July 22, 2003

Genetics at Work: Crying at Heartwrenching Musicals

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:48 pm

When I became a parent, I expected to celebrate certain milestones in my son’s early childhood development. The first smile, the first step, the first word — all breathtaking moments accompanied by excitement, a few joyful tears and a mass emailing to friends and family. But we reached one milestone last week that isn’t listed in any of the books – the first time my son was overcome with emotion by a musical.

My husband and I are huge musical theater fans, and to only a slightly lesser extent, movie musical fans. I rank musicals by how fast they move me to tears. The current leader is “Ragtime,” which had me sobbing by the end of the opening number. Matt’s the same way. We’re a sorry sight leaving the theater after a show that we love.

Matt and I have been plotting our son’s first live musical theater experience since the day he was born. We decided next year when he’s three-and-a-half and “The Lion King” comes to San Francisco, he will be officially initiated into our world. Until then, movie musicals seem the logical way to persuade him that musicals are the best entertainment on earth, but where to start? There are the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie adaptations that we grew up with, but their stories are a little more interesting to older children, I think. There are movie musicals made just for kids, but many of them turn out a little dorky for my taste. And, of course, the choice by most parents in America — the Disney animated musical.

This last choice comes with a huge prejudice from me. I was the rare American child who did not grow up watching the Disney classic animated musicals. My German-born mother didn’t like the way the stories were Hollywoodized. I’m fairly certain she is a distant relation to the Brothers Grimm. My first Disney musical was “The Little Mermaid,” which came out when I was a teenager. I don’t want to get into an argument with any Hans Christian Andersen purists, but I’d like to publicly state that this is the best movie musical ever made with the sole exception of “White Christmas,” which plays on our TV at least a half dozen times every holiday season. The world of Disney musicals was opened up to me and for a musical theater fanatic, it is still a way to get a fix when I can’t get to the theater.

Two years after “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” came out, garnering critical praise and an unprecedented Academy Award nomination for best film. I thought “Beauty” was O.K., but it certainly was no “Little Mermaid.”

When Tyrian was born, we received the requisite supply of Disney musicals as gifts. Almost everything except “The Little Mermaid.” Matt and I thought that much of the content in several of Disney’s most famous films was pretty scary and our son demonstrated early on that he was pretty overwhelmed by frightening images on the television. When his friends started watching Disney musicals at age one-and-a-half, Tyrian couldn’t get past the talking cave in “Aladdin” without running out of the room. The Disney movies were shelved.

But one Saturday night during that heat wave in July, my husband was working a 3 p.m. to midnight shift and I was left alone with two sweaty kids under three trying to pass the hours until bedtime. Based on how many little girls under four still dress as Belle for Halloween even 12 years after “Beauty and the Beast” was originally released, I opted for a night with the Disney legend.

The movie started and as Belle launched into her opening number, Tyrian was obviously hooked. He intently watched with eyebrows raised, asking questions, narrating actions and dancing to the songs. Our newborn and I watched with him until the movie neared its dramatic climax. That’s when the baby got fussy and I had to start walking her around the house and was unable to continue watching Tyrian closely as he watched the movie.

I heard the strains of the title song start to play and I knew the cinematically magic moment when Belle and Beast meet in the library to dance was playing out on the screen. The song ended, and the dialogue between Beast and Belle told the plot point that she was sad because she couldn’t see her father since she was locked in the castle. The Beast, having come to love Belle, tells her she was free to go, which she does, leaving Beast sad and alone in his castle.

It was at this point my daughter and I strolled back into the television room. I glanced at Tyrian and he had giant tears rolling down his cheeks. I was concerned that he was frightened and asked, “Tyrian, are you O.K.?” With a quivering lip, he nodded.

“What’s wrong?” I anxiously queried. Without taking his eyes from the screen, he said, “The beast is sad. She had to go away.”

As a parental high for me, on the Christina sob-o-meter this ranked right up there with “Ragtime.” Based on Matt’s reaction when I told him, I think “Ragtime” has just been unseated.

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