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 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.