Monday, May 01, 2006

Community theatre and Schoolhouse Rock

Ellen and I are fans of live theatre. We were both in high school theatre – she was the female lead in Brigadoon, and I had thirteen words (that’s words, not lines) in Look Homeward, Angel. One of the reasons we started dating was that we both love musicals, and during our courtship we saw Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables and the Chicago production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Donny Osmond. It’s harder for us to catch community theatre these days now that we have kids, but we still enjoy live stage when we can. There’s just something about the medium that is so much more immediate and incarnational than what is viewed on a screen. I love the fact that we share the actual space, time and air with the actors, who may well be local residents and neighbors.

Our local community theatre company, Grove Players, is currently doing a production of Schoolhouse Rock Live! based on the Saturday morning children’s TV segments that aired on ABC in the ’70s. I missed the Chicago production that ran about a decade ago, so I was thrilled that the show would be here in my own local suburb. We got tickets for a Sunday afternoon matinee and spent the weekend prepping Josiah for the show by watching our Schoolhouse Rock DVD so he would be familiar with all the classic songs, from “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” to “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” and “A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing.”

The show had a cast of 27 kids, ages eight to fifteen. Part of me was disappointed that it was not cast with Gen Xers like myself who experienced the original Schoolhouse Rock segments. But it was still a joy to watch a new generation encounter and present these songs, many of which are quite lyrically challenging, like “Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla” about pronouns and “The Preamble” of the Constitution. Josiah and Elijah were very well behaved and sat attentively during the hour and a half show. Afterward I asked Josiah what his favorite song was, and he said, “All of them.”

It was interesting how well the songs held up three decades after their original airing. The music, a mix of folk, jazz and pop rock, is as fun today as it was when I was a kid. Because five of the six main cast members were girls, they changed a few gender references – the man with the boyish face in “Unpack Your Adjectives” became a woman with a girlish face, and the future astronaut in “Interplanet Janet” was also revised as a woman. At the time the song was written, before astronauts Sally Ride and Christa McAuliffe, it might have been assumed that only men could be astronauts. To its credit, Schoolhouse Rock has long championed women’s rights with the disco-hip anthem “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” (Josiah said, “That’s a fun one.”)

While the multiplication and grammar songs felt timeless, the history pieces seemed to offer too rosy a view of American history, from its celebration of manifest destiny in “Elbow Room” (with no mention of the impact on Native Americans) and a Eurocentric view of immigration in “The Great American Melting Pot.” The history segments were produced for the bicentennial in 1976, and perhaps the producers were hoping to recapture a more positive vision of America after the recent disillusionments of Vietnam and Watergate. It’s telling that there’s no Schoolhouse Rock song about slavery or the Civil War.

Then again, Schoolhouse Rock may actually offer a particular prophetic word to our local suburban context. I was nostalgically enjoying all the songs and music until “The Great American Melting Pot” came on. That’s when I realized that the entire cast of the show was white. While the original animated segment included Chinese, African, Mexican and other national and ethnic heritages as well as European, there was some cognitive dissonance having an all-white cast celebrating America’s diversity. Downers Grove and its surrounding suburbs are majority white, but not all white. Perhaps this says something not merely about suburban racial and ethnic demographics but also about who tends to have resources and access to arts programs.

The arts reflect our culture and can expose and critique our blind spots. I’m grateful that local community organizations support community theatre. I also hope that suburban arts programs will not merely be mirrors of affluent whites that are the primary patrons of the arts, but will also reflect the breadth and diversity of all of the community’s residents.

At any rate, Josiah went to bed last night singing, "Conjunction Junction - what's your function?" And remember - interjections show excitement or emotion. They’re generally set apart from a sentence by an exclamation point, or by a comma if the feeling’s not as strong.

(Darn! That’s the end.)

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