The Power of Storytelling in Musical Theater

The Power of Storytelling in Musical Theater

The Heroism of Storytelling

I’m absolutely thrilled to be here with you all today. I can feel the energy in this room – it’s electric! You know, I fell in love with high school students a couple of years ago when I was invited to speak at a theater conference in Utah. I walked into that basketball stadium, and it was packed to the brim with thousands of passionate, theater-loving high school students.

And let me tell you, when I mentioned a classic like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” they all cheered in unison. It was like a BeyoncĂ© concert, I swear! Now, sitting behind me were these two students, and you might have heard of them – their names are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. These guys were in college at the time, and they had just written this musical that was taking the country by storm.

I had never met them before, but during my highly intellectual speech to these raucous high school students, I turned to Pasek and Paul and said, “Could you lead us in a song?” And let me tell you, when they got up and did it, the entire place went absolutely ballistic. I’m talking full-on screaming and cheering. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

As I was escorted through the halls afterwards, students were lining the walls, reaching out to high-five me. And I thought to myself, “Wow, this is the future of theater. These are the storytellers of tomorrow.” But the question is, what happens to that infectious energy? Where does it go?

Well, in the spirit of “The Power of Storytelling in Musical Theater,” I’m going to share with you why I tell stories, where stories come from, how to tell them effectively, and some practical uses of this powerful art form. Because, you see, storytelling is an act of heroism. When you reach out and share a story with someone, you’re creating an empathic bridge. You’re saying, “I see you. I hear you. Let me take you on a journey.”

The Rumbling Graveyard of Storytelling

Now, I have to admit, I was brought up as a child of post-modernism. That means I grew up deconstructing everything, taking things apart and looking at them separately. But then the 21st century happened, and 9/11 happened, and suddenly, we came to the end of deconstruction. Nothing seemed to have any meaning anymore. And that’s when I had to ask myself, “What comes after post-modernism?”

The clues, my friends, lie in the power of stories. Whose stories are we telling? And how are we telling them? Because let me tell you, it’s not easy. It takes a certain organization of the spirit. You see, I believe our stage is not a blank page. No, it’s a rumbling graveyard – a place where the voices of those who didn’t get to finish their stories cry out to be heard.

It’s our job, as storytellers, to give them a voice. To listen to the screeching, the whispers, the unfinished sentences, and to bring them to life in a way that resonates with our audiences. Because without emotion, without passion, without something to say, our stories will fall flat.

Think about it like this: when the crew of Apollo 13 was in trouble, the engineers didn’t have a blank slate to work with. They had a bag of random items from the capsule – duct tape, socks, plastic tubes – and they had to figure out how to use those tools to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth. That, my friends, is the essence of storytelling. We take the tools we have, the shapes and forms that surround us, and we weave them into tales that transport our audiences.

The Will to Go Out and the Grace to Receive

Now, to tell those stories effectively, we need three things: technique, passion, and something to say. It’s like a three-legged milk stool – if one leg is missing, the whole thing collapses. And let me tell you, being articulate in the face of uncertainty is no easy feat.

I remember when I’m completely lost in a rehearsal, sitting on that stool, unsure of where to go next. But then I stand up, and I say, “I know.” And somewhere between that stool and the stage, something has to happen. Because the reality is, we don’t have the luxury of a blank page. We’ve got to find the right words, the right posture, the right enthusiasm to bring our stories to life.

And that enthusiasm, my friends, is essential. Etymologically, the word “enthusiasm” means “to be filled with god.” Without that sense of wonder, that childlike curiosity, there is no “there” there. It’s your job to cultivate that enthusiasm, to set the stage for an adventure, a cybernetic state of going out and receiving.

Because, you see, the theater is always about one thing: social systems. It’s about how we get along, how we navigate the complexities of human relationships. And when an audience sees a play, they’re not just witnessing the story on stage – they’re also watching the story of the actors, the story of the audience, and the story of how we’re all getting along in that moment.

That’s the revolution in small rooms that makes bigger rooms possible. It’s about creating the world you want to live in, right there in the rehearsal space. Because if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

Storytelling as a Superpower

Now, I want to talk about the practical applications of storytelling, because let me tell you, it’s a superpower. Take fundraising, for example. I was at a dinner party in New York, sitting next to a filmmaker who was in town to raise money for his next project. And you know what he did? He turned to me and said, “Would you like to hear the story of my next film?”

And I, of course, said yes. And he proceeded to weave this captivating tale about a violin maker who, after losing his beloved wife, painted a violin with her blood. It was a story that transported me, that made me feel like the luckiest person in the world to have heard it. And you know what? That filmmaker, François Girard, went on to make that film, “The Red Violin,” because he had the courage to turn to a stranger and share his vision.

That’s the power of storytelling. It’s not about having the money or the connections – it’s about having the passion, the enthusiasm, and the ability to articulate your vision in a way that captivates your audience. Because when you do that, you’re not just asking for money – you’re inviting people to be a part of something bigger, something that has the power to change lives.

And that power extends beyond the realm of fundraising. It’s about the politics of the rehearsal room, the way we navigate the social systems that are at the heart of every theatrical production. Because, let’s be honest, you can’t really hide a bad rehearsal process in the performance. The audience can feel it, they can sense it. And that’s why it’s so important to create the kind of environment in the rehearsal space where a society that you can believe in can flourish.

It’s about revolution in small rooms, my friends. It’s about creating the world you want to live in, one story at a time. Because when you do that, when you tap into the power of storytelling, you’re not just entertaining your audience – you’re changing the world, one heart and mind at a time.

And that, to me, is the true power of musical theater. It’s not just about the songs or the dances or the spectacle – it’s about the stories we tell, the bridges we build, and the empathy we inspire. So, let’s go forth, my fellow storytellers, and let’s change the world, one magical, transformative tale at a time.

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