Upon becoming a father last year, I started singing again – and, by that, I mean I began to sing show tunes around the house again for the first time since I was a kid.
Not knowing many lullabies, I substituted downtempo versions of songs such as Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? and I Could Have Danced All Night from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady.
Diaper changes required more upbeat tunes to distract my baby boy – and I’m Going to Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair from South Pacific, for some reason, kept coming out of my mouth.
More recently, since the pandemic started, I’ve turned to another tune from that Rodgers and Hammerstein show almost every morning to keep my now one-year-old son amused as I make his cereal and my coffee: A Cockeyed Optimist.
I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we're done and we might as well be dead
But I'm only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head.
Singing this song makes it easier to face another day of limited contact with the outside world – and my son seems to like it, too, for the time being.
It is, I have belatedly realized, a family tradition among the Nestruck men for fathers to share songs from musical theatre with their sons. I wanted to write about it now because, though this is technically my second Father’s Day as a father, it’s the first where I’ve really had enough sleep to be aware of the media blitz that leads up to it from this perspective.
The Facebook algorithm keeps feeding me ads with pictures of fathers holding tools, behind grills or fishing.
I’ve got nothing against any of these ideas of dad-dom, but after a while it starts to feel like I’m in a stifling room of stereotypes. And so I’d like to open a window and let in some fathers who love musical theatre.
In starting the day with a bit of Rodger and Hammerstein’s optimism, I am following in the footsteps of my grandfather Samuel.
When I would stay the weekend at my grandparents’ as a little boy, I’d often go into his room to watch his morning rituals; I was fascinated by his shaving and, even more, his strapping on of his artificial leg. He had lost the lower half of one in the war to a land mine laid by the Nazis retreating through Belgium.
As he put his leg on, Sam, a classic strong and silent type otherwise, would sing, beautifully, the opening number from Oklahoma!: “Oh what a beautiful mornin'! Oh what a beautiful day! I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.”
If that planted a seed for a love for show tunes, it grew during summers with my father, Shane, steeped in musical theatre in a more immediate way. My father is a saxophone player who used to play in “the pit” at Rainbow Stage, an open-air theatre devoted to musicals in Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park.
My relationship with my father is complicated – whose isn’t? – but I felt closest to and proudest of him as a boy going to see Sweet Charity, Guys and Dolls or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – and getting to hear, in full, songs that I’d heard my father practising a single line of for weeks. (Before the shows would begin, my dad would say hello to me from the orchestra pit by warming up with the theme song to The Muppet Show.)
I still hear the reed part of songs from those shows I saw at Rainbow Stage in the 1980s in my head as I sing them now to my son: “I’ve never been in love before …”
It was only in high school in the 1990s that I discovered from pop culture and some peers that there was a perception that had developed since my grandfather’s generation that it was unusual for straight guys to like show tunes, let alone sing them. I realize now this springs from homophobia – because some gay men, now living their lives openly, were unabashed in their love of musicals.
I don’t know why it is that I stopped singing at home at some point – but now, doing it again with a baby as an excuse, I feel a great sense of freedom regained.
Even in the era of Hamilton, there still seems a perception out there that most men don’t like musicals. In the United States, it seems to have some basis in reality: According to a Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2018-19 survey from the Broadway League, just 31 per cent of Broadway’s audience identified as male.
But I learned this week that it seems to be different in Canada. A representative for Mirvish Productions, which produces mostly musicals in Toronto, tells me that, according to their records, their audience is roughly 55 per cent female and 45 per cent male.
Maybe things are shifting again? I’m not saying, advertisers and algorithms, you have to stop showing me dads and sons playing ball next year, but how about a picture of fathers and sons going to see Come From Away or Billy Elliot in the mix, too?
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