I love musical theatre. When I was a kid, I used to relish dressing up and singing at the top of my lungs to Gypsy or Sound of Music around my house. I was obsessed with the ’96 revival of Chicago with Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking, listening to it over and over again. Fosse was like a god to me; Sondheim even more so. While I originally wanted to be a ballerina, by the age of twelve, it became pretty apparent I was destined for a career as an actor, specifically one in musical theatre as I not only would get to sing and act but also dance too. I used to check out tons of old movie musicals from my library and video store like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (that barn dance still gets me every time) or Streisand’s version of Hello Dolly! The first show I saw on Broadway was the revival of 42nd Street, and when the curtain lifted at the beginning of the show only revealing a line of tap dancing feet, I started to cry. Meeting Angela Lansbury once outside a theatre is still one of the great highlights of my life.
I worked hard in college as a musical theatre major at a school with a very good reputation in the industry. It was competitive to be sure, but that competition fueled my own efforts to grow, learn, and further my own individual talents. I studied voice with a wonderful teacher, performed in several musicals including the lead my senior year in The Light in the Piazza, and while I didn’t make our school’s agent showcase, I graduated feeling pretty confident about my own skills as a performer and ready to at last move to the Big Apple to begin my career as an actor.
I did not move expecting to land a Broadway show right off the bat or my Actors Equity Card. I have always assumed I would have to work hard and pay my dues. I have never done summer stock though I have auditioned many times. I have barely performed much at all since moving here nearly two and a half years ago. While it can be hard and you feel as though you’re behind everyone else (especially when one of your classmates is doing her third Broadway show, your best friend has been on a national tour for the last two years, and far more are leaving to do regional work all the time), it’s important to remember that, as cliché as it sounds, everyone has their own artistic journey to make and perhaps mine is going to be far, far different from my peers. I don’t worry too much anymore about how often I am or am not getting cast because I know it’s not reflective of who I am or the value of my artistic talents. I’ve always kind of done my own thing anyway.
For a while after I first moved, I was going to lots of musical auditions: cattle calls, EPAs, ECCs, tours, etc. Any young woman currently in the industry will tell you we have always had it much rougher than the men, but with economic setbacks, it’s even worse these days. 400 women will show up to audition for about 8-10 roles whereas 180 men will show up for about 10-15 roles. You do the math; it’s bleak. I could get into a whole discussion about the lack of equal representation for women in the entertainment industry, but that is a much lengthier topic that deserves its own time. ANYWAY, the thing about auditioning with 399 other women on a regular basis is having to squeeze into a holding room for hours on end while we’re all waiting to audition and listen to them all try to one up each other about their resume credits, the famous people they’ve worked with/know, etc. I’m sure this happens at the male audition calls too. I’m not one for audition chitchat, personally. I like to come in, do my thing, and get out and on with my day, so I got used to bringing my iPod or a book to drown everyone else out, but it’s hard. And it’s not everyone doing it, but you can feel the negative animosity buzzing around you, and it was starting to make me dread going to musical auditions. In fact, the more musical auditions I went to, the more miserable I felt.
To clarify, I could give two shits about what’s on your resume (because if I wanted to know, I’d just read it) or who you know/worked with, because on the day of the audition it only matters what you can do NOW, but the negativity being thrown around is unsettling. Everyone around town uses a website called Audition Update to check the progress of various auditions throughout the day, whether callbacks are being given out, etc. It’s a great resource. But I’m dismayed by one particular aspect of the website called the Bitching Post where you can literally bitch via web comments about how auditions are run, various theatres, even people you may have worked with. After reading through diatribe after diatribe each more hateful and venomous than the last, I realized this was the same crap I was hearing at auditions, and not only was it hurtful to those on the receiving end of these comments, but totally unprofessional conduct from people I consider colleagues.
And it doesn’t stop there. Too often over the course of my 2+ years in this city, I have been at gatherings with musical theatre industry people and when the topic is turned to a fellow artist’s singing performance on a national or international stage, that artist is completely ripped to shreds with no redeeming qualities mentioned whatsoever (a lot of it online, which is the breeding ground for a lot of bad juju). Apparently, according to some, this is acceptable simply because we all have fancy advanced degrees in singing so we have more knowledge and it’s “constructive criticism.” I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to believe saying someone sounds like they’re dying and should stop singing forever or just “raped my ears” is “constructive.” It’s actually just vitriolic, petty, and mean. I find myself wincing at the words coming from some of my colleagues’ mouths or computer keyboards every time someone sings on national television or a YouTube clip or even just a cast recording. I understand we’re all educated, trained artists with differing opinions, but when you’re watching the Oscars or the Sound of Music Live Broadcast JUST HOPING to see Idina or Carrie crash and burn vocally instead of in support of fellow artists doing something exciting and challenging, it says a lot more about what kind of artist and person YOU are than what kind of artist and person these women are. Remember when your mother said “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” Well, I do, and this whole mentality that it’s okay to rip a person (and one you don’t even know personally) apart simply because you’re “educated,” actually doesn’t make you look educated at all. It doesn’t take an education to spew icky words. There is a big difference between being passionate and being poisonous and too many, I fear, are confusing one for the other and veering more into the latter category where this industry is concerned. It’s becoming an epidemic, unfortunately, and not just in musical theatre. It’s everywhere: just look at Twitter. Look at comment boards.
I have left musical theatre (for the time being though I occasionally go to an audition or two for something I’m really interested in) in part because I do not wish to have this kind of negativity in my life. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t want to be part of a group of people who so eagerly (and at times, gleefully) turn their back on one of their own just for cracking on a note or having an off night instead of tightening ranks around that person, giving them the encouragement to shake it off and hit the stage or audition room the next day or offering REAL constructive feedback to help them improve. It’s a hard thing to choose to be an artist in an increasingly money-obsessed world, but I can’t help thinking that it’s that much harder when you don’t even have your own artistic community really supporting you the way they should. I’m a tough girl, always have been, and a little criticism never bothered me, but when it’s so inhumane and malicious, I have to take action. I have always been one to look for the best in others and especially in art, and I am so disheartened by what I have experienced firsthand and read online. What I loved about musical theatre is that it always felt like a little happy community, but it doesn’t feel very much that way to me lately, and so I made a decision a little over a year ago to walk away for awhile; to focus my time and talents on other artistic ventures. And guess what? I’m a lot happier. I’ve found people who are genuinely supportive and encouraging, and with more positivity in my life, I feel my own talents have started blossoming in ways they never would have. I have turned my eyes to writing, to acting, to producing, and discovered that I am equally as passionate about these things and the film and television industry. It’s amazing what positive energy can do.
I ask that we all look at ourselves as artists and human beings and really evaluate why we are saying these things. Is it because we are envious of those who have found success in our field? Is it because we are not secure enough in our own gifts we must attack those of another? Our first job as artists is to be good human beings and show the world what humanity can be, and it is an ongoing, challenging process; believe me. The work is never done. And we all have lots of work to do because no one is perfect, but what a beautiful thing that is.
One of my very favorite recordings of my hero Judy Garland is a number from her Carnegie Hall Concert. During “You Go to My Head” she completely flubs a lyric. At Carnegie Hall. During the biggest concert of her career. And she’s literally singing nonsense lyrics on the album but she laughs, keeps going, and gets back on track. That a performer so polished, so revered as Judy, made a mistake we’ve all made a million times is a reminder that she was human just like all of us. Flaws are reminders of humanity. I’m glad to know Judy isn’t perfect, because it gives me hope I can someday be as inspirational to someone as she has been to me even with my own flaws.
And since I really DO look for the best in others, I want everyone to prove me wrong. I hope that if I decide to fully return sometime in the future to musical theatre, I will find a loving, supportive community like the one I first fell in love with. The one full of awkward kids belting show tunes in their mother’s old clothing because they just love the lights and the music and the magic of theatre. My mother also used to say, “Play nice,” and I ask that we all try to do that from now on. Please?
*For an addendum to this essay, please see this.