Dancing on a Soapbox



A scene from “Prop 8- The Musical” via FunnyorDie.com

When people ask me, in the nonchalant yet persistent way that people do, what it is I’m doing now, I’ve learned to keep my answer brief. I tell them that I went from studying Political Science to pursuing a career in the arts. Then, in response to their always quizzical look, I quip; “I went the completely opposite direction from where I started!”

When I wanted to work in International Human Rights Law, it was a profession that I could easily defend. One that was noble, one that would have made an obvious impact. But my heart still lived in the theatre. Rather than planning trips to speak at academic conferences, I just wanted to read plays and daydream about returning to New York to see the newest batch of shows. Cliché, perhaps, to call it my passion, but it’s true.

Now that I’m actually finding a place in the local theatre community and building a career there, I sometimes struggle when communicating the importance of the arts. Especially in our current political climate, when the defense of human rights, healthcare, gender equity, and inclusivity are on the forefront of everyone’s minds (and rightfully so).

And yet, this art, this thing called the theatre that I love so much, is what I have decided to pursue. And it’s challenging and crazy and I love it. I spend my days gleefully talking about theatre with others that love it like I do. And I no longer have to justify my silly fangirl obsession as a time-consuming hobby. It’s an asset to excitedly purchase Newsies The Musical online and watch it repeatedly. It’s research!

And I am also reminded that the arts are full of stories of resistance against injustice. That it is in fact, from these stories that I love, that I can gather my confidence in this new path that I’m on.

When I saw Newsies, The Musical for the first time, I was lucky enough to see it on Broadway with the original cast. It was something I had hoped would happen since I was a teenager- Newsies! Turned into a Broadway musical! I knew it would be nostalgic and, if the reviews and buzz were any indication, a fantastic production.

What I didn’t anticipate, what struck me most that first time that I saw the Broadway version, was the palpable anger that filled the stage. The righteous indignation that radiated off of every character. The exuberant and award-winning choreography that punched emphatic rage into lines like, “Try to walk all over us, we’ll stomp all over you.”

There’s a moment, right in the middle of “Seize The Day,”  that took my breath away. To this day, every time I hear that song I still choke up. And it isn’t a lyric that gets to me. It isn’t a swell in the instrumentation. It’s a grunt. A collective, choreographed, guttural, “HUH, HAH!”.

That collective grunt, the one that chokes me up, does so because of the scene that accompanies it onstage. The newsboys, having decided to strike, shout their anger and shake their fists in a great fury of a dance number. They throw their overpriced newspapers to the ground and stomp on them with both feet. And then, in perfect unison, they send up a groan of contempt.

It is moving in its boldness-  this is a Disney production after all- and in its heartbreaking, true-to-life premise. The newsboys were young, they were poor, and they were powerless. Still, with all they had to lose, they weren’t going to stand for the injustice heaped upon them. They were pissed, and they were going to raise hell.

A couple of weeks ago I took two friends to see another musical based on a story of resistanceHere Lies Love. It is another fantastic production with an incredibly talented cast and crew. The music, by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is contagious. The setting, where the audience is immersed in a night club and taught how to dance in sync with the action on stage, is thrilling. And because of the story line, like Newsies, it also has some highly emotional moments.

When walking out of The Seattle Repertory Theatre that night with my two friends, we were buzzing. We were so excited about what we had just experienced that we were chattering away a million miles an hour, talking over each other and bounding down the hallway. One of my friends was still wiping tears away. I turned to her, and found myself saying; “This. This is why I do what I do.”

Seeing this show had invigorated us. We were filled with joy and energy. I couldn’t sleep that night from the excitement. The thought occurred to me, this too, is how we fight injustice.

What I meant was that I believe strongly in the work of the arts to tell us important stories, and to motivate us to build community, to tell our own stories, and even to fight when we need to. Even when I sometimes struggle with the work itself, I am proud to contribute to the work of this community through fundraising. I am proud to play even a small part in making these kinds of experiences possible for audiences.

When we share our art, our craft- we participate in joy. Rather than feeling defeated and downtrodden, we are inspired and uplifted- and it gives us the courage and the strength to fight injustice. It helps us channel our anger into action. It gives us the stamina to keep going when the struggle seems endless.

Thinking through all of this, I was also reminded of Prop 8 The Musical from 2008. Marc Shaiman created the musical in response to Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage. The three-minute, star-studded online video that he created for Funny or Die poked fun of Prop 8 in musical comedy form. At the time, he had this to say, “If I’m going to stand on the soap box, at least let me sing and dance.”

I have never forgotten that quotation. I like to think that perhaps a little bit of that sentiment lived in the mind of  Harvey Feirstein, Jack Feldmen, and Alan Menken when they wrote Newsies, and when the choreographer created that emotional stomping sequence.

I am wholeheartedly on board with this idea of climbing on top of the soap box to sing and dance. I am going to continue to revel in the joy that theatre brings me, to work to keep it funded, and to share it with my community. And when I get really pissed about injustice, I’ll channel that joy and energy into action.

And I’ll keep dancing while I’m doing it. HUH, HAH!