When I was ten years old, I signed up for a musical theater course that was being held at a traditional summer camp. We sang, danced, and took sing-a-longs of "Boom-Chicka-Boom" very seriously. Everyone at camp thought we were dorks.
I was part of the inaugural group of musical theater campers; the program was an experiment and drew about 10 of us from 4 surrounding towns. And though we weren't a large crew, we were all quite obsessive and devoted and did our best to put on a great show for our parents at the end of the session. Roughly twenty years later, I checked the camp's website to find that the musical theater program has now expanded to four separate sessions, presumably to meet the demand, thanks to the influence of pop-culture phenomenons such as High School Musical and Glee. They've also put a maximum cap on the amount of campers allowed to register; there are only so many spaces, and you have to sign up fast, or you'll miss your shot at camp musical stardom. It's quite a change from the days when my group would head down to the lake in full pancake makeup, singing "Put On A Happy Face."
As David Kamp writes for the New York Times, "Something weird and profound has happened in the four years since the original "High School Musical" movie was first shown on the Disney Channel and surprised everyone, including Disney, with its smash success: the musical-theater idiom has regained its currency, and is enjoying what may be its greatest popularity among young people since the pre-rock era. We're raising a generation of Broadway babies."
Kamp attributes musical theater's revival to a number of factors, notably Glee, High School Musical, and American Idol, and how all three programs have found a way to combine elements of theater, rock, and pop music in a way that presents young people with a way of viewing a traditionally "corny" performance mode as something cool and relatable. In a way, I suppose, one might be able to compare it to Michael Jackson's use of choreography in the 80s, combining theatrical performances with the music video medium to present something that blends the two in a new and interesting way.
But perhaps more importantly, Kamp notes, the embrace of shows like Glee, and of musical theater in general, shows that kids are more accepting of themselves, and each other, than previous generations: "Whereas the high-schoolers of my era wouldn't admit to liking show tunes for fear of seeming gay," Kamp writes, "those of today wouldn't even necessarily conflate the two things, and besides, what's wrong with being gay?"
But is the rise of musical theater as a pop culture phenomenon due solely to its embrace by teens, or is it due, at least in part, to its embrace by adults who are finally—after years of bashfully admitting that they spent quite a bit of time perfecting their jazz hands and spirit fingers in the drama hallway—comfortable with embracing their pasts and their passions? After all, it's not just kids who are watching Glee or American Idol or rocking out to High School Musical: any phenomenon that reaches such an inescapable level requires participation from people of all ages. Just as with the recent rise of "geek chic," with everyone clamoring to admit that yes, they too were geeky as a youth, perhaps the rise of "The Glee Generation" speaks to the fact that Generations X and Y, in the era of oversharing and listing one's every like and dislike via social networking, finally feel ready to celebrate their sleeping-outside-of-the-theater-for-Rent-tickets days.
The downside of all this for those who truly love musical theater, naturally, is the inevitable backlash: it's only a matter of time before Glee spawns a few truly heinous knockoffs and the love dies down a bit. But I suppose those who truly love musical theater will always find a way, regardless of whether or not the country is still enamored with the genre. Gleeks might fade away, but true theater geeks will always live on. And they are vastly superior at singing "Boom Chicka Boom." Oh yeah! Uh huh! One more time! Jezebel style!
The Glee Generation [NYTimes]