By Jodi Maile Kirk
At The Musical Theater Project, we use the art of musical theater not only to step into a story or soak in the wonder of a song but to examine and explore the human condition. Musicals offer a unique opportunity to look within. They invite us to unearth our greatest joys and sorrows, to honor both our triumphs and our challenges.
Sadly, many of our most beloved musicals and favorite songs offer a limited world view seen primarily through a white lens. So many voices remain unheard, So many stories untold. We must continue to ask ourselves, “What stories are being erased? Eliminated? Reduced?” And most importantly, “Who is telling those stories?”
Currently, the story of our nation is one of a great divide. We continue to live in two Americas. It has been a summer of unrest and racial turbulence. Many of us continue to wrestle with hard truths as we bear witness to the horrific murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others. The fuels and flames of social injustice are raging throughout this land, and we seek to find a united voice.
In searching for a musical that reflects this time of reckoning, I landed on the musical Ragtime. Although written by white artists, the piece authentically explores part of our American story that is either glossed over or ignored. Once again, I was moved by the power of the music and the intricate weaving of three separate narratives. I soaked in the lyrics to one of the show’s stand-out songs, “Make Them Hear You,” an anthem inviting us all to stand for justice no matter the cost. As I listened to it this time, however, its promise rang hollow. I found myself getting angrier and sadder as I questioned the ongoing cost for people of color—the cost of generations—that continues to be too high.
I found myself haunted by the story of Mother and the journey of the song “Back to Before.” Although the song in the musical reflects Mother’s ownership of her own agency, I realized that in order to move forward, White America needs to sever ties with the stories that we have told ourselves for too long. We all need to step out of our comfort zones so we honestly look at our nation’s history, as well as our personal history. We must honestly look at the promise of the Civil Rights movement versus the reality. We must rectify the systemic injustices that continue to plague who we are meant to be. Only then will we find a way to be a nation in which everyone--everyone, no matter the color of their skin or who they choose to love—is treated equally, fairly and with justice and respect.
Black lives matter.
In Ragtime, the story of Coalhouse Walker ends tragically. We must continue to fight and change the narrative. Thankfully, an amazing group of TMTP artists shared their gifts and their hearts as we worked together to blend songs from this powerful musical as well as images from our shared history to create this video and--hopefully--begin a new dialogue. This performance invites us all to come together and lean into hard questions, as we try to move forward. To change the story of who we are and who we can be.
Between multiple Broadway revivals, cabaret recordings, film versions, television clips and concert events, it's hard to identify the quintessential Leonard Bernstein. As we celebrate the late composer's birthday this week, TMTP's staff went down the YouTube rabbit hole to share a few beloved clips worth watching.
Bill is up to what all of us at The Musical Theater Project are up to—and this goes for most arts
organizations in Cleveland as well. We’re creating online programming as a means of serving
our participants during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the case of TMTP, that includes our new
weekly series, “Let’s Go to the Movies…at Home!,” an adaptation of our acclaimed school
program, “Kids Love Musicals!,” and specially selected song playlists that can be streamed on
Spotify. (And of course our two long-running radio programs on public stations and Sirius
continue, unaffected by the virus.)
But you probably know that a big part of our work is producing live concerts and cabarets, and I want to tell you about preparing our very first online show because it will help me make an
important point about TMTP.
The show, which you’ll be able to stream in October, is titled “Sing Me a Story”—and my
colleague Nancy Maier and I know it’ll be lots of fun because the songs we’ve chosen are so
much fun. As the title suggests, they’re all songs that tell stories, and they range from
Hollywood’s “The Ugly Duckling” (Hans Christian Andersen) to Broadway’s “Nothing”
(A Chorus Line).
We were doing just fine assembling the music for our two vocalists, Ursula Cataan and Eric
Fancher, when all of a sudden we hit a roadblock. I was determined to include “Cheerleader,” a
little-known story-song by the great John Kander and Fred Ebb that’s both funny and touching.
In 1979 I saw it performed in New York by the late Phyliss Newman in her one-woman show,
The Madwoman of Central Park West.
But the song wasn’t in the Kander & Ebb songbook, nor was it published…period. Well, that never stops us. We go to a friend of mine in New York who has tons of unpublished material in the performance editions used in the theater. He scoured his files; nope.
So…on to composer John Kander (a friend of TMTP) and his assistant. They spent two months
searching for that elusive cheerleader to no avail. I suppose a lot of people would have given up by now; after all, Nancy and I have 20 other songs in the show!
But heck, this is TMTP, so we pressed on. We asked our friend in New York to recommend
someone there who could transcribe the piano-vocal from Newman’s cast album. We found a
terrific arranger named Balint Varga, and a week later, voila! I just sent “Cheerleader” to Nancy
and Ursula. As Balint noted, “Just think: We saved a little gem from oblivion.”
I share this with you because it’s typical of TMTP; we are all perfectionists and we never give
up. That’s a big reason I’ve been here for 22 years…
Don’t miss “Sing Me a Story” in October, OK?
P.S. Naturally I sent “Cheerleader” to John Kander. His response: “Wow! Thanks—it is great to
The 72nd Annual Emmy Award nominations just came out and as usual, Broadway is well represented. We thought this would be the perfect time to look back at our favorite musical TV shows. Everyone at TMTP was tasked with selecting a gem from the silver screen that would satisfy our hunger for musical theater while we're stuck home on the couch.
The Musical Theater Project's authors include Bill Rudman, Heather Meeker and Joanna May Cullinan - and guest writers from time to time!