This past weekend I went to a small, socially-distant, outdoor cocktail party to celebrate the wedding of my great friends. It’s still strange for me to have to qualify this interaction, but that’s where we are. The couple hosting the celebration has a daughter who is beginning Kindergarten this fall. She’s a riot and usually quite chatty and interactive. When we arrived the little girl was glued to her iPad, in the midst of some animated series that neither of her mothers could identify. She wasn’t even sure herself what she was watching. As her parents apologized about the screen usage I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Come on! It’s a pandemic! You’ve been cooped up since March! Who isn’t depleted right now and in need of some screen time? Who isn’t happy to escape from the reality of today into a fantastical wonderland where things work out for the good characters and magic animates the ways in which everyone interacts? And then I wondered if they had introduced their daughter to musicals.
Now, when I say musicals in context of screen time, I’m talking about the American genre of musicals as major motion pictures. Everything from the golden age of musicals through contemporary performances. Some have done it better than others but the big ones have become part of our cultural psyche. Judy Garland is iconic in The Wizard of Oz, Meredith Wilson created the catchy and quippy The Music Man, John Waters and Marc Shaiman offer a poppy investigation of integration in Hairspray, and Gene Wilder’s touching performance in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory all come to mind immediately. They are fantastical delights that offer as much to your kiddo as they do to you. They create ways into worlds of ‘pure imagination’ and the opportunity for you to bring your child into a shared screen time experience.
Looking for something to talk about with your child? These films offer a number of complicated and nuanced reads of the human condition and our American cultural identity. Try discussing the characters and their choices or do the work of replaying the narrative together. Looking for something to listen to on your way to school? Pop on a soundtrack and try singing through it together. Looking for a way to connect with your child outside of games and reading? Blast a favorite song at home and dance your hearts out. Looking to find new ways for your child to play with friends and toys at home? Watch them incorporate the story they just got wrapped up in throughout their imaginative play. See if they want to make their own musical movie or live performance for you to watch.
These are stories that work out for the good characters and mete out justice for the bad ones. They bring music, dance, dialogue, and lush production value into your home in a way that leaves you feeling upbeat and ready to take on whatever comes next. Once you get started down this road, there are dozens more musical films to watch together and even more to see live when theaters open back up. Musicals are easy entry-points for children and adults alike into the magic of theatre.
That magic leads to big questions, empathy-building, cultural knowledge, singing, dancing, playing, and complicated readings of seemingly simple stories. It leads to shared experiences and screen time as a collective escape for your whole family. The magic of theatre is the magic of creating a new world and inhabiting it with the joy and gusto of a rousing dance number. Isn’t that what we’re all hoping to do right now?