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Episodes: Confessions of a musical theater fan


Emily VanDerWerff

Apr 28 2017

6 min read



I discovered musicals at the time when most of my peers were discovering popular music -- either in the form of rock or country. I didn't shun country, especially, making mixtapes of songs I loved from off the radio, but when I started buying my own music, it was those big, double-CD musical soundtracks, and not, if we're being honest, particularly good ones. (I grew up in the waning era of the British mega-musical, when Phantom had been running for many years but not yet a decade.)

I came by my interest honestly. My mother was a huge fan of Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, and I have many fond memories of watching the gaudy overproduced movie musicals of the 1960s with her as a kid. (It's why I can stand the movie of My Fair Lady when many others I've talked to recognize it for a bloated whale carcass of a film.) And both of my parents adored the Donny Osmond cast recording of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat so much that when that cast made its way to the Twin Cities, my family went to see it. I was but a wee one, but the massive production evidently stuck with me. I became hooked.

I was always a dramatic kid, and bombastic musicals fed that flair in myself. Suffice to say, I wasn't listening to Stephen Sondheim or even, like, Kander and Ebb. No, when the girl I had a crush on pretended like I didn't exist even though we talked on the phone almost every night, I raced to the end of my driveway to watch her bus fly by in the February chill to the strains of Miss Saigon. Just typing all of that gives me vivid flashbacks to being 100 percent convinced if anybody found out about my musical habit, I would be stoned.

And, truth be told, maybe I was right. I spent a lot of my early adolescence wondering if I was gay. A lot of the things TV told me were superficially true of gay men were also true of me. I liked musicals, after all! Now, I couldn't quite square that with the fact that I was, most of the time, attracted to women, but so much of '90s pop culture sold homosexuality as a kind of performed identity (at least in the eyes of a near-teenager from South Dakota) that I wasn't sure if there was a tipping point. (Though I had met gay people, they were, at the time, closeted, and it wouldn't be until college that I met an out gay man and realized he was just a person and not a collection of quirks. The '90s!)

What's more, other kids made fun of me all the time for being gay, even though none of us quite knew what that meant. I knew that if somebody discovered my Original London Cast Recording of Les Miserables, they would be sure to light into me with great relish, and I would never be the same.

Yet when someone did discover said cast recording, because it fell out of my backpack one day, they seemed baffled. It had never occurred to me that small-town South Dakota kids didn't have a great frame of reference for Les Mis unless they specifically sought it out. (Weirdly, though, everybody knew what Cats was.)

By the time I felt moderately comfortable admitting that I really liked musicals, I was already moving on to other forms of music (spurred by, of all things, the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack). A few years later, when I played a couple of songs for my friend from the Rent soundtrack (lol), he feigned interest, then asked that we listen to something else. I would wager that he just didn't like it much, but there was also a weird edge to his voice, like he was scared of what might happen if somebody happened upon two ostensibly straight guys listening to the Rent soundtrack.

I still enjoy musical soundtracks, though I don't listen to them to the exclusion of most other music any more. Even as much as I love Hamilton, there are only a couple of tracks from that show that wormed their way into my regular rotation for even a little while. I'd guess I just grew out of them. But some part of me always wonders if I invented enough shame for myself that I chased my tastes to something more "acceptable."

I think a lot about how when I grew up, I often defined myself not by what I wanted but by what I knew other people didn't want for me. I allowed myself to be a sort of void, and for others to build the boundaries that constituted my self. At the same time, I knew I always wanted to move to California and either write for or about television, which is exactly what I ended up doing, so this might be a theory of myself that's not 100 percent accurate. But I do wonder, sometimes, who I might have become if I hadn't worried, constantly, that people might realize I knew all of the words to all of the songs from Evita. (Probably someone who sang "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" at karaoke, and who needs that?)


A BUNCH of long-term projects came to fruition all at once this week, and it's been all I can do to do anything when I get home that's not collapse into a cocoon and play Stardew Valley. Thank you for bearing with me, and please submit mailbag questions, because I need them!


Our Friday mailbag feature is a lot of fun! Please email me your questions over the course of the week, and I'll pick a few to answer. I'll always answer at least three per week, unless I just don't have the material. For ease of inbox search, please put "mailbag" somewhere in the subject line of your email. Thanks!


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.


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