Utopia. Arcadia. Shangri-La. Neverland. Heaven. These fictional manifestations of bliss occur in every form or fashion you could possibly think of, from Disney films to George Orwell’s 1984. So what is utopia?
Though there are many interpretations, the simplest definition is an ideal place and life. It’s perfection, a world where nothing is “wrong.” This explanation is albeit a bit misleading to the modern interpretation of the word. While it sounds like the ideal, universes like those in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and video game We Happy Few show us that utopia’s are always, in fact, dystopic.
Representations like these display the reality of utopia. The cold truth that paradise doesn’t exist and won’t ever exist. The modern day utopia in media is often the exploration of the psychology of seeking paradise and the repercussions it has, however, one genre in particular hasn’t stepped away from the fantasy of the land of milk and honey.
Musical Theater as a whole is largely focused on happy endings and good feelings, and while there is inherently nothing wrong with that, the idea that this is all life had to offer is a dangerous thing to play with. The sole purpose of a musical is to tell a story of longing, of wanting so badly you can do nothing but burst into song, and with that hyperbolized sense of yearning comes the need to exaggerate the positive qualities of whatever it is the protagonist is yearning for. This can be a person, an object, a lifestyle, and likely a place. When the object of their affections is placed on such a high pedestal, it can either lead to devastation at its mediocrity or an unrealistic portrayal of life.
Some examples of this include:
“Part Of Your World”/”If Only”/”Her Voice” - The Little Mermaid
“Wings Of A Dream” - Ragtime
“I Know It’s Today”/“Who I’d Be” - Shrek
“In My Own Little Corner” - Cinderella
“Sante Fe” - Newsies
“Beautiful” - Heathers
“Johanna” - Sweeney Todd
“Someone Else’s Skin” - Catch Me If You Can
“If I Could Tell Her” - Dear Evan Hansen
“More Than Survive” - Be More Chill
“Corner Of The Sky” - Pippin
“Out There” - Hunchback
The most literal example that comes to my mind is “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” from The Book Of Mormon, where wistful Ugandan villager Nabulungi is convinced by Elder Price and Elder Cunnigham that Salt Lake City, or Sal Tlya Ka Siti, is the promised land she’s been dreaming about. Repeated throughout the song is this lyric and many variations: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti, Not just a story mama told, But a village in Ooh-Tah[Utah], Where the roofs are thatched with gold...” Generally, each repetition of this musical phrase comes with lyrics pining for what Nabulungi sees as the ideal scenario, crafted from what she knows about the world around her. As the audience, we know that her imaginings are nothing like the real place, that Nabulungi’s interpretation is based solely off of the misleading and limited information given to her by the missionaries in her village. But that’s just it: she doesn’t know any better. She doesn’t know, and I believe that she and every other character in the same situation doesn’t care to know because they want to believe that there’s somewhere out there that’s better than wherever they are. They want to believe it so badly that they ignore the reality and truth of the situation, bringing us to the relationship of young performers playing these yearning roles.
As a former and recovering obnoxious musical theater kid, I can attest to the idea that a lot of these characters give us pining performers unrealistic expectations of relationships, futures, and happiness. Not only did the roles we play or the songs we sang give us an expectation of perfection, it came additionally through what we expected for our theatrical careers. I can remember many of my nights dreaming about becoming the next Sutton Foster or Idina Menzel, of having my perfect life in New York City, hitting the stage every night on Broadway, and having my name shine from a marquee because it was important enough to be there. As I now know and was forced to slowly and painfully realize, this was a pipe dream. A mere fraction of a percentage of performers reach this level of stardom, and it takes years, decades even, to gain the level of notoriety and glory that my young self desired.
Now, why is this such a bad thing? I’m all for following unrealistic dreams (hello, I go to Berklee), but when you dedicate your life to something like musical theater, a high risk with very low likelihood of reward type of career, without being seriously made aware of those stakes, it can ruin you for the future. If all you focus on is theater, those skills are pretty useless in most other situations. You won’t ever find a job outside of theater with your killer “kick-ball-change”, which can mean serious consequences when you begin applying to colleges. I was lucky. I had thankfully acquired skills that were both outside of theater and applicable to multiple situations. I varied myself out of doing things that simply brought joy, like studying piano, writing, and literary analysis. I took AP classes in high school for the sole purpose of wanting to get my general courses over with as quickly as possible in college. These things that I’m now grateful for were not things I thought of as precautions or safety mechanisms, even though that is ultimately what they have become. They were simply things that I liked to do.
Young performers like me are told that we have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make in the business, that we have to sacrifice everything in order to reach the top. While, looking back on it, this is sort of true, I am appalled that we were ever told that this was a good thing. We saw going broke and living in squalor while you fight for a job as noble and dedicated. We saw being picked apart for things we can’t control like our height or our faces as “character types” as something to conform to, if we ever wanted to make a living wage. Every theater director or higher-up I came into contact with acted like this behavior was normal - even encouraging it. Broadway became our utopia, our unreachable paradise. Much like the protagonists we played, we were blinded by our need for something different and something better to the point that we truly had no idea what it was that we were pining for. Much like Evan Hansen or Fiona, the real thing is never what you made it out to be inside your head.
I’m not saying that nobody makes it, because obviously it is entirely possible, but the amount that do, compared to the amount that don’t, is a very scary number and one that needs to be addressed in the lives of young performers. If it weren’t for a leap of faith, a hunch, and a few bad omens, I wouldn’t be here today, writing this article. If I hadn't listened to the doubts in my head, I would have never even applied to Berklee. I would probably be off unhappily dancing my life away in a theater program miles away from here, and it’s scary to me to think about what I would have given up to get there. The ballads I grew up adoring contributed to my false expectations of what my life should be like, and I believe that is the fatal flaw in not only the genre, but the entertainment industry as a whole.