Bloom and grow for­ever

Hav­ing my son like his first Broadway show seemed more im­por­tant than whether it was any good. Now I know how my read­ers feel.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE anne.midgette@wash­

“The Sound of Mu­sic” is a rite of pas­sage: a gate­way drug to other Broadway mu­si­cals. As a critic, I can crit­i­cize it, but as a par­ent, I am wholly un­der its sway. I didn’t fully re­al­ize this un­til I took my 5­year­old son to see it at the Kennedy Cen­ter ear­lier this month. Sud­denly, I was no longer a pu­ta­tive tastemaker but just an­other par­ent in the au­di­ence seek­ing to Ex­pose My Child to Art.

Shar­ing the things you love with your chil­dren seems so easy — be­fore you be­come a par­ent. I thought it was just a ques­tion of play­ing for them what you liked. Which is fine, un­til your toddler learns, as mine did, to take the CD out of the player. In the age of Alexa — the Ama­zon de­vice that can, among other things, play any ti­tle from Spo­tify you ask for — my hus­band and I have had to make rules about tak­ing turns re­quest­ing songs and lis­ten­ing to the end. Only thus have we been able to mit­i­gate a steady diet of “I Am a Gummy Bear,” “Im­pe­rial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)” “The Ham­s­ter­dance Song” and “It’s Rain­ing Tacos.”

“The clas­si­cal mu­sic critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post,” a friend said to me re­cently, “and you have to lis­ten to . . . ” and she dis­solved into gig­gles as “It’s Rain­ing Tacos” be­gan play­ing for the 17th time that day.

And that was be­fore our son dis­cov­ered the song “Poop­face.”

Par­ent­ing is a great de­moc­ra­tizer. All of us, what­ever our level of ed­u­ca­tion or am­bi­tion or pro­fes­sional achieve­ment, are united by com­mon con­cerns: how to dis­ci­pline them, how to feed them and how to present to them the things that mat­ter to us, know­ing that they may not care. As par­ents, we un­think­ingly ac­cept the im­por­tance of rit­u­als: tak­ing our chil­dren to work (which, in my case, means at­tend­ing a per­for­mance), show­ing them our cul­tural her­itage. Thus I ap­proached “The Sound of Mu­sic.” He al­ready knew most of the songs and had been to a few chil­dren’s con­certs, and it seemed like a rea­son­able ex­per­i­ment, even if we ended up leav­ing early.

But in ac­cept­ing “The Sound of Mu­sic” as, in ef­fect, a kind of ini­ti­a­tion, I found my­self in an un­fa­mil­iar role. Any­one who reads my re­views knows I am not par­tic­u­larly star-struck by the Kennedy Cen­ter, nor do I be­lieve that the per­form­ing arts are priv­i­leged over other art forms. And as a critic, I’d say “The Sound of Mu­sic,” sug­ary and sim­plis­tic, is not Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s best work. Yet as a par­ent who knows all of the songs from the mu­si­cal by heart, and sings them to my son, I seemed au­to­mat­i­cally to have bought into the idea that this event was some kind of cul­tural sig­ni­fier. In­deed, as we set­tled into our seats and he looked around the Kennedy Cen­ter Opera House, I was a lit­tle em­bar­rassed at the in­ten­sity of my own feel­ings.

My de­sire to have the ex­pe­ri­ence be mean­ing­ful in some way was so strong that I didn’t want to ad­mit to my­self that the show wasn’t very good. The Maria, for all her goofy good­will, had a shrill voice; Cap­tain von Trapp was a two-di­men­sional teddy bear; the Mother Su­pe­rior’s strong voice was much big­ger on some notes than on oth­ers. The chil­dren, at least, were ex­cel­lent, and they were what my son liked best.

In short: I bought into a pro­tec­tive view of the per­form­ing arts that I gen­er­ally ab­hor. Live per­for­mance is all too of­ten treated by those who love it as a kind of in­valid, need­ing to be shielded from the harsh­ness of the world. It shouldn’t need spe­cial han­dling, and in my pro­fes­sional life I en­cour­age ev­ery­one to take a more ac­tive re­la­tion­ship — to dare not only to at­tend, but to be crit­i­cal. Yet when it came to my own child, I seemed to fear the same thing as many of my read­ers: that a strong crit­i­cal voice might snuff out the glim­mer­ings of in­ter­est — as if, if some­one is not ex­plic­itly told that some­thing isn’t very good, he won’t no­tice. Why did I want my son to en­joy a per­for­mance that I thought was me­diocre? I had a new em­pa­thy for many of my read­ers who, hav­ing spent the money on tick­ets and geared them­selves up for a per­for­mance, sim­ply don’t want to hear from me that the event didn’t mea­sure up, even — per­haps es­pe­cially — if they think I’m right.

Not un­til af­ter I got home did I ap­pre­ci­ate just how in­au­then­tic my po­si­tion was. When I think of “The Sound of Mu­sic” as a gate­way drug, I think of an ex-boyfriend who as a child in ru­ral Amer­ica so iden­ti­fied with the movie that he wanted to be­come one of the chil­dren — and did, in­deed, grow up to be­come a singer. But although I grew up ad­dicted to orig­i­nal­cast Broadway al­bums, “The Sound of Mu­sic” wasn’t among my first loves. And my clear­est mem­ory of my first view­ing of the movie was that we were late, and my mother, who had par­tic­u­larly wanted me to see the open­ing se­quence of Julie An­drews run­ning through the Alps, was keenly dis­ap­pointed. Look­ing back now, I saw the irony in the fact that my mem­ory of my first “Sound of Mu­sic” was of my mother’s wishes for me to have a cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ence with it — just as I was wish­ing for my son, who, in the end, was per­fectly am­biva­lent about the whole thing.

The real take­away for me came two days later, when I was re­view­ing a con­cert of cho­ruses from around the world at the Kennedy Cen­ter. Know­ing there would be other chil­dren in the au­di­ence, I gave my son a choice: Would he like me to find a babysit­ter or would he like go to the show with me and his fa­ther? He yelped with de­light at hav­ing the op­tion to go along.

Be­cause he had just been to the Kennedy Cen­ter, he knew the ropes. He was no less wig­gly dur­ing the ac­tual per­for­mance, but he fol­lowed along in the pro­gram, re­port­ing with an­i­ma­tion which coun­try each cho­rus came from and how many num­bers were left. He owned the ex­pe­ri­ence. And when I asked him which event he had pre­ferred, he was un­equiv­o­cal: the cho­ruses.

The real moral is that ex­po­sure is cu­mu­la­tive. The gift that we can give our chil­dren is not a sin­gle per­for­mance, but a chance to go more than once, and the right to form their own opin­ions. My son has moved on to “Up Butt Co­conut” as his fa­vorite song on Alexa, but “Edel­weiss” still rules at bed­time, and nei­ther, or both, may ac­com­pany him out of child­hood. As for mu­si­cals: I’ve toyed with ask­ing him whether he wants to go to “The King and I,” now play­ing at the Kennedy Cen­ter. But I sus­pect it’s wiser not to push it.

I had a new em­pa­thy for many of my read­ers who, hav­ing spent the money on tick­ets and geared them­selves up for a per­for­mance, sim­ply don’t want to hear from me that the event didn’t mea­sure up.


Maria Rainer, played by Char­lotte Maltby, and the von Trapp chil­dren in “The Sound of Mu­sic,” which re­cently stopped at the Kennedy Cen­ter.

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