“It was awesome!”
That was the response from my friend’s 11-year-old daughter coming out of Dancap‘s production of West Side Story, now playing in Toronto.
I’d debated bringing my 9-year-old daughter with me to opening night. Yes, the songs in this modern adaptation of Romeo & Juliet are phenomenal; it’s a bright, energetic production with enthusiastic choreography and some powerful performances. But it’s also dark and violent, with some very serious issues and themes.
And it got me thinking about what a great teaching opportunity theatre can be.
The week before, my daughter and I had watched South Pacific. When we talked about it after, I asked her if she knew why Lt. Cable couldn’t marry Liat and why Nellie had so much trouble with the Frenchman.
“I don’t know, ” she replied. “I didn’t really get it.”
“Well, it’s because both Lt. Cable and Nellie had problems with racism.”
“Racism? What does that mean?”
“You don’t know that word?”
She shook her head.
“It’s when someone doesn’t like another person because of the colour of their skin or the way they talk or where they come from or how they pray.”
“That’s ridiculous! Why would they do that?”
In that moment, I knew I was doing something really right as a parent.
“Because people fear anything different. They’re scared of what they don’t understand.”
So we went back and re-watched one of the most powerful and poignant songs in the musical theatre, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”.
That movie proved to be a springboard for an intense and engaged discussion. As it turns out, the
graduating class at her school were putting on their own version of West Side Story. It was interesting to see what they cut and what they kept. Production numbers like “Gee, Officer Krupke” were gone, but the racial tensions between the Sharks and The Jets remained in tact.
Sometimes, when there’s a difficult topic to address, a show can be the easiest way to do it. Theatre really does cover just about everything. Now, if only they’d made a musical of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret…
West Side Story is on stage in Toronto till June 3rd.