My mother raised me on spoonfuls of musical theater soundtracks.
Long before I had the motor control to make my stubby fingers press play or rewind, she began to curate a collection of CDs for my auditory consumption. We’d pop them into the stereo, and feeding time would begin: soaring voices and charging trumpet crescendos like bites of quiche, baked to eggy perfection.
Open wide, she would say, and I’d swallow a steaming mouthful of harmonic thirds.
She stored each disc in a neon green CD binder. The case was made out of a shiny material I can only describe as kind of like those optical illusions where you see a rabbit when you look at it from the left but a pony from the right. The kind of material that, once you develop control over your fingers, you can scratch with your nails to make a piercing skrt skrt skrt noise. A material you can keep skrt skrting until the day your dad explodes that he will confiscate every last CD in the case if you make that noise one more time. (Whereupon you tell him it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. He tells you he has sensitive ears. You did not know this was a condition an ear could be in, and you say an extra prayer for weak-eared people of the world the next time you’re not mad at God for making you go to Sunday School, which is not for a while.)
Before they lived in my binder, these albums were my mother’s. Not in CD form–those gleaming tokens never belonged to anyone besides me–but as their primordial ancestors. She likes to tell me how she’d put them on her record player and lie on the ground for hours listening. I imagine her melting into her shag carpet while humming along to angsty Chorus Line tunes. Hello twelve, hello thirteen, hello love... she’d sing, as the rest of the children lit up blunts, paged through Go Ask Alice.
“You’ll love this one,” my mother would tell me, tapping a disk with her fingernail. “It used to be one of my favorites.” Musicals were a love we shared, just the two of us. Sometimes, when we were alone in the house, my mom would let me pick a soundtrack. I’d scurry upstairs to the closet where my neon green binder hid. I’d flip through the plastic pages and pick out a CD, which I would carry slowly back down the stairs. Both hands, edges-only. When my fingers slipped and left a print, I’d frantically scour it with my sleeve until the little cloud of residue had mostly disappeared. Then I’d resume my dirge. Eventually, I’d reach the family room, where our stereo lived inside the left cabinet. I’d stand on my tiptoes to load the CD into the mysterious abyss, and then I’d press “play.”
And during that brief silent click click click as the CD spun unproductively, trying to figure out who it was and what kind of sounds it was supposed to be making, I’d leap from one side of the room to the other, landing next to my mother, where she awaited me on our squishy red couch. We’d curl up together, ready to embark on whichever odyssey we had chosen for the next hour.
And then the CD, having gotten its shit together, would burst into that first glorious tone.
It was via this ritual that I drank in the swaggering waltzes of South Pacific, the stumbling chromatics of Evita, the raunchy vamps of Cabaret. I sat on that couch and absorbed Cats’ psychedelic pulsing, let West Side Story’s gleaming sincerity wash over me. I chomped through the bouncing pitter-patter of My Fair Lady, slurped down the 70s New-Yorkisms of A Chorus Line, chewed up the ominous reverberation of The Secret Garden, swallowed whole the gentle warbles of Godspell.
Listening to a classic musical felt like shucking corn while the sun sets. Steady concentration unravels toward an uncomplicated relief. Gauzy contentment that swaddles in a delicious glow. A chewy golden feast, uncomplicated and hearty.
The CD case still sits by my dresser at home, quite pristine. The material has not dulled from so many years of skrt skrt skrting. These days, I dare myself to press my fingertips into the reflective rainbow of discs’ shiny metal. I don’t listen to them anymore; who cares? I like the oily fingerprint it leaves, marking them like dog pee. Mine.
This cabinet of which I speak, the stereo cabinet, of is one of two that sit against the southern wall of my family room flanking a fireplace. This fireplace, once electric, underwent a serious renovation during one of my father’s bouts of homesickness for the Maine winters of his childhood wherein he insisted we needed a wood burning fire. The upgraded fireplace functions fairly well nowadays, but used to send a thick layer of smoke snaking through the house and my father sprinting up and down staircases huffily muttering “Must close all the doors, I’ve made a terrible mistake… there’s smoke everywhere and the children will suffocate in their sleep if it gets in their rooms… why did I ever come to this godforsaken landlocked part of the country anyway… even fire doesn’t want anything to do with this state…”
The cabinets have not changed one iota in the seventeen years we have lived in the house. It’s as if they are cloaked in some kind of halo, a luminescent field that keeps them safe even as time (and my father) renovates their surroundings.
Like the fireplace, the family room cabinet to the right of the fireplace belongs to my dad. His tiny man-cave, or the closest he’ll ever get to having one. It contains our mammoth television, a television which remains to this day the oldest functioning television I have ever seen. This thing has never not felt old, not even twenty years ago when my dad loaded it out of the moving truck. When you turn the power on, which requires physically approaching the television and pressing the rectangular plastic button on its front since the remote no longer works, it makes a loud popping sound, and if you don’t remove your hand fast enough, the hairs on your fingers stand up as the glass becomes momentarily fuzzy to the touch, like the static is leaping out of the screen.
The left cabinet is my mother’s domain. We are a Family of the Future––my father does our laundry and both parents share cooking duties, so the usual Woman Spaces do not exist in my house. Instead, my mother, despite having objectively worse taste in music than my father, is master of the listening cabinet, which houses our stereo and her old record player.
She uses the stereo when she entertains to play elevator music, and when she was overcome with dramatic emotions, she blares Israeli dance music or smooth jazz or Santana over the speaker because she “really just feels like it.” My mother likes feelings.
The record player was always a bit of an enigma. Silent mostly, except for rare occasions when nostalgia overwhelmed my mother and she simply had to hear Pete Seeger’s Abiyoyo on vinyl. Mostly, this strange plastic prism felt simply out of place. Older even older than the television in right cabinet I figured it couldn’t possibly live in the world of my neon green binder. In the way that JFK accents and hoop skirts are nice in movies but bizarre on modern-day street corners, I concluded that the record player fit inside a different time.
But it was such a crucial element of her lying-on-the-carpet stories that I eventually began to wonder why we didn’t use the record player for our musical binges. I asked her, once, and she told me a story that made me feel weird.
She talked about a time after college when she lived in an apartment next to a commune. She didn’t pay much attention to the commune, and they didn’t pay much attention to her. But they were plenty nice. She quite liked them, actually, except that along with societal norms and my mother, they also mostly ignored material concerns. This was fine until the day their toilet got backed up and they didn’t notice until it exploded, covering their room, oozing into hallway, seeping under my mother’s door in waves of pungent filth.
Most of her valuables were covered with sewage in the Great Toilet Flood of 1990.
She hired two men, both Venezuelan immigrants, to help sort through what was left of her belongings. Like some sort of biblical catharsis, everything she owned was suddenly subject to a dichotomous keep or abandon. And on the seventh day, the men said it is good about the records–plastic impervious to water–but refused to bless the cardboard album covers. Sewage had seeped into the gritty pores, putrid and decaying, permanent.
She’d loved her album covers, she told me. She loved the thin, smooth surfaces; the dappled colors; the way the collection looked when she lined the covers up and pulled out different ones to look at, like synchronized swimmers diving sideways into a pool. She was so visibly heartbroken at losing the album covers that when the men came back the next day, they brought her a record of Venezuelan music with a kaleidoscopic cover. Today it sits in the left cabinet, dressed up square and fancy next to its round, eternally naked peers.
She always gets sort of bashful when she tells this part of the story, embarrassed at how much she cared. But she twinkles, too; quietly grateful for these two saviors who noticed her pain and tried to alleviate it. My mother believes in people.
But no longer in musicals, not after the flood. Once the covers were gone, she stopped caring so much about the soundtracks. She switched apartments and lost track of a few, moved again and lost a few more. Without covers, the collection became a lifeless amoeba of ridged darkness. The musicals lost their own identities and slipped out of hers. By the time the record player found a home in our left cabinet, her collection had dwindled to a couple dozen, none of them musicals.
I didn’t understand how she could just abandon them.
Didn’t you still want to listen to them? I asked her. I’d never pegged my mother for a materialist. Judge ye not lest the book cover… something. Hadn’t she herself told me that??
Not really, she said with a shrug. That was all she had to say.
My mother’s muted resignation never made sense to me, not in the context of the fluffy couch and the stereo’s hypnotic unspooling of my melodic stories. How could she so tenderly fill me with mouthwatering morsels she herself felt so ambivalent about?
These days I’m beginning to understand what she meant. Musicals, as a general rule, overexplain. A drama teacher of mine once explained musicals as representing situations in which people are so overwhelmed with emotions that they can no longer speak, and so must sing and move their bodies. Songs force you to sit in a moment, to swim around in it, to explore it from all sides. Choreography requires characters to clarify emotions, to magnify subtle bodily responses to the world around them. When you musicalize your feelings, you articulate them again and again, a different way with each verse, backed by trumpets and fanfare, underscored by pirouettes and tap shoes.
There comes a time when such relentless emoting feels naïve, or perhaps simply unhelpful. The feelings you are feeling do not add up into one megafeeling that can be sung at maximum volume with maximum fanfare until one final downbeat vanquishes them forever. Life and people and feelings do not organize themselves into neatly exclamation pointed sentences. Sometimes they go dot dot dot and move on, forever withholding that satisfying final note. Sometimes they make sense as a frozen ideal, immortalized in primary colors in a hidden cardboard flap. But in motion, they feel dissonant, cloying, out of touch.
This is what I say to my friends as we snicker together at the concept of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.
Every once in a while, I scroll furtively through Spotify’s selection of Sondheim and Bernstein, Rogers and Larson. The pictures here are miniscule; much smaller than my mother’s long-decayed album covers, tinier even than my plastic CD fronts. I turn my volume down low–heaven help me if anyone heard the pitchy shrieks of “It’s A Hard Knock Life” as I strut coolly past jaded brick buildings in my black turtleneck. And I press my finger reluctantly over a title (this glowing material never yields any sense of possession from my smeared fingerprints no matter how much residue I leave).
The saccharine lessons, tidy aphorisms stream out of my headphones. Though scary is exciting, / nice is different than good, sings Little Red in Into the Woods. Life is a cabaret! shouts Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
No, it isn’t, I think to myself. This is silly.
But then the orchestra crescendos, Sally’s belt crackles with fortitude layered over misery, and I feel a tug at my stomach, a gnawing hunger.
These sugary treats have never quite lost their appeal. Because something happened to me years ago on that plump red couch tucked within my mother’s elbows, as my soundtracks swirled out of left cabinet like smoke from my dad’s botched fires, snaking into my brain.
Bits of musicals sped, honking, reckless, weaving through lanes; vehicles packed close together careening absolutely out of control call the cops toward my center of command. My brain, try as it might to log each musical facet passing through the tollbooth of emotional input, was simply overtaxed, absolutely bamboozled. It could not keep up with the bombardment of glissandos and lullabies, off-kilter cadences and diminished fifths, honeyed rhymes stacked on top of each other, the bounty of minutiae that comprised these fraught worlds.
So to avoid a five thousand car pileup, my brain sent these elements anywhere else, anywhere it could fit them. Off they zoomed, traversing new paths, laying down pavement wherever they could. They trickled into my hollowest corners like scalding hot soup that I could feel oozing down into my stomach and spreading, warming me from head to toe; decadent comfort food, satisfying vague taste buds in every corner of my body. Like an unexpected compliment that hits you right in the gut and radiates, fluffy and good.
What happened next was that these industrious pieces of musical, having ventured into virgin territory, planted a flag and plopped down criss cross applesauce for good. It’s like that story my granny used to tell me about the girl who ate so many watermelon seeds that one started growing inside of her. Too late, her parents realized, she had turned into a human watermelon. Like the Oompa Loompas’ warning–Violet, you’re turning violet!–musicals planted roots inside me, seeped deep into my bones, mingled with my essence at the atomic level. Mine, they said.
We’d claimed each other; I was disciple and deity both. I was wrapped up in the corn shucking sun setting smokey haze yellowed quiche, and they, in turn, bore my oily fingerprints. Try as I might to scrub these naive renderings of the world from my conscience, they’ve burrowed into my being inextricably, attaching themselves to me for good.
There is a moment in A Chorus Line when Morales, my favorite character, tells the story, in a sung monologue, about her experience in an acting class. It begins when her teacher, Mr. Karp, asks them to improvise various scenes. Be a table, be a sportscar… / ice cream cone, he orders. Morales can’t do it. I felt nothing, she reports, again and again. Mr. Karp teacher humiliates her in front of the class. “I think you should transfer,” he says.
Try, Morales. All alone, she urges herself, too stubborn to concede. Karp continues to hound her. Finally, she breaks down and asks Jesus for help. A voice speaks to her from on high, sending a message which she relays in a triumphant swell: This man is nothing! / This course is nothing! / If you want something, / Go find a better class.
It is a happy ending well-earned. We, the audience, relax. But the music continues. Morales has more to say. Six months later, she says, as the music begins to slow, I heard that Karp had died. Even slower: And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul… each word more reluctant than the next. Morales does not want to be telling this story anymore. But the music keeps playing, pulling her along.
A pause here. And cried. Another pause.
‘Cause I felt… three words on the same note, like a hymn, like she is praying again, this time for proof of her own empathy. A third pause.
Here, a moment of limbo, perfectly engineered in performance. She gives the faintest of gasps, as if she’s only just now discovered how the story ends, as if it surprises her. Her eyes light up. The corners of her mouth curve; hopeful, like her eyes. Her neck lifts, craning into the future. It is a subtle, safe sanguineness. So that until the very last, you think she’s moving her tongue toward the middle of her roof, anticipating s, thatshe felt something.
But alas, we cannot hide in this liminal moment forever. The song is waiting for its final note, the conclusion that will make the moment whole. So Morales pokes her tongue forward, lays it flat under her teeth, for n. Nothing, she sings quietly. And we realize that she has tricked us; that her eyes were filled with anguish, not hope; that the corners of her mouth turned up in a grimace of pain, that the pause was not to savor the personal victory but to build up the courage to admit a truth she is ashamed of.
A tinkle of bells, and then the song is over. We are left with silence.
I felt nothing, she said.
But hidden inside that shell of ostensible desolation is a swirling mélange of pungently flavored feelings. Pain and joy mixed up–like in Morales’s face, more alike than they are different. Disappointment and vengeance, confusion and guilt. Feelings wrapped in emptiness wrapped in feelings. Blended together and served in spoonfuls.
That’s the kicker. In the world of a musical, you never feel nothing. You feel so much of everything.