Singing Social Change a Cathartic Way to Take Stock of Our Collective Progress

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It was one of those rare nights in theater that can never be recaptured but which will stay with me forever. Carefully Taught: Singing Social Change was a cabaret evening at the Asolo Repertory Theatre unlike any other. Three of the South Pacific cast members, Ben Davis (Emile DeBeque), Kelly Felthous (Nellie Forbush), and Meggie Cansler (Ensign Dinah Murphy) brought the weight and depth of the Broadway canon to the Mertz stage taking us on a magical ride through our collective history. Music Director William Waldrop accompanied on the piano and chimed in for one song.

Inspired by the potent song, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught from South Pacific about how induction into “proper” society results in learned racial prejudice, the team at the Asolo decided to develop an entire evening of songs that represent how Broadway has consistently been ahead of the curve, by turns inciting and reflecting changes in our society.

As Kathryn Maroney, Asolo’s Education and Outreach director, shared with me, South Pacific is part of year three of the Asolo’s exploration of the American Character.

Maroney said that Oscar Hammerstein, the lyricist of South Pacific had a commitment to humanitarian issues and that there was pressure on him to remove the highly charged song Carefully Taught from the original production; because the notion that Americans teach their children to “hate all the people (their) relatives hate” would be too difficult for audiences.

In fact, Maroney points out, “Nellie’s high school in Little Rock would not have been desegregated yet,” and the show was playing before all white audiences. Yet Hammerstein would not budge, and ultimately that song proved the key to the whole production and most certainly led to its selection for a Pulitzer Prize. During the show, the narrator quoted Hammerstein: “I think it’s natural for writers to be interested in experiment, in progress, and to have a tendency not to stand still.”

After Carefully Taught, the supremely talented performers took us through a range of emotions from humor to pathos to sheer joy. The cast began with the highly irreverent, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist from Avenue Q, which I imagined would be difficult to sing with tensions running extremely high in the wake of the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. But in the original show, a cast of puppets forced the audience to confront our inherent tendency to stereotype.

The Carefully Taught cast handled this gingerly with a quote from the writers of Avenue Q, Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (yes, that Robert Lopez who together with his wife won the Oscar with Frozen’s omnipresent anthem Let It Go) about how the song in the show is performed by puppets who “were so cute and friendly, (it) gave them a wider latitude.”

What made the musical selections so special was the fact that each song contained its own story of social awareness, progress, or social change. Davis, Felthous, and Cansler interpreted the songs in their own unique way permitting each song to stand unbounded by the shows from which they came.

Although our collective bad news barometer has been running high these days, it is one of the great pleasures of life to share the experience of a cathartic production like Carefully Taught together with a live audience.

The energy in the room was palpable as Davis sang the poignant number, I Am What I Am from La Cage Aux Folles, which premiered on Broadway in 1983. Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show said: “This was the first time in the history of musical theatre that a man sang a love son to another man.”

The next number of the night was Take Me or Leave Me from Rent, a combustible duet by lovebirds Maureen (originally played by Idina Menzel) and Joanne. Even when Rent premiered in 1996, LGBTQ rights were far from mainstream dialogue. In the past two decades, we have made great strides.

The narrator shared this interesting quote from the brilliant playwright Jonathan Larsen who died shortly before his show Rent opened on Broadway, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.”

The Supreme Court decision late last week not to hear the request by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to prevent same sex marriages beginning January 6, 2015, was yet another reminder of all the progress that has been made in recent years. We have seen the end of the infamous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and in state after state, prohibitions on same sex marriage have been declared unconstitutional. Larsen’s work in developing Rent, which prominently features LGBTQ relationships, was part of a maelstrom of creativity celebrating sexuality, which has helped usher in a new era for all of us.

But we still have miles to go until we achieve true equality. Among the most poignant songs of the night was Back to Before from Ragtime. Cansler’s rendition was so soulful, the song brought me to tears. Women were once left at the shore while their husbands made their way in the world. “A princess asleep and enchanted. If I had dreams, then I let you dream them for me. Back in the days, when everything seemed so much clearer…We can never go back to before.”

As we continue to negotiate modern relationships, marriages, careers, and parenthood, families must continue to find new ways of ensuring that everyone’s dreams can come true. Through dialogue, mutual respect, and empathy, we can find a new and better way. We can never go back to before.

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