you’ve earned the right to do whatever you please, including scrapping musical theater entirely. But, hopefully, if you’ve gone through all of these steps, you’ve grown to appreciate it, and don’t think of it as a drag. Enjoy the process.