Among Broadway musicals, “The Sound of Music” is a rite of passage: call it, potentially, a gateway drug. As a critic, I can question its merits. As a parent, I have accepted its reputation lock, stock, and barrel. I didn’t fully realize how much I’d drunk the Kool-Aid until I took my 5-year-old son to see the production at the Kennedy Center last week and suddenly found myself in a whole new role — that of a member of the audience, eager to Expose My Child to Art.
I’ve written before about my challenges in exposing my son to music — or rather, in persuading him to like my kind of music. My son is a curious, strong-willed, and, yes, musical individual who prefers his own selections to anything I can come up with, and in an age of CDs and, as of this summer, Alexa — the Amazon device that can, among other things, play any song from Spotify on request — he follows his own interests. Only by making strict rules about having to take turns requesting songs from Alexa, and having to listen to the other person’s song to the end before you can request your own, have my husband and I been able to mitigate a steady diet of “I Am a Gummi Bear,” “Darth Vader’s Theme from Star Wars,” “The Hamster Dance,” and “It’s Raining Tacos” by at least interleaving it with some other titles.
Recently, a friend who was at our house with her son looked over at me and chuckled, shaking her head.
“The classical music critic of The Washington Post,” she said, “and you have to listen to …” and she dissolved into giggles as “It’s Raining Tacos” began playing for the 17th time that day.
And that was before our son discovered that there is a song called “Poopface.”
Parenting is a great democratizer. All of us, whatever our level of education or ambition or professional achievement, are united by common concerns: how to discipline, how to feed, how to keep from going crazy while your children pester Alexa for “Poopface.” And we all think about how to educate our child in the things that matter to us — which, for me, means taking him to the Kennedy Center, where I can be found at least once a week during the regular season.
Anyone who has read my reviews with any regularity knows that I am not particularly in awe of the Kennedy Center, or any other venue. I don’t believe it’s a temple that should be entered with awe, and I don’t believe that the performing arts are somehow privileged over other forms of art. As a critic, I’d be happy to tell you that “The Sound of Music” is not Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best work; it is simplistic, and smacks of kitsch. You could say that stance is already disingenuous, given that I know all of its songs by heart — have, indeed, sung many of them to my son over the years. The fact that he demands “Edelweiss” every night is one reason I wanted to take him to the show in the first place. I was, therefore, unprepared for the intensity of my feelings about taking him to see it. Somehow, I embraced the quasi-archetypal narrative of Taking My Child to His First Broadway Show, and I was a little embarrassed at how much it meant to me, as I fought not to let him see this, but to have his own experience and his own reactions.
In short, I bought into the idea that this show was some kind of cultural signifier, capable of having a transformative effect on him. My desire to have him like it was so strong that I didn’t want to admit to myself that the show wasn’t very good: that the Maria, for all her goofy goodwill, had a shrill voice; that Captain von Trapp didn’t really manage to project a complete character; that the Mother Superior had a strong but uneven voice, much bigger on some notes than on others. The children, at least, were excellent, and the children, of course, were what he liked best — especially, he said, the boys.
But why wouldn’t I encourage him to think more critically? In my unfamiliar role as plain audience member, and parent, I found myself partaking of a protective view of the live performing arts that I generally abhor. All too often, I feel, live performance is treated as an invalid, something that needs to be shielded from the harshness of the outside world. It shouldn’t need this kind of special handling; and in my professional life I encourage myself and everyone to take a more active relationship, to dare not only to attend, but not to like. Yet I somehow seemed to fear, for my child, the thing that so many of my readers feel: the tacit idea that a strong critical voice might be powerful enough to snuff out the glimmerings of interest. It’s an especially patronizing view since it presupposes that, if someone is not told that something is not very good, he will not notice it himself.
There was, in short, something inauthentic about my whole approach. Why did it matter so much to me that my son enjoy a performance that I myself thought was essentially mediocre? Sitting at his side, dearly hoping he would love it, I had a new empathy for many of my readers who, having spent the money on tickets and geared themselves up for the particular pleasures of live performance, simply don’t want to hear from me after the fact that the event didn’t measure up, even — perhaps especially — if they feel I’m right.
Not until later, long after I got home, did I start to question my own relationship to this musical. My own associations with “The Sound of Music” as a gateway drug stem from the experience of an ex-boyfriend of mine, who as a child in rural America identified with the movie at first sight, so profoundly that he yearned to be one of the singing children — and did, indeed, grow up to become a singer himself.
But that wasn’t my own experience. While I grew up listening incessantly to Broadway original-cast albums, “The Sound of Music” was initially, for me, a harder sell. My clearest memory of my first viewing of the movie was that we missed the beginning because we had to drive to a movie theater in Boston and my mother got lost. This was the fault of Boston drivers, who were, my mother always said, the worst in the world. My mother had particularly wanted me to see the opening sequence of Julie Andrews running through the Alpine meadows, and she was keenly disappointed, and for years I had a mild sense of having been deprived of something. Looking back now, I had to see the irony in the fact that my memory of my first “Sound of Music” was of my mother’s wishes for me to have a certain experience with it — mirroring my own wishes, however I sought to tamp them down, for my son.
My son, in the end, was completely ambivalent about the whole thing. “Kind of bad,” was his assessment at one point during the show, and “good” was what he told his father afterward, both in the same measured, noncommittal tone.
For me, the real lesson came two days later, when I took my son to the Kennedy Center again, totally unexpectedly. I was reviewing a free concert that involved many different choruses from around the world, and I knew there would be other children in the audience, and I gave my son a choice; would he like me to find a babysitter, or would he like go to the show with me and his father? He yelped with delight at having the option to go along. Because he had just been to the Kennedy Center, he knew the ropes. He was far more confident about the whole experience. He was no less wiggly during the actual performance, but he followed along in the program, reporting with animation which country each chorus came from and how many numbers were left. Neither experience was, in fact, transformative. But when I asked him, the next day, which he’d preferred, his answer was unequivocal: the choruses.
The real moral, here, is a reminder that exposure is cumulative. The greatest gift you, or I, or any parent can give a child is not attendance at a single performance, but a chance to go more than once — and the right to form his own opinion. For the time being, “Up Butt Coconut” is now the favorite song on Alexa, but we’ve watched a few scenes from the movie version of “The Sound of Music” on YouTube. And when it comes to bedtime, “Edelweiss” still rules. The critical judgments will come later.
The Sound of Music continues at the Kennedy Center through Sunday.