The Middle Distance
2:24 pm
Thu July 24, 2014

The Middle Distance 7.25.14: A Happy Tune

Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in "The King and I"
Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence in "The King and I"
Credit Wikipedia

Ours was a show tunes kind of house, at the height of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musicals. And though we lived in a small Kentucky town where the idea of seeing a musical theater production onstage wasn’t even a distant dream, from the year I was born until I turned 11, films were made of Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music, and on television we saw the musical Cinderella. Between these and soundtrack releases on LP, we learned the melody and lyrics to most every song in every show. Other songs came and went, musical fashions changed and so did our musical tastes, but these songs endured in memory as indelibly as the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

These musicals were the soundtracks of dreams. You watched them and dreamed of being a dancer, of faraway places, of true love. Their soaring orchestral scores lifted everyday hearts.

I remember when 20th Century Fox re-released The Sound of Music in 1970, the fifth anniversary of the film, and my friend Bob and I went every afternoon for a week after school to the Eastgate theater in Memphis to watch it and sing along. We did this with absolutely no sense of irony, leaving the theater in a musical trance. Years later, I heard the remarkable tale of Bob boarding a plane for Europe and finding himself sitting next to the actress who played Mother Superior in the film. As the story goes, he asked her if she would sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” She politely declined.

Did I identify with the main characters? No. What did I know about the life of a novice nun in the mountains of Austria? An orphaned young woman on the plains raised amidst cowboys? A widowed 19th-century British governess in Siam? Nothing. But whatever the circumstances, these characters faced life with a song, often echoing the same sentiments: Never stop dreaming. Put on a happy face. Push through your fears and anything is possible.

Naturally, life didn’t exactly follow the script of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. But the songs emboldened me, propped me up, sometimes made me do crazy things. Senior year in high school, with no stage experience, I auditioned for the role of Cinderella in a city-wide children’s theater production of the musical and, to my shock, got the role. The experience of rehearsals, production and performances was all work, all nerves, all humiliation, all triumph. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s words: Impossible … things [were] happening every day.

I did precisely what the director told me to do, blocking within a half-inch every move on stage. And when I was told to cry a little during the reprise of the song “In My Own Little Corner,” I did. Until then, all songs in musicals had appeared happy. But back from the ball, her dream deflated, Cinderella had to face reality. Her fantasy of a life with a prince was just a pipe dream, she believed, possible only in her imagination: Just as long as I stay in my own little corner/ All alone in my own little chair — lyrics so lonely it was easy to cry.

Four decades later, out here in the middle distance, I still sing show tunes in the shower, at the stove, in the garden, in my dreams. Their melodies still lift me. And the impact of seeing them on film or on stage is even greater now that I am open to some of the subtleties of the lyrics and how their meaning changes over time.

A few nights ago, I attended the first run-through rehearsal of Opera Theatre of the Rockies’ production of The King and I, playing onstage this weekend at Colorado College. It was great to be in a room of little kids and teenagers and grown-ups, all primed for the show, all saturated with the words and music of the play. It was fun to be in a room where I could see their onstage focus and their offstage casualness simultaneously.

So I was surprised when the cast began singing “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and I teared-up. Make believe you’re brave/ And the trick will take you far, they sang. You may be as brave/ As you make believe you are. It’s not about whistling any more. It’s about pretending not to be afraid, fooling everyone while fooling yourself as well. It’s about the hard work of living. 

It makes me cry tears of relief, and for that — if I could whistle — I’d whistle a happy tune.

— Opera Theatre of the Rockies’ production of The King and I plays Friday, July 25; Saturday, July 26; and Sunday, July 27 at Armstrong Theater on the Colorado College campus. Tickets available at Meeker Music, 624 N. Tejon St. online and by phone. For more, visit www.operatheatreoftherockies.org.