'Dreamgirls' became an artistic triathlon
Last Monday, I wrote about why I was going to see “Dreamgirls” at the Muny every night it played last week. In short, it wasn't because I love the musical, it was because I knew that every night at the end of Act 1 I would get to watch the audience, the uniquely diverse audience, be wowed. A cultural anthropology experiment, if you will.
If you really want to do your homework, you can read the day-after musings I wrote throughout the week. In summation, it spawned a lot of thought about diversity, differences and the opportunities we have to evolve past them.
The 7 Nights in July project itself is really just getting started. My personal seven nights under the stars at the Muny were really a separate endeavor, though clearly related. As people ask me how it's been, I've been saying it was my version of a triathlon, hot yoga and spirit walk all rolled into one.
To start, while I work in St. Louis, I live in Glen Carbon. On some nights I would go home, put my boys to bed and drive back.
I am not outdoorsy. I hate bugs, and I hate being sweaty. All told I spent 23 hours outside last week. I think I now have a small understanding of heat exhaustion.
Apparently, I have no willpower, because I was unable to resist hitting the concession stand at least once a night. So add salt to the heat and sitting.
Now, to many people, what I described above is not a big deal. I was not on stage singing and dancing in a full suit. I'm just giving you my personal baseline. While I am not sure I would do it again, I can honestly say that it was worth all 23 hours.
As predicted, it was the largest diverse crowd I've been a part of in my adult life in St. Louis. For those of us who often find ourselves as the "other" in the room, there is something to be said for having enough variety in the mix to not feel "other." And at a scale of thousands - I'm not even sure I can name another experience outside of St. Louis I've been able to describe this way.
As I expected, every night the audience rose to their feet during the final notes of the Act 1 closing number. Every night, Jennifer Holliday was more and more comfortable and in turn the audience more drawn in. I did a "standing O report" status update on Facebook every night. Here is my update from the final night:
"Final standing O report: 7 for 7, clearly. What I just experienced was a perfect illustration of the opportunity given us via art and expression. One person, through pure emotion, moving 8,000 to clap, whoop, exclaim, cry, wave their hands in the air and leap to their feet. If we could walk through our days connected at a fraction of the level the 8,000 of us just experienced, the world would be more often like these glimpses that the majority of us are only able to see as the exception. This, I believe."
I missed a decade of popular music listening to original cast recordings (NOT soundtracks, thank you) during my teen years and can still recite most lyrics from Les Miserables. I majored in theater in college. My first jobs out of school were working in production offices on Broadway. Then I got swept up in the digital revolution and since I left New York have maybe seen one or two shows a year (save the year I was a Kevin Kline judge).
I believe so much in the mission of the Beacon because at its core it's about providing the information needed to connect the dots, give context and meaning to complex issues and, ultimately, make St. Louis an even better place to live. It hit me, on night 7 -- as I sat under the stars and got goosebumps in the 9:30 p.m. 95 degree heat and the woman in front of me yelled "Sing it, girl" and spontaneous claps popped up throughout the multi-colored audience of 8,000 people in the middle of Forest Park in the middle of the United States -- that the thing that initially drew me to theater, commercial musical theater specifically, was at its core the same thing: You might purposely make something that connects with people in a way that involuntarily opens someone's mind. That that opening might be replicated and scalable. That it might give people who think they are without means of connecting a common ground.
That fuels my belief in being able to make a difference. In the opportunity for an increasingly better St. Louis – no - a better world.