Happy If—Happy When: Why Write a Musical?
Song, dance, and the magic of musical theater
Posted May 31, 2017
I am writing a musical called Happy If—Happy When. It is about two artists and their five children who move from the city to a farm in the country. Sound familiar?
I have never written a musical before. No one told me I could or should. I just decided to do it. For the first time in 27 years, I (mostly) set aside my scholarly projects in religion and dance and gave myself over to… Happy If—Happy When.
Why write a musical?!
For one, Hamilton happened.
For me, the Broadway blockbuster rekindled a long simmering love for musical theater that had first flickered in ninth grade when I landed a role in the children’s chorus of Oliver. Singing, dancing, and acting, I felt happier than I had known was possible. Something within sparked to life and began to burn. By my last year of high school, I was taking my first year of ballet, determined to advance my skills in musical theater.
Even so, as my dance technique improved, I wanted more than the kick-ball-change, wiggle-wiggle, gender-bound choreography of so many Broadway shows of the time. I set aside musical theater to delve more deeply into the expressive capacities of dance itself – as a practitioner and as a scholar of religion. Still, musicals were never too far away. I watched them, listened to them, and sang them. Every year over the holidays, we have given the kids a DVD of some musical, and together we learn the songs to sing in our family shows. West Side Story, Sound of Music, Pippin, The Wiz, My Fair Lady, Les Miserables, and many others, including, of course, Oliver.
It never occurred to me to write one. Until Hamilton.
In Hamilton, choreographed by Tony Award winner Andy Blanckenbuehler, dancing is integral to the action of the narrative. There are no “dance numbers.” The nearly constant motion of the ensemble reveals bodily movement as the medium in which all of the poignant, passionate encounters between characters take place. Dancing makes visible the energy, the motivations, the swirling tumult of wills and desires that drive the story.
Hamilton reminded me. Musical theater, by combining dancing with singing and acting, can reveal dancing as a vital resource for human living—a potential rumbling beneath the surface in every moment of life, ready to erupt.
In musical theater, an ordinary conversation blooms into melodies and movements that disclose deep emotional currents. A moment of introspection cracks open into notes and gestures that evoke a world of hopes, dreams, and fears.
In the best musicals, these songs and dances not only express feelings, they move the story along. By dancing and singing, the characters gain access to new resources—hope, discernment, and courage. Characters are moved by their own bodily movements to think and feel and act in new ways; they invite others, including audience members, to do the same.
Listening to Hamilton, watching it, and studying it, I saw the vision of dance I describe in my own book, Why We Dance—one in which the dancing is not just a matter of technique or tradition, but a fundamental kinetic creativity, shared by every human, that serves as the source of our freedom, creativity, empathy, and love.
Hamilton made it clear: I needed to write a musical in order to continue my own trajectory in bringing my dance philosophy to life. I have written it. I have danced it. Yet neither writing nor dancing alone can enact the synergy between verbal forms and bodily movements, between life and art, as musical theater can.
This synergy is at the heart of Happy If—Happy When.
Moreover, I needed to write a musical about my family's move to the farm. The vision of dance I recognized in Hamilton is one I never would have crafted had I not spent the last 12 years unable to ignore the relentless beauty of the natural world. For me, moving through nature wakes up springs of life within. It thins the crust that so easily forms over the song and dance bubbling beneath; it calls me to be more present to the depths of my sensory connection with the earth and with those around me.
In Why We Dance, I draw upon a raft of contemporary research to argue how and why the action of dancing can do what it does in musical theater: connect with the intensity of the moment; greet what is there with love not fear, and invite novel responses that move the narrative forward.
In a nutshell, my time in the country has helped me discover about dance what I needed to know in order to fan my passion for musical theater into an original production, starring the seven members of my family.
Happy If—Happy When has been a mantra of ours for years. It is a phrase I tossed out in a conversation with Geoffrey sometime in 1991, when we were making dinner, not yet married, discussing our future. I was frustrated by the way the conversation was going—as if everything that could make us happy were somewhere else, somewhere if and when. I did not always want to be waiting!
Happiness, I cried, is not if or when. It is only and ever now. The phrase stuck. It guided us as we followed our dream of making art in the county, and moved with our children to this farm. Happiness, we remind ourselves, is now—always now. It is the song and dance waiting to erupt in the moment, as an affirmation of what is, if only we will let it come.
Happy If—Happy When includes 18 songs with titles like "Living the Dream," "Catch the Current," "Never Stop Creating," "Ghosts in the Barn," "Holy Cow," and "No Dream of Mine." It is about what we have learned about dreams, farming, family, art, and the earth. There will be lots of movement.
The dreams that got us to the country have not unfolded as we had imagined. Dreams rarely do. Yet, not a day goes by when I don’t rejoice at what being here has enabled. Actually, it is hard not to feel that the farm itself is humming this musical through me, and my job is just to open and catch it.
When I do, I feel happy now.
Kimerer L LaMothe, PhD, is a dancer, philosopher, and scholar of religion who lives with her partner and their five children on a homestead in upstate New York.
Happy If -- Happy When, July 21, 22, 23, 2017, Fort Salem Theater, Salem, NY. www.fortsalemtheater.com
LaMothe, Kimerer L. 2015. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. Columbia University Press.