How Do You Solve a Problem, Like Nostalgia…

Christina Bishop
5 min readJul 17, 2021

Long ago, I used to like musicals as a kid and I loved theater. I loved musicals that used new ideas and innovations; Blast, The Lion King, Hairspray with a character my body shape, live productions of The Music Man, Pirates of Penzance, and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat were really cool to me. But then there are Frozen, Seussical, The King and I, Carousel, and The Sound of Music. These are musicals that were very problematic to me because they reflected Musical Imperialism through a white, neuro-typical, sexist, and often unabashed culture of toxic fandom in music theater communities.

Photo by Sudan Ouyang on Unsplash

Hamilton was just the beginning of revealing how dangerously toxic white lense musicals, including Glee, are for people who love performing arts regardless. Even when people like me point out problematic issues whatever they may be in a musical here is what I get called, “Snob” “Hatter” “Grumpy” “Purist” and one time the B-word because of my hatred of Frozen. Why is there more name-calling than critical thinking about what goes into our musicals?

Take Fiddler on the Roof as an example of the music matching its cultural setting via Klezmer which had its start in Jewish villages. Villages that had to move and leave because of persecution and sometimes total takeovers of a regime which is why it sounds thoughtful, sad, and echos the joys and sorrows of the people.

Not too many musicals before its popularity had Jewish people as the center; many Jewish musicians like Iring Berlin, Benny Goodman, and the Gershwin Brothers had to hide the fact they were Jewish at all. Yet they did not hide it in their music such as the wails and laughing in Goodman’s clarinet, the sorrow in White Christmas and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and Strike Up the Band has elements of the Nigun which has a vocal ballad until it picks up pace. However, it’s not the only musical with a Jewish story. Tim Burtons film Corpse Bride is based on Yiddish folklore. Perhaps a young Tim Burton was a Fuma Sara fan…

Tevye’s Dream

This is because, in some Jewish sects, an older man like the Bucher Lazr getting married off to someone younger when he has a wife who has died is dishonoring the wife who died which is why Fuma Sara has every right to be very angry!

How can you allow it, how?
How can you let your daughter take my place?
Live in my house?
Carry my keys?
And wear my clothes?

This sequence is not only a dream ballet but is there to showcase a taboo to an audience that is not Jewish. However, sometimes the dream can be a musical too from a child’s point of view instead of an adult's. The case is Dr.Seuss’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr.T which was based on a nightmare Theodore Geisel had as a kid, a piano stretching end to end played by a young boy with small hands and being forced to play it.

Imagine this in someone’s house!

The owner of this monster is one of Seuss’s villans alongside the Oncler, Yurtle, and Augustus the Mayor of the Who’s. Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conrad) is not just sadistic and fashionable, he is rich and even imprisons musicians for not playing the piano. Bart (Tommy Rettig) our protagonist encounters them is a Seussian ballet with beautiful music showcasing their diversity in instruments and music. In the end, the whole orchestra plays a major version of the hypnotic theme used when Dr. Terwilliker traps Barts's mother Heloise and his friend Mr. Zabladoski the plumber.

“We’re a sinkable, horrible mess, hooray!”

The musical is a satire on the White Power Movement and the Red Scare of the ’50s; Bart’s friend is the soldiers who came back who were rewarded with menial jobs instead of an education, Heloise is the widows of soldiers who were trapped and exploited by elitist men and women (an allusion to his wife Helen), and Bart is an eyewitness and like Seuss’s other protagonist never gives up, stands up, curious, and is faithful 100%. In the hands of a good adaptation (unlike Seussical), we would want to know Terwilker’s backstory, what if Pontoffel Pock is Bart’s real father, and more about the musicians in the dungeon.

Also, other genres of theater are musical or musical based that is good stage material. There are the folk plays and musical theater of Bavaria,

Bollywood has Indian dance and drama involving Hindu gods, heroes, and silly horror.

Kabuki and Bunraku of Japan have wonderful thematic elements; puppets climb ladders and horses, climb hills and buildings, and tell stories of yokai, transformation, warriors, brave women, and tragedy such as the double suicide and the tail of the 47 Roman, rejected Samari who avenge their master only for all of them to commit Subuku. Before there was Spider-Man and the Nutcracker there was Tsuchigumo, a play about a giant spider Yokai spreading sickness only to be defeated by some warriors; and this was written during the Edo Period in Japan.

No musical theater production should never be put in a white-centric box or reproduce from other musicals because then people get tired of it which is why movie musicals are dying unless they and music theater majors open the door to other theater traditions in different cultures, explore other music genres that fit their story, other styles and expressions of music besides dancing and singing. Finally, there are many stories musicals can tell besides all the common tropes and plots that are pitfalls.

Amadeus has mostly Mozart's music and does not have to have characters singing non-stop because his operas and music are the singing and the story of Mozart's true emotions about the people around him. One scene that made me cry was when he is buried in a pit along with the poor people who cannot afford a funeral or were not baptized by the Church accompanied by the music of his Requiem. I too felt the same emotions he felt, he too had Autism, and more special needs voices need to be heard and not silenced by the performing arts.

I may never be like Mozart, but if I want to love music theater again I want neuro-diversity, I want good stories to be told, not everyone has to sing in the streets like Gene Kelly, I want the Sound of Music to be Volksmusik or how the Trapps were exploited by Rogers/Hamerstine, why can’t the girl in Carousel speak up like Bart against the abuse of other girls. If the White Way can’t right its wrongs we as fans need to fix the problems they started. That’s how you solve a problem like nostalgia!



Christina Bishop

Tuba player, creator of Struwwelkinder and The Flying Circus Orchestra