Being the Man in the Chair: Or, The Importance of the ‘Spirit Musical’

I’m going to take a moment and have a seat in Bob Martin’s red chair (of course, referencing the first Broadway show I ever saw, The Drowsy Chaperone starring the incomparable and hilarious Sutton Foster as Janet Van de Graaff) and tell you a bit about my favorite musical of all time. God willing, it will come to life in my apartment around me.

My favorite show isn’t perfect (though it won Frank Loesser a Tony, a Pulitzer, and a pile of other awards). It’s had three Broadway productions and a film, all with various strengths and weaknesses. It wouldn’t pass the tests I’ve previously written about, pertaining to how women are written as characters in theatre (see “Being Aware”), and it’s hardly a Sweeney Todd, but this damn show occupies a really special place of my song and dance heart.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is my spirit musical. (Watch a clip here:

I first made its acquaintance as a sixth grader in a somewhat censored school production playing a rather young and super short Bert Bratt (a casting choice they played on completely for comedy, having me carry around a step stool I’d have to fling open and stand on before delivering lines). I’d seen shows before. I’d been in shows before. But this time was different. This was the first time I’d learned every word of the cast album of any show. I mean every word. I listened to it over and over again.

(The first revival cast album, specifically. It’s my favorite of the recordings. It certainly has the best Overture, and you can’t beat Megan Mullally as Rosemary, or NMT’s own Jeff Blumenkrantz as Bud Frump. The only thing that production didn’t have was Robert Morse, but he was bit old for Finch in 1995, don’t you think?)

My character only had one song, but I could probably have done everyone else’s, and to this day I wager I could do this entire show alone (I do a mean ‘Paris Original’).

There was something about the speed and ridiculousness of the show that infected me from the start. The significance and affect this musical has had on me cannot be understated.

I believe that everyone has a spirit musical, even if they don’t quite know it. It’s a show you hold closer than any other. It doesn’t have to be perfect, popular, or even good. There’s just something about that show that you simply can’t escape, even if you wanted to.

What makes a spirit musical? The short answer is, I have no idea. I attribute my original love of How to Succeed to the fact that I knew the show so well at such an early time and it has stayed with me ever since. Some have said that their favorite shows are their favorite shows simply because of their mindset when they first experience it. You’ve had a shitty day. You walk into the theatre that evening and it’s the first thing that turns your day around. Or maybe your spirit musical is simply your first Broadway show. Or it’s the first one that made you cry. Or it’s the first you can’t stop singing.

I’m a picky theatre goer. I get bored really easily. I have countless pet peeves that take me out of the moment when I’m seeing the show. When I’m writing, I obsess over making it as perfect and “right” as it can be, criticizing every little thing. I hold myself to a ridiculous standard, to a point where I start to hate my writer-self, and thus, create less than stellar work. Some days, I need my How to Succeed to remind me to keep it simple and to remind myself that I actually do enjoy musicals, that I enjoy writing them. That’s what it is. It reminds me that I’m doing what I love more than anything else in the world, and I’m sharing that with audiences, and friends, and family, and strangers. It reminds me that this is a beautiful form that few people actually get the opportunity to create. It brings the joy of musical theatre back to me when I’ve started to stray.

We all need a show to latch onto, I think. We all need a How to Succeed to pull us out of the mind-numbing abyss that is life, and to remind us that we’re doing what we’re doing for a reason, whether you’re a writer, or an actor, or a director, or an accountant, or you work in the mail room, or you’re chairman of the board, or you’re President of the United States. It will take you back to the basics, just for a moment, and give you a reason to press on and get to where you’re going, to make the journey seem easier and a bit less nuts.

A good spirit musical can have the power to hurtle you over the nasty parts of life and keep you focused on the beautiful things. Your simple relationship to a good spirit musical can transport you into a wonderful place, seemingly, without really trying.

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