When I came out to my mother many years ago we laughed when she told me that it came as no real surprise. After all, how many straight boys are there who choose to sit and watch a musical with their mother on the telly on Saturday afternoon with a box of tissues in one hand and a packet of marshmallows in the other. Mostly they were the work of the composer Richard Rogers and the lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II who together were an innovative and influential successful American musical theatre writing team in the early part of the twentieth century. In what history records as a ‘golden age’ of musical theatre. Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound Of Music being outstanding successes. Another duo of composer Frederick Loewe and the lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner known as Lerner and Loewe who brought us Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Gigi and Camelot and yet another duo composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb who delivered more success with including Cabaret and Chicago which both featured the amazing choreography of Bob Fosse but there was one musical that first appeared on Broadway in 1957 and book by Aurthur Laurents music by Leonard Bernstein and the debut of the lyricist Stephen Sondheim called West Side Story and was based on Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet set in the then multi-racial, blue collar neighborhood of the Upper West side of New York in the 1950s exploring the conflict and rivalry of two street gangs the Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks and the white gang calling themselves the Jets. It ran for 732 performances before going on tour. Then in 1961 there was a musical film adaptation starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, Maria and Tony the star crossed lovers in this adaptation.
There is a section at the beginning where the gangs patrol their territory and it is a long time before we hear a word of dialogue spoken. Where the gangs move to the syncopated rhythms of Bernstein’s music with a motif of three notes the first short the next sustained and then another short note accompanied by rumbles and clicks from the percussion and the cast of mainly young men produce beautiful shapes and move with astonishing athleticism without whilst remaining masculine and not in the least camp. It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen containing hit song after song Maria, Tonight, One Hand One Heart, America songs where singers were asked to sing augmented fourths which Bernstein didn’t take out but helped the cast to navigate the intricacies of his extraordinary score.
This was a musical unlike any other and introduced me to the genius of the legendary lyricist Stephen Sondheim. I didn’t know it at the time but his lyrics and the musicals he produced were going to play a huge part in my life. He was praised for having ‘reinvented musical theatre’ with music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and acclaimed for addressing the darker and more harrowing aspects of the human condition. His lyrics tinged with a sense of ambivalence and sharing a twisted sense of humour.
However if I hadn’t had the musical education and training I had at school where I was the only pupil in my year choosing ‘O Level Music’ and later ‘Higher Level’ which meant a one on one experience with a gifted teacher who discovered yet another way in which I was different. I had what is known as Synesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon where the stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to the involuntary stimulation of a secondary pathway. In my case when I listened to music I saw shapes and colours. The prevalence of the condition varies from 1 in 25,000 to 100,000 and the only one he had ever come across in almost 40 years which thrilled him to bits and we developed a very close relationship in which in a very real way saved me. Because the new school had it’s very own musical department in a wing away from the main school. In the wing were soundproof practice rooms that provided a safe haven for me and the only two friends that I had at high school. We listened to hours and hours of beautiful music and he helped me to understand how composers constructed their works. We worked on harmony where I learned that music is much more than just the notes played; there are frequencies both above and below the note that vibrate and our brains make sense of which elevates the musical experience. He showed me how combinations of instruments produce colours and textures that painted scenes of wonder inside my head. It was astonishing and breathtaking touching me in ways I hadn’t imagined. Of course there weren’t many that I could share it with at first but in time there were more and more. I started playing the recorder in my last year of primary. In high school I became a cornet player, I also joined a brass band, then in the army I became a trumpet player. In addition I played in extra curricular groups like the Dance Band, The German Oompah Band, I song in a Barbershop quartet and riffed in a blues band called Otis and The Elevators. Years later I became a singer in a SATB choir and became the principal Baritone. The Choir was The Peters Singers and were based in Bridgend a town in South Wales. Their repertoire were mainly classical choral works by the likes of Mozart, Bach and Haydn. In addition there were many folk songs and we were required to learn lyrics spoken in 14 different languages in Russian, Czech and Latvian.
All of this rich musical experience and education allowed me an appreciation of the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim that touched me deeply and provided me with the means of examining and understanding the darker aspects of my own human experience. This lead to insights helping to identify and uncover in others too.
Most amazing of all is it is something that I shared with my partner and to my utter surprise and amazement they told me they loved it. So it is something that I can share with the person that means the most to me and has been instrumental in deepening our love for one another and strengthening the deep bond between us.
It has been a long time since I sat on the sofa with my mum on Saturday afternoons watching musicals together. Never imagining the way that music would reveal things to me and transport me to places of astonishing beauty and wonder. Eventually being something that would strengthen the bond between my partner and I and would play a role in deepening our love.
Are you a lover or loather of musicals? Apart from music is there anything else in your life that has moved and touched you in ways you never thought possible? I would love to hear about them.
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I am a published writer as of August 2021. A short story was accepted for publication in a new online magazine called Shorts Magazine
Look in their Summer edition and look for my story titled ‘Oh Mum’ and if you like it or you feel something reading it you can share it with me at any of the places mentioned above.
Until the next time. Take care of yourself and those whom you love.