By Anna Brüner
I, Anna Brüner, being of sound mind and questionable reputation have a confession to make. I am absolutely in love with musicals. Off-Broadway or epic film, it doesn’t matter. Beneath this hardened shell of disenfranchised art school veneer beats the heart of a gawky little theater geek that just would not die. I’ve been known (by a select few) to throw on Chicago after a few drinks, was once caught listening to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack during finals one year, and may or may not have a rolled up poster of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in my closet at this very moment. But my obsession with musicals wasn’t always so secret.
I’ve written many times about my introduction to horror films by my father, because, well, that’s the kind of thing that gets you early acceptance into college. But what I’ve left out is that around the same time I was binge watching the Universal monster movies on weekends, I was simultaneously losing my absolute shit over the Hollywood musicals my mom was watching. South Pacific. My Fair Lady. The Sound of Music. Guys and Dolls. Even White Christmas every year around the holidays. It was my first introduction to Bing Crosby, to Audrey Hepburn, to Marlon Brando, to Frank Sinatra--my first film school education, if you will. A who’s who of Hollywood’s golden age, the musicals my mother watched made me see no distinction between storytelling and song. Musicals then were just movies to me.
Then I started going to the theater. Seeing productions like How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Fiddler On The Roof, Newsies, The Lion King, and others showed me what a theater production could do. The spectacle wasn’t a soundstage being viewed through the TV screen any longer, it was right in front of me and it was so goddamn awesome. As a twelve-year-old, going to Broadway shows was magical. It’s also probably the only reason why I, not having a single ounce of musical talent in my body, went out for plays and school musicals in high school (in which I was, thankfully, relegated to either a speaking role or part of the chorus, so I didn’t do much damage). And I knew I wasn’t good at it. On top of being a bad singer, I was also a bad actress. But when you’re in a public school production of Young Frankenstein in Southwest Pennsylvania, it’s really hard to look too bad doing anything. As is the fate of theater kids everywhere, of course, I was made fun of. But no worse than anyone else in high school. Plus I made a lot of good friends and had a lot of fun. And man, getting out of class for rehearsals was the absolute tightest shit.
Musicals aren’t all fun, though. Rent put a whole new generation of Americans, myself included, in touch with the AIDS epidemic from the 80’s. The most important and successful musical of the past year, Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, tells the story of one of our founding fathers using a cast entirely of people of color. Next to Normal was the first depiction of bipolar disorder I ever saw that I could relate to...years before I was diagnosed with Bipolar I. With lines like “I don’t need a life that’s normal...that’s way too far away. But something next to normal would be okay,” it’s still my favorite musical to date. It is only recently that musicals are being recognized for the social issues they address, and what culturally important platforms they stand to be.
The first musical I saw in Chicago was with my mother, and it was an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working. A blank faced young woman holding a baby sang to almost no music to a crowd of hundreds, and remembering it still makes me cry like the existential young adult I am:
What I do is kinda boring
If you'd rather, it can wait
All I am is someone's mother
All I am is someone's wife
All of which seems unimportant
All it is is
Just my life
Musicals may be my guilty pleasure, but there’s nothing inherently guilty about any piece of art that connects with you and makes you feel something. And musicals, ultimately, have made me feel a lot of love and happiness and gratitude.