Summer Theater

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(Host) Commentator David Moats says that summer is a great time to see some regional theater.

(Moats) There was a produce worker. There was an iron worker. There was a waitress, a housewife, a valet parking attendant. These were some of the characters in a production I saw in Middlebury recently of the play “Working.” These were regular people describing regular lives in their own words. The play was taken from the book by Studs Turkel, an oral history of working people.

On stage, it was a musical, and the songs they sang about their lives reached out and grabbed you. The produce worker told the story of his childhood, and how his mother, a farm worker, longed for a better life as they followed the crops from state to state. Sometimes she would just sit and weep, he remembered.

Then last week I was out of state, and I saw a production of the play “Ragtime.” It was a big musical with a cast of 45, rich with song and dance, telling an epic story about America at the beginning of the 20th century.

It occurred to me that the substance of both these musicals, beneath the stories and the characters, was song itself.

In the case of “Ragtime,” a black piano player, a well-to-do white family, and a pair of Jewish immigrants get mixed up in a tragic story that leaves audiences weeping. After seeing both these productions, I began to think about the power of song.

As a kid, I never like musical theater. I just didn’t get it. It seemed corny and unrealistic. I didn’t get the whole thing about just breaking into song. I get it now.

Of course, it’s corny and unrealistic, but that’s not the point. Most drama, it seems to me, is about yearning – yearning for love, yearning for justice, yearning for meaning. The sound of a beautiful voice in song has the power to embody that sense of yearning. The voices in both of the productions I heard were beautiful, skilled, professional in quality.

But it’s not just about polish and professionalism. When a singer puts his or her heart into a song, the act of singing, the artistry of the music, is itself an act of striving, yearning, seeking. The singing itself is an analogue to the struggle within the story.

The singer – the actual actor on stage – is doing something that parallels the struggle of the character he is portraying. Through his artistry, the artist is struggling to achieve meaning, just as his character is, just as we are.

That’s why the sound of a singer’s voice ringing out in a theater – just the sound of it apart from the action of the story – can bring tears to your eyes.

Musical theater is kind of alchemy.

Regular people – kids, grownups, amateurs, professionals – are working, like the characters in the play “Working” – to transform themselves, to open their hearts to you, to create meaning. So get out and see some of the productions around the state this summer. There are all kinds of fine theater in Vermont. It’s a great gift. It’s magical.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.

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