When I was a little boy of about ten, my big brother’s school did a production of The King and I. And something snapped inside me and it’s never unsnapped.
My dad made a video of the production with his camcorder and I watched it over and over again. I watched an amateur school production of The King and I every day for weeks. I watched it so often that I broke the video tape. We had to buy a copy of the movie so I could keep watching it.
I’m not really sure what it is about musicals, but they speak to a part of me that nothing else can get to.
One of my clearest memories of being thirteen is of being alone on a beach in West Kerry, sitting on a rock and singing Hello Young Lovers from The King and I over and over again. And I identified so hard with it. I still don’t know what it is I identified with. It’s a song sung by a wealthy English widow in a huge ballgown to the women of the King of Siam’s harem about how her love for her dead husband makes her nostalgic for young love and how she doesn’t begrudge young lovers their happiness at all. And I didn’t identify with the young lovers. I identified with Mrs Anna. I wanted to be a widow. I still have a weird fixation with the romance of having lost a great love, which makes some kind of sense at 36, but I was one weird 13-year-old, awaiting my widowhood on a beach.
And it wasn’t just The King and I. I loved South Pacific. And Grease. And Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And My Fair Lady.
My dad used to buy me the Musicals Collection – a fortnightly magazine that would come with a different musical soundtrack on CD. I got to know the songs of “Salad Days” and “Pal Joey” and “They’re Playing Our Song” and “Cabaret” and “Camelot” and “West Side Story” and more.
My mother would come in to clean my bedroom and we’d sing along to the songs from “Me and My Girl” and she’d tell me about when the songs from musicals were pop songs and how, back in the 1950s, everyone knew that the young Queen Elizabeth’s favourite pop song was “People Will Say We’re In Love” from Oklahoma.
Besides my mother and, to a certain extent, the rest of my family, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about musicals. That’s not a “boo hoo my life was so hard” statement, just a fact. My love of musicals was private and personal and I doubt I ever would have mentioned it at school. But it was real. I got into real pop music eventually, later than most of my peers, but I never stopped listening to the songs from the musicals. And I never stopped singing the songs from the musicals.
I know this is daft, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: many people say that there are genetic aspects of homosexuality and there are social and cultural aspects of homosexuality. If that is the case, then it’s the musicals I was born loving. I only learned to love cock much later. That’s the social part. The part that’s at the core of my being is the musicals.
There really is no feeling like the feeling of watching someone belt out a key change while a line of sailors/peasants/servants/horse race attendees/cowgirls/shop assistants form into a kick line and just do their thing.
I’ve always dreamed of seeing a Broadway or West End show. I would read the musicals collection magazines and see all about the professional productions and just accept that I’d have to settle for whatever touring company would come to the Cork Opera House. It didn’t really occur to me that maybe one day I wouldn’t be living in Cork. That maybe one day, I’d be living in London, with the whole West End theatre world a mere five-minute walk from work.
I have money now. So I booked to see a show. I chose Mamma Mia. I have always loved ABBA. ABBA were a band most of my family could agree on and during the long, long drives of my childhood summer holidays (seriously, we drove to the continent every summer. Once my parents even drove to Greece. No drive was ever too long for my dad.) we would listen to ABBA on repeat, so the ABBA musical was the right starting place.
I got a cheap seat. It had an amazing view. It was at the front of the balcony. I got horrible vertigo almost as soon as I sat down. I hate being such a scaredy cat, but I am. I could just see myself hurtling down through the theatre, off the balcony, down past the stalls and the circle until I die atop a second violinist in the orchestra pit.
An usher took pity on me and the fact that I was grabbing onto my chair so hard that I’d turned white and she let me move a few rows back.
I forgot the height almost immediately. I started to get emotional during the overture. And I didn’t stop being emotional all the way through.
I don’t know what my favourite bit was. “Our Last Summer” was really beautiful and “Does Your Mother Know?” was hilarious, but I think nothing could compare to three middle-aged women singing “Dancing Queen” using hair dryers as microphones while doing an implausible amount of boob-shimmying (boob shimmying is my personal favourite dance move). I also loved the main younger character helping her fiancé into his wetsuit while he sang “Lay All Your Love On Me”.
I feel deeper and harder and more authentically during a musical than I do at any other time. I don’t know why. There was an elderly man in a nice suit wearing glittery glasses on the other side of the balcony watching the show intently. At one stage, I saw him get out his hanky, because the show was making him cry. I knew he knew what I was feeling, even if the group of Dutch tourists beside me didn’t.
I held it together until the end. When the stars came out for the encore in glittery suits and sang “Waterloo” I started bawling crying. Not gentle little tears. I was noisy crying and shaking. During Waterloo. Can I explain why I was crying harder than I have since I got to London? No I can’t. But I was.
It was the best I’ve felt in so so long. I’m going to find another show to go to next week.
Yay London! Yay the West End! Yay theatre folk! Yay jazz hands!
Let the music play.