Popular consciousness seems to absorb a new musical or two every few years. “Wicked” and “Hamilton” are the most recent Broadway shows to enter into mainstream lexicon and, outside of Disney animated fare like “Frozen” and “Moana,” “Pitch Perfect” and “The Greatest Showman” broke through on the big screen with radio-worthy pop hits. However, the musical theater well goes much deeper for those who will take a moment to listen.
“I grew up around musicals. I was in my first musical at the age of 3,” said Lewiston native and lifelong theater denizen Jennifer Opdahl. “When other kids were singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle,’ I had ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘76 Trombones.’ ’'
Opdahl’s theatrical resume is lengthy, and her most recent role was the comedic Grandma Addams with the Lewiston Civic Theater.
Plenty of kids are exposed to something at a young age, only to walk away when given the choice. So why stick with musical theater? Opdahl turned to a musical to answer the question.
“ ‘It (a musical) takes you to another world, and it gives you a tune to carry with you in your head when you’re feeling blue,’ ” she said, quoting from the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
A life of theatrical obsession gives Opdahl an idea of what folks might like when they’re ready to dig deeper than breakout popular fare. In addition to citing the above “Chaperone” as a personal favorite “musical about musicals,” she said “Waitress” and “Ragtime” also serve as excellent gateways to the genre for the uninitiated.
“ ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ starts with a guy in a chair who tells us all about his favorite musical, then plays the record and the show comes to life,” Opdahl explained.
She described the music as “beautiful — so fun and silly.”
If a meta-musical doesn’t sound appealing, 2015’s “Waitress” might fit the bill. Based on the 2007 film of the same name, it centers on a young piemaker in an abusive marriage as she navigates pregnancy, a potential new lover and finding a way out of her relationship. Though it sounds dark, don’t be alarmed.
“The music was written by (pop singer-songwriter) Sara Bareilles, so it's sweet and poppy,” Opdahl said. “There are some really funny moments, and the story has a great heart.”
The reason you likely haven’t heard of it?
“It didn't win any Tonys because it came out the same season as Hamilton,” Opdahl said.
For those who need something with a more historical outlook, Opdahl recommends “Ragtime.” First produced in 1996 and based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, the musical takes place in pre-World War I New York City.
“It's the story of three groups of people — upper-class suburbanites, European immigrants and African-Americans — in the early 20th century and how their lives intertwine,” Opdahl said.
Matching the depth of its subject, “the music is breathtaking and moving,” she said. “The first number alone is stop-what-you're-doing-and-listen good.”
Though these three musicals have all had their Broadway runs, not all worthy shows end up on musical theater’s most prestigious stages. Opdahl name drops a number of shows, many with much darker plots and themes, that have run off-Broadway and are still top-notch entertainment: “The Last Five Years” (“a cynical look at marriage”), “Assassins” (“it’s about, well, assassins throughout history”), “Dogfight” (“a gorgeously depressing show set in the late ’60s”), and “Ride the Cyclone” (“a newer musical about a high school chamber choir riding a faulty roller coaster. It breaks, and they all die, but one is given a chance to live and they have the course of the show to prove why it should be them”).
Even horror fans like me have something to look forward to: “Evil Dead: The Musical.”
“It is one of the few musicals that comes with a (blood) splatter-zone warning,” Opdahl says. “It is just as campy and ridiculous as you imagine.”
Thompson enjoys putting somewhat carefully chosen words in relatively meaningful order. He has been to college. He lives in Lewiston and is on Instagram as @theswap_quadcities and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.