Passion for the Peculiar.

steven suskin the sound of broadway music

Several forces lately have focused my attention on the challenge of staying true to our passions in an unsupportive world.

How do we stay true to our passions in an unsupportive world? Several forces lately have conspired to focus my attention on this question.

An internet mailing list, of which I am a member, is devoted to the discussion of original cast musical theater recordings. Recently a discussion began concerning the members’ experiences as children and teens. When young, did we find friends who shared our love of the great Broadway musicals, the works of sublime genius created by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lerner, Loewe, Loesser, Sondheim, Styne, and their ilk? (Small ilk.) Or did we not? This discussion forced me to examine a truth I hadn’t ever quite acknowledged: that I did not have a single friend, growing up, who listened to this music. How did I keep doing it? Why didn’t I succumb to “peer pressure” and change my tastes to conform with theirs? How did I sustain my love for great Broadway music in the complete absence of positive reinforcement?

I would say that the music itself gave me no choice. Once you listen to it, if you are susceptible to its charms, you discover just how much is going on in it, and most other music seems thin gruel from then on. And that’s part of the answer. But not all of it.

Something has to give you the strength to go on being alone, being interested in the things you’re interested in even if no one else is. In some sense you are like a character in The Twilight Zone who discovers he is the sole inhabitant on earth, or like the astronaut at the end of Kubrick’s 2001 who lives out his days in the absence of a fellow creature. Sure, you derive sustenance from the knowledge that someone out there likes the art you like, because someone is putting out recordings and other people are buying them. You just don’t know any of those people. So you have to be comfortable with being lonely. And the more comfortable you get with it, the more you start, in some sense, to prefer your loneliness. You begin to feel that loneliness is the only way for you to survive, because to join the crowd would be for you to relinquish the essence of who you are. We are what we love.

Now, did I lack for friends who appreciated my interest in musical comedy? No, I had those. When a song parody was needed “to the tune of” some Broadway standard that everyone could sing to, they knew I had a talent to amuse. And I felt they respected my peculiar interest in the musical, in the manner that people often respect someone who sticks to his guns against all odds. And that was certainly a whole lot better than being made a pariah for it. But how different it would have been for me, had I found even one or two boys or girls who actually shared my passion, instead of just acknowledging it. Some of the correspondents on the mailing list reported having been lucky enough to find others like them as children and teens, and it made me wonder how different it would have felt to have lived that alternative adolescence — and how much less used to being alone, and comfortable with it, I might have become.

Mind you, this was in the fifties and sixties, when the Broadway musical was much more a part of the mainstream culture than it is now.

Even more amazing than that I didn’t know a single other child or teen who was into the same music I was? It’s that once into adulthood and a creative advertising career that involved the production of music, some of it in a theater-influenced style, I encountered very few people who shared my passion for the music even then. In my three decades of adult life before the internet, I think I accumulated a grand total of four friends with whom I can have a conversation listing the ways in which Stephen Sondheim is a deity walking among us or how Carousel makes us cry from the first notes coming from the pit in act one.

A lifetime of accretion of knowledge on a subject that very few people know or care anything about can make one seem like a sufferer of Asperger syndrome when the knowledge comes pouring out, observes my friend Jim Dyer. On the other hand, when the specialized knowledge is interesting to people, when they can count on you to know the answer to a question they actually want to know the answer to, the line between “Asperger sufferer” and “fascinating expert” is a thin one.

Here are some words about Asperger syndrome found at Wikipedia:

…restricted and repetitive interests and behavior…intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity…a person with AS may engage in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener’s feelings or reactions, such as a need for privacy or haste to leave.

So yeah, maybe that’s what I’ve got.

All this is by way of preface to my recommending a new book by Steven Suskin on the great Broadway orchestrators. It’s one of those books on such an obviously important subject that one can’t believe it hasn’t been written yet, but nobody did it before Suskin. The sound of Broadway was at least as much the work of orchestrators like Robert Russell Bennett, Don Walker, Robert Ginzler, Sid Ramin and Irv Kostal as it was the work of composers, and now the orchestrators get their due. Suskin writes in satisfying detail not only about what they did and how they did it, but the stylistic traits that distinguished one orchestrator from another. Throughout the book, Suskin acknowledges, in asides, how very few people will be interested in his subject, and also, how very interested those few who are interested will be. And he’s right. For anyone who loves Broadway, being immersed in the book is like being in paradise. As thorough and complete as it is at 565 pages, when one is reading it one wishes it were twice as long as it is. If you are one of the small number of Americans who are into musicals, and you know who you are, you will find it fascinating, even if you have little or no knowledge of technique. (Suskin wrote the book for the non-technical reader; all you need is ears.)

But this whole isolated, socially-awkward, narrowly-shared passion, Asperger thing…it’s a much bigger subject than Broadway musicals. With me, it was that. With you, it’s something else. Something you’ve always been into that, unless you’re very lucky, practically no one else in your “real life” has ever been. Thank goodness for the internet, where we can find more people who share our interests than we may ever have found without it. But what about all those years before the internet? Somehow, and I don’t mean this lightly, we found a way to survive without surrendering what made us special, found a way to remain who we were. Let’s all give ourselves a pat on the back for that, let’s all give ourselves a hug. And hug, virtually, each other.

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2 Comments on “Passion for the Peculiar.”

  1. kevin muir says:

    I agree. I shared my Broadway interests as a child with no one that I recall. My father was interested, but that’s not the same as having a peer. As you say, the music itself drew me in and left me with no choice. And Suskin’s book is really great–I’m only sorry that its scope ends in the 1960’s. I’d love to have info on more recent musicals.

    Kevin, Portland Oregon

  2. Margaret says:

    One of the first LPs I bought was the OCA of The Sound of Music. I saw Theodore Bikel as Baron Von Trapp at the Shubert Theater in Philly. I still like to listen to that LP, which for some reason I have never upgraded to CD.


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