For that, I blame my mother. Her love for Broadway show tunes meant that the soundtrack of my youth was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or Lerner and Loewe, depending on her mood.
They reminded Mom of her own underscored childhood in Brooklyn, escorted by her family (when ticket prices were much cheaper) to original productions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific.
The comforting and sprightly melodies of shows like The King and I, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Oliver! were perfect, she said, for cleaning. In her clever way, I’m sure she knew that a jaunty tune would make my two brothers and me more likely to join her. Little did Leonard Bernstein know that his beloved scores were the backdrop for vacuuming or dumping out the kitty litter box. To this day, I can’t listen to West Side Story without wanting to pick up a little here and there.
Fiorello! stuck in my brain for two reasons. One, Hopewell Junction, New York was, at the time, in the middle of nowhere. A trip to piano lessons, Girl Scout meetings, and even the library took a minimum of thirty minutes. That’s thirty minutes strapped—talk about a captive audience—into the front seat of my mother’s wood-paneled station wagon. Not only did she like to listen to show tunes while she cleaned, she also loved singing them in the car. Even though she had, and still has, into her seventies, a lovely singing voice, hours and hours of show tunes at point-blank range were almost enough to put me off Broadway melodies for life. But wait. It gets better. Two, because she wanted something else to do besides taking care of three kids, her husband, a house, a dog, three cats, and earn a belated college degree, she joined the local community theater society. Cast as a singing nun in The Sound of Music, she practicing her part over and over again until my answer for “How do you solve a problem like Maria” was not exactly charitable. Then came her role as New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s secretary in a production of what the Huffington Post dubbed in 2008 as the “greatest musical you’ve never heard of.” So probably, you’ve never heard of it. But it did have a particularly bouncy score that was, like the others, perfect for cleaning. Imagine three little kids running around picking up their toys while singing the iconic number, “Politics and Poker.”
Somehow, though, the generational comforts of a good Broadway score eventually outweighed my initial childhood revulsion. I even grew fond of putting on Cabaret to wash the dishes, and even singing the score of Oklahoma! in the car, now, much to the annoyance of my husband, because I did not inherit my mother’s lovely singing voice.
Several years ago, when my mother sold her house and entrusted the bulk of her belongings to our care, my brothers and I sat before her record collection, negotiating who would adopt what. And even though in the past we made fun of her about her love of show tunes and how they ran through the rhythms of our childhoods, these were the albums we all wanted to keep and share, so the music would play on for another generation.
Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She is the author of two novels, The Joke’s on Me and Drawing Breath. When not playing with the universe of imaginary people in her head, she enjoys baseball, cooking, reading, and helping aspiring novelists as a contributing writer and editor for IndiesUnlimited.com. She is currently humming the score from The Pajama Game.