One of the most valuable things I own to me is a tape that I have the only copy of in existence; I need to transfer it to digital at some point. It’s a group of us at the music camp I used to attend sitting around the piano with Mr. Meyer, our teacher, singing show tunes as he played from his collection of sheet music from musicals and Disney movies. The Fantasticks, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, West Side Story. Remember, we were there as musicians—every day was orchestra rehearsal and music theory, ensemble practice and choir practice. And this was our break time, and we were voluntarily doing even more singing.
This would have been about 1990, so we were all also obsessed with Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, too. I didn’t ever go to a school with a big theatre culture, but I’m given to understand 1990 would have had the same obsessions for those girls, too. And all of us around Mr. Meyer’s piano were girls. You’d get boys sometimes when we were under a tree with his guitar and his Simon and Garfunkel songbook, but the musicals was always the girls.
Part of it, I suspect, was that any boy who joined us would have been assumed to be gay, and while this was LA, it was still 1990, and being gay was still not really acceptable. Even in our circles. Never mind that any boy who’d dared to join us would have been the only one surrounded by eight or ten teenage girls. Apparently this was not good enough reason.
Still, this doesn’t explain why so many of us were better equipped to recite The Rocky Horror Picture Show or My Fair Lady than movies that came out during our actual lifetimes. Why one of my best friends was shocked to discover I’d never seen The King and I. And there are no few of us who are obsessed with more obscure fare—Blood Brothers and Assassins and this other version of Phantom that hardly anyone I know has even heard of if they didn’t see the same production I did back in ’95. We’re the ones who will tell you what our favourite Sondheim is and why and what productions we’ve missed and who should be cast.
So why is it? Oh, easy. Emotional outlet. Most girls who get seriously into music or theatre are deeply emotional people, and they’re fairly well socialized to keeping it as repressed as they can. Many of them—us—are also in wild need of attention. Even when musicals star men, they usually feature at least one good, strong, powerful song by a woman. Mrs. Lovett gets “By the Sea.” Adelaide gets “Adelaide’s Lament.” Mary Magdalene gets “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” So you can take all that pent-up everything and launch into “Memory,” and everyone will understand.
Speaking as a former Orchestra Girl, there was also a bit of an aspect of individuality to it. When you’re in the orchestra, you’re playing the same thing as everyone else. And I enjoyed that on a lot of levels—but on top of everything, I played viola, and there are simply no options for musical attention when you play the viola. And, sure, everyone can sing “My Favorite Things,” but maybe you can be the one in your group who’s known for their “Always True to You.” And because we were all at least slightly familiar with the various shows, we’d know who was actually doing really well in a way that you don’t when everyone’s playing off-beats in unison.
You can also probably date a former Orchestra or Theatre Girl quite accurately by what show she can quote the most. I don’t know the full progression, especially not after my time, but I know that Rent started being a thing when I was in college, and after that of course Wicked. Probably Hairspray and The Producers are in there somewhere as well. And there are always outliers—a bunch of people I knew got into Gypsy when, for reasons, we were able to see the Tyne Daly revival on Broadway. And the perennials like Wizard of Oz and Bye Bye Birdie, of course.
I would also note that “musical theatre” covers a pretty wide array of plots, too, so it’s a genre you can share despite different interests beyond that. Just in the ones I’ve mentioned—and I haven’t mentioned a single show twice until now—you’ve got horror and romance and social commentary and whatever the hell Cats is. I’d even argue that the music itself can be extremely different from one show to the next; no one’s going to mistake Chess for Man of La Mancha. You can spice it up like Madonna as Eva Peron or do weird things with staging like all those versions of musicals where they make the cast play instruments or stuff it full of celebrities like the Company starring Neil Patrick Harris, but in the end, there’s still a comfort to it.
And lots of good arguments. Dream casting, for one—I still lament that we never got the rumoured Antonio Banderas Phantom. Or the actual quality of movie adaptations—is the Burton Sweeney Todd really that bad? Who else heard Meryl Streep screwing up her notes in Into the Woods and wanted Bernadette Peters back? It’s an argument you can have over and over that won’t really hurt anyone, because everyone knows it’s all academic anyway.
Honestly, whenever I hear a woman talking about musical theatre and showing more knowledge than just liking Mamma Mia and maybe Singin’ in the Rain, I tend to suspect that you can scratch the surface and get her talking about her high school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown or the time her orchestra actually played something by Mr. Meyer when she was in eighth grade. (Richard Meyer is a published composer who primarily writes for junior high-level instrumentalists, and a YouTube rabbit hole I went down recently shows he hasn’t aged since the ’90s.) I’m not always right—and to be fair, not all of us were all that into musicals—but I’m right often enough to make the observation.