“Artists give people something they didn’t know they were missing.” – Daniel Pink
Seated in the front row of the Mezzanine. The live orchestra is a few rows ahead. The deep red, velvety curtains bordered in gold add to the grandeur and mystery. Hidden behind it, are the people and places, some within this world, others, beyond it. The anticipation of this glorious affair is killing. Exhilarating murmurs fill the auditorium as the crowd takes their seat. The lights are dimmed. Soft music plays, giving the audience only a glimpse of what they are about to witness. Welcome to Broadway. Welcome to Westend. Welcome to the theatre.
These are the places where art exemplifies fluidity. Where stories are told through songs and emotions are expressed through movement and dance. Where art knows so many names; music, fashion, fine arts, dance, acting, that it knows no boundaries. To say that they come together to give us something completely different would be an understatement. No, this amalgamation of artistic components is impressive beyond words.
Behind the scenes.
Art can be energizing. It can also be draining. The artists spend hours, weeks, months together, refining and revisiting their art. They give it everything they have. The energy, the time, the emotional commitment. And every so often the heart and soul. They internalize every movement, every word. To simplify it for themselves and to amplify it for us. They persevere to perfect. They don’t ‘throw away their shot,’ (Here’s one for the Hamilton fans). After endless hours of pirouettes, jumping off tables and working on the crescendo, we find that one form can’t do without the other, that their presence on that stage together, means something. Because each artist wants it to mean something. And all this because art gives us something in return. It drives us and guides us. To reach the depth of ourselves. It gives us reason. To be a part of something that promulgates change. Something that evokes warmth. And sometimes, to just put a smile on someone’s face.
The artist often gives us inspiration and purpose. Or at the least the idea of one’s purpose. ‘Billie Elliot’ follows the story of eleven-year-old boy Billie. It is set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike and class conflict in England. It’s a rough and aggressive environment which is shown through the crude language and chaotic behaviour. His father Jackie had forced him to go for boxing lessons. Lessons, that of course, Billie took no interest in. Accidently…or not, he finds solace in the ballet classes he attends after boxing. At once, he is attracted to the grace of the dance. Mrs Wilkinson sees abundant flair in his movement. It was also she who taught him that, “Dancing is as much about you discovering things about yourself, as it is about discovering about dancing.” When the members of the Royal Ballet School in London ask Billie what it felt like when he danced, his answer was a culmination of all that he felt, all that he learnt, all that he thought he was, and all that he wanted to be.
“I can’t really explain it,
I haven’t got the words
It’s a feeling that you can’t control
I suppose it’s like forgetting,
Losing who you are
And at the same time
Something makes you whole
It’s like that there’s a music
Playing in your ear
And I’m listening and I’m listening
And then I disappear
And then I feel a change,
Like a fire deep inside,
Something bursting me wide open,
Impossible to hide,
And suddenly I’m flying,
Flying like a bird.”
The auditorium is dark, and a blue and purple spotlight shines over Billie. It draws you in. His feeling guided his words. His words guided his feet and he danced his heart out. And when he did, he felt a release. Liberated. And in that moment, we too want to be free. We see glimpses of ourselves in those characters. We want to feel what they’re feeling. The moment seizes us, and we’re filled with a desire to be all that we can be.
The artist teaches us how to learn and how to unlearn from the school called life. ‘Wicked’ is a musical written as a spin-off to the classic ‘Wizard of Oz.’ It is performed from the perspectives of the witches of the Land of Oz, the wicked witch of the west Elphaba and Glinda, the good witch. The musical is a visual treat filled with the vibrancy of the lights that are synchronised with the music. Between undisturbed set changes, costumes that light up and phenomenal acting, we truly are transposed from our reality to theirs and in the most enchanting manner too.
Glinda and Elphaba had attended university together and started on a rather rough note until Fiyero Tiggular arrives at Shiz paving the way to create a new friendship. His philosophy was simply to ‘Dance through life.’
“The trouble with schools is
They always try to teach the wrong lesson
Believe me, I’ve been kicked out of enough of them to know
They want you to become less callow, less shallow
But I say, why invite stress in?
Stop studying strife
And learn to live “the unexamined life”
Dancing through life
Skimming the surface
Gliding where turf is smooth
Life’s more painless
For the brainless
Why think too hard?
When it’s so soothing
Dancing through life
No need to tough it
When you can slough it off as I do
But knowing nothing matters
It’s just life
So keep dancing through.”
He encourages simplicity, to be free of judgment, and to be happy. Both Glinda and Fiyero, dance as if no one is watching. Freely. Effortlessly. Their bodies move to the rhythm of the music. They flow together. And the others join in. His passion is seen through his glittering eyes. And from one step to the next, his philosophy is elucidated to the rest. We continue to watch thinking how such few words can mean so much. Can inspire so much, so many people, to make choices, to take action… or not.
The artist makes us believe. Believe that life’s most challenging situations can be contended with if only we add a little music to them. Believe in magic and love. In fact, they endorse this belief every single time they’re on stage. And just for a while, we escape the ordinary. Everything seems to be in the right place at the right time. ‘Mamma Mia’ is a musical crafted entirely to the songs of ABBA.
‘Just One look’ at the stage and we’re taken to “A Mediterranean Island, sparkling in the iridescent blue of the Aegean. Ancient and fertile, with a harbour and narrow, winding alley-ways. The buildings are dazzling white, with blue and green shutters; bougainvillea-decked walls and flowered courtyards. The light of the island is dazzling and intense.”
The night sky enfolds the stage and the wizarding geniuses behind the curtains, fill it with millions of stars. Sophie, Donna Sheridan’s daughter is sitting by a white wall, three envelopes in her hand, deep in thought.
“I have a dream ,
A song to sing,
To help me cope
If you see the wonder,
Of a fairy tale,
You can take the future…”
She takes a deep breath and says, “Even if you fail.”
This song in fact, sets the tone for the rest of the show. This amalgamation, makes us fall in love with life itself. Our life. Our goals, dreams and ambitions. And each artist, with a swing in their step, dares us to embrace this adventure called life. Their Boho-Chic dresses only get us more envious. And when Donna, feels like herself again, she goes from ‘Chiquitita’ to ‘Dancing Queen’ in mere minutes. There’s a song for every challenge, to cry and to overcome. For every celebration, big or small. For loving yourself and loving others. For reminiscing and looking forward to making new memories. And when the actors and dancers make eye contact with the audience and walk along the aisles urging us to dance, we feel elated. We raise our hands in the air, dance, celebrate, and smile our biggest smile. We meet eye to eye with strangers in the crowd because we’ve finally found a common thread and right then, it feels as if our heart is about to explode with joy. And that is the power of musicals.
The final act.
We walk out of the theatre in awe. In wonder at the spectacle, we just witnessed. The stage can take you to places you’ve never been, yet walk out remembering every detail. As for me, I’ve been head over heels in love with the theatre for a long time now. It is for me, a place of comfort and escape. The observer, the performer, or the man behind the curtains, each of us play a role in the theatre. It is an entwining process of actions and reactions. So here’s one for the musicals. They’re explosive and vivacious. The musicals that bring you a world of perfection.
“Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing
Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing
Who can live without it? I ask in all honesty
What would life be?
Without a song or a dance, what are we?
So I say thank you for the music
For giving it to me.”
And so I ask if this is indeed the power of musicals, why don’t we dance and sing more often? Celebrate on stage and off it? The love of performing has been engrained in our minds and hearts for time immemorial. Each culture is brimming with various forms of artistic and theatrical expressions and experiences. Broadway and Westend leave a mark. But it is for us to explore these forms in the nooks and corners of the world. To bring them to centre stage. Because they make us feel like no performance ever does, like we are, even if momentarily, part of their perfect world. Musicals are for everybody. That’s the beauty of it. That each of us finds something for ourselves in viewing them. The artist gives us something to hold on to. A feeling, a lesson or a new perspective. We need to keep going back to it. But mostly, because we feel the need to.
Maahi Shah is a lot of brains, talent and words. We dare you to find a match or just shut up and listen, sit down and read or stand agape.
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