Justin Townsend is a New-York based, award-winning lighting designer for both theatre and concert. He earned his BA in Theatre at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his MFA in Theatrical Design from California Institue for the Arts. Justin is also currently an associate professor of Lighting Design at Brooklyn College, teaching both undergraduate and graduate students, though he is on sabbatical this academic year.
I had the privilege of taking Justin’s introductory lighting class last semester, and I wanted to share this story I have of him.
It was the morning that the final for his class was due, and I was up all night working on it and I felt like it was… not good. I knew Justin was having a review session this morning before we had to submit our projects, so I went to ensure I wasn’t going to fail this project. For further context, I was in a bad mental space at the time because of finals, working on a show, and other outside circumstances. So clearly, I was going into this meeting feeling great (not).
Justin was beyond helpful, reassuring me that my work was perfectly fine and giving me tips to make it even better. As we were finishing up, he changed the subject, saying (I’m paraphrasing here, as my memory is terrible) that he saw me trying to be a leader, and that my qualities made me a good leader, ending with “I know you’ve been putting in the effort, and I just wanted you to know, I see you.”
I cried right then and there, thanking him for the validation and apologizing for crying in front of him. He simply replied with “I didn’t even see that you were crying!”
So, yeah. If you have the opportunity to take Justin’s class, I would certainly recommend it.
The musical Next to Normal was written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt. It premiered on Broadway in 2009 in the Booth Theatre and ran for 20 previews and 734 performances. The production featured a six-person cast consisting of Alice Ripley, Jennifer Damiano, Aaron Tveit, J Robert Spencer, Adam Chanler-Berat, and Louis Hobson.
The show follows a woman named Diana: wife, mother, and woman struggling with Bipolar I Disorder, also known as Manic Depression. As the musical progresses, we witness how this mental illness not only affects Diana’s quality of life, but also that of her family.
Trigger/Spoiler Warning: In the following paragraphs, I give a detailed summation of the events of the show. This does include discussion regarding self harm, attempted suicide, infantile death, and drug abuse. If you find any of this triggering, or simply don’t want the show to be spoiled, please skip to “Legacy and Awards”.
At the top of the show, we meet our family of protagonists: Diana Goodman, a mother with Bipolar I Disorder, her husband Dan, her golden-child son Gabe, and her anxious, brainiac daughter Natalie. In the first few numbers, we get an idea of Diana’s current state of mind: manic episodes that leave her in distress and disarray, constant therapy, and taking a river of medications, all while her husband patiently waits in the car. Her daughter Natalie is coping in her own way: using her academic excellence and piano prodigy to try to get early acceptance to Yale as a way to escape her family. During one of her practice sessions, she meets Henry, a fellow student at her school, who she quickly falls for.
Everything collides when Dan organizes a family dinner, extending the invitation to Henry. At the end of the meal, Diana brings out a cake to celebrate Gabe’s birthday. Dan then has to heartbreakingly remind Diana that Gabe died when he was a baby, around 17 years ago. The visions of Gabe that Diana, and by extension, the audience, have been seeing are Diana’s hallucinations. Natalie runs off, followed by Henry, where she admits to feeling a lack of love from her mother due to her attachment to Gabe. and Diana reveals to her husband that she’s stopped taking her medication. This leads to an argument between the two of them, and another appearance by Gabe, who asserts his control over Diana’s psyche and comfort.
Diana goes to a new doctor, who suggests that she go home, try to spend more time with Natalie, and to throw out some of Gabe’s belongings. Concurrently, Natalie completely bombs her piano recital when she sees that her parents have not shown up to support her. Diana tries to follow her doctor’s advice, but as she attempts to clean out of his boxes, her vision of Gabe appears yet again, this time convincing her that the only way the two can be together is in death. Diana attempts suicide, but luckily fails and ends up hospitalized.
Following this, Diana’s doctor tells Dan that one of the only remaining treatment options for Diana is electro-convulsive therapy. Dan agrees to this, which Natalie is critical of. Diana also initially disagrees, but Dan convinces her after emphasizing the necessity of the treatment to get them back to the way they were. As she goes through treatment, Natalie goes through her own form of self-treatment, turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with her new home life. Henry is always around to come to her rescue and make sure she getshome safe. He also asks her to come to the school dance with him, which she refuses twice, but ultimately decides to go when she is convinced of his loyalty to her.
After two weeks of ECT, Diana comes home having lost her memory of the last 19 years of her life, including the fact that she ever had Gabe. Dan works to rebuild her memory, just without Gabe in it, but Diana still feels that something is missing. Well, Dan’s work is quickly demolished when Diana’s doctor accidentally brings up her son, leading to her and Dan revisiting the details of how Gabe died. Diana refuses to continue treatment, arguing that maybe there’s a reason she should keep the memory of her son. As she leaves her doctor’s office, she bumpus into Natalie, leading to their first real heart-to-heart in the show where they agree to get the family “somewhere next to normal”. Diana ends up driving Natalie to the dance to see Henry.
Upon returning home, Diana informs Dan that she is leaving and staying with her parents. She needs to deal with her grief on her own, despite how much she loves her family. Once she is gone, Dan sees teenage Gabe for the first time, embraces him, and says his name for the first time in the show. Natalie comes home to find her mother gone, and Dan goes to seek his own therapy. Despite the tragic ending, the show concludes on a note of hope, with the full company singing “There will be light”.
Legacy and Awards
In 2009, the Broadway production was nominated for 11 Tiny Awards, including that for Best Musical. While it did not win this esteemed title, it did go on to earn the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming the eighth musical with such an accomplishment.
Trigger Warning: Discussion of child grooming in the following paragraph. Please skip to the paragraph regarding Aaron Tveit to avoid this triggering content.
The production did earn Alice Ripley a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, although this actress has recently found herself in hot water. In 2021, a former fan posted a TikTok accusing Ripley of grooming her, as well as many members of her young fanbase. Days later, more allegations surfaced, all of which Ripley has vehemently denied.
The postwar wave of creation with avant-garde and political propaganda changed the game of influence for modern times to come. Audiences postwar did not want to see or hear the dread of what had happened. This being the start of the baby boom, people living in the moment. People wanted to focus on the peace and calm of everyday life, on the other hand, there was theater. With the focus of musical theater influence to current times from the 1950s and 1960s. Popular musicals in these times focused on romance and/or happy endings. Emphasizing on love and happiness, no traces of the past but only happiness of the new. From Singing in the Rain (1952) to Jailhouse Rock (1957) and their different renditions to come, with the 60s holding more commonly known classics of My Fair Lady (1964) to The Sound of Music (1965) to Mary Poppins (1964) to West Side Story (1961) and more.
As Musicals tend to focus on many different topics while following the storyline, this is where the influence into modern ideas starts to form. Musicals, and even play and other forms of art, start bringing to life the humanity of people to bring out the empathy of the audience. That is where the influence begins. West Side Story is a good example of such. The influx of Puercans moving onto the mainland from the 40s to the 60s could be where the idea of changing up Romeo and Juliet came from with over 900,000 Puercans migrating, 85% of which moved to New York City, where the capital of musical theater is.
With the Jets and the Sharks battling out their problems, comes an interracial romance that would cause controversy at the time. This musical added on to the stereotype/feeling that Puercans are thugs, they added them into theater which started the wave of having BIPOC in musicals. During this time and earlier, doing blackface was more welcomed than having a BIPOC on stage. Furthermore, the large wave of people coming to New York, this influenced how Puercans was seen, whether people knew it or not. This musical was able to succeed through people being able to relate to it through one factor or multiple. This twist on a classic tale focusing on love and youth was just the thing people wanted to watch postwar as the world was getting more diverse.
With the influence of the 50s and 60s, theater started to become more diverse in modern times. The modern day musical In The Heights by Lin Manuel Miranda was named to be the predcesncer of West Side Story but with a non-white cast. Showing that West Side Story, while it was created in the 50s and released in the 60s set precedence in what musical theater is to become. Changing the way people question, what is musical theater?
What is Musical Theater
Many may not know but there are many parts to the aspect of theater and one of these very sections includes that of musical theater what many may not know is the concept and the definition of musical theater. Musical theater is the aspect of theater that embraces and constantly uses the beauty of what comes with song, dance, and that of talking also known as dialogue amongst one another to show a story in a more exciting way for many to enjoy. This very genre of Theatre can go back centuries and plays an important role in theater till this very century but also uses the components of physical images as well as motionless scenes.
In the start of musical theater specifically in the 1950s Loessers created one of the most renowned plays on Broadway which allowed him to have his second-best hit known as “Guys and Dolls” not only that but the music within the plays were a crowd favorite that includes “Luck, be a Lady”.
How Did Musical Theater Come to be in the 1950s
After the 1940s era, the 1950s were full of excitement as it was known as the decade Post-World War II which meant many babies were being born during this time after much time of sadness and uncertainty. Known as the Golden Age the United States began to show great improvement such as that of the military and economy which was shown through the beginning of cars, goods, and houses which was difficult for families to afford previously. Due to this era and the booming of it, this allowed Broadway to rise up and succeed due to the fact that now people had the money and willpower to see film productions and plays and even enter studios. This was all lead but MGM studios at the time as individuals known as Technicolor would announce to the general public the starting and beginning of a show that was played across screens across the nation. Broadway was known to be at its best during this very decade as they came out with productions that included that of “West Side Story” and “Peter Pan”.
1960s and Musical Theatre
What many have not realized is that sometimes musical productions relate to what is happening around them in society and are influenced by it in which they create play productions to reflect that every time. During this decade is what the musical world called the Sunset of the Golden Ages as this decade changed history past present and future for years to come within the United States as it was not only the time of the Assaantitation of the former President John F. Kennedy as he brought hope and happiness to many but when his murder occurred everything became a 360 spiral as the nation became something they wished never would’ve happened which was the that of racism and segregation. Thus began the civil rights movement as many know the leader being Dr. Martin Luther King Junior there were victories as well as downfalls that occurred such as that of the Civil rights and war began across the world and America was a part of it during this period many wanted either justice and reform and with that many began to be protesters and activist and with that now we know that Americans did not know how to feel at the time and were divided and that is when theatre comes into play as it was a way for many to perform what was happening and bring reform and light to what tragedies are occurred within our nation.
Hair The Musical That Changed it All!
The first Hair Musical first appeared in Theatres in 1960 September 27 to be exact as this very musical showed what was happening around our nation at the time and people were quite shocked at what they saw which included that of nudity, anti-war protesting, and fighting for what is right as they went against societal norms at the times. It represented aspects of life such as international relationships, brought up the aspect of monogamy and being against it. At first many were against such a play because it went against what many beloved in as the very start of the play the actress was nude behind a sheet and was talking to others at the time people didn’t believe in such things and walked out of the Shaftesbury theatre at the time. Within time and understanding, the audience understood the concept and embraced it as they fought against what had seemed as the norm and had to be back then but stood up for what was right and fought for what they truly loved and believed in.
The Rising and Downfalls of the 1950s and 1960s in Society and Theatre!
As we have seen throughout the aspect of not only society but theatre our society is connected in many ways as we see that musical productions are influenced by what is happening around us and is a way to speak up and bring awareness to actions and events that are happening to a certain race, religion, and even gender. Theater is a way to speak your truths to the general public because there is no other way to do it, especially during these decades. Life is always full of downfalls and happiness which is reflected in many lives and history but we must learn from past experiences and even plays to never make these mistakes again as it comes with consequences that may affect many. This was just the start of musical theatre and its impact within society as a whole.
Written by Mirna Tadros and Thalia Lopez
“What Is Musical Theatre? – Musical Theatre – GCSE Drama Revision – BBC Bitesize.” BBC News, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z2hr7ty/revision/1.
History.com Editors. “The 1950s.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 17 June 2010, www.history.com/topics/cold-war/1950s.
By. “The Best Broadway Shows of the 1950s.” Film School And Acting School Of New York Film Academy, 9 Feb. 2016, www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-best-broadway-shows-of-the-1950s/.
Adlington, R. (2005). Music theatre since the 1960s. In M. Cooke (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera (pp. 225-243). (Cambridge Companions to Music). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL9780521780094.015
Krstičević, Klara. “The Representation of Minorities in American Musical Theater since the 1950s.” University of Zagreb, 2019.
Wells, Elizabeth A. West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2011.
Mondello, Bob. “’Hair’ at 50: Going Gray, but Its Youthful Optimism Remains Bouncy And Full-Bodied.” NPR, NPR, 1 May 2018, www.npr.org/2018/05/01/607339204/hair-at-50-going-gray-but-its-youthful-optimism-remains-bouncy-and-full-bodied.
“A Great American Songbook Foundation.” The Center For The Performing Arts, thesongbook.org/change-is-gonna-come.
The 1950’s marked a period defined by domestication and family values, quite often referred to as the “boom”. The economy was booming, the suburbs were booming, and famously babies were also booming. This era also is highlighted by the start of The Civil Rights movement and the Cold War.
After the Great Depression and World War II, civilization put an emphasis on settling down and starting a family. The image of the ideal family included a stay at home wife, a working father, and several children. After women proved themselves of being capable of handling any man’s job after taking them over during the war, they were expected to return to a domestic lifestyle once the men had returned. The narrative of women being the caretakers and only purpose was for a man, was heavily being popularized throughout media in the 50’s which ingrained itself within musical theatre.
Some of the popular musicals of the century included Pajama Game (1954), My Fair Lady (1956), West Side Story (1957), Guys and Dolls (1950), The Sound of Music (1959), Once Upon a Mattress (1959), The Music Man (1957), Gypsy (1959), and many more. Most of these musicals share one common element centered around the women’s plot in the story being involved with or around a man. For instance, My Fair Lady plot centers around a woman changing herself to a man’s image of a respectable woman. In West Side Story, although it represents the division of race in America, Maria’s story line is falling in love with a man. In The Sound of Music, Baronin Maria Von Trapp works caring for a man’s children and then falling in love with that man. Although these musicals are classics with astounding music and storylines, the plot of the female roles remained only limited to the counterpart of a man.
It reflected what was societally being pushed on the idea of a women’s purpose at that time. Despite the narrow perspective and not at all complex roles that were created for women of the decade, the 1950s were also known as the “Golden Age” of musical theatre. Most of the musicals of this time used what is known as the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s formula. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein were an iconic American musical theatre duo who created Broadway classics such as Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Their formula consisted of predictable plots and the character casting of a baritone lead, light soprano lead, supporting lead tenor, and supporting alto lead. Although predictable, their formula could always create a hit.
It seems in a world of unpredictability, it is comforting to go and be entertained by something that is predictable. After the Great Depression and a second World War, to then be dealing with the threat of the Cold War, reality can be a frightful place. In the 50s, what the world needed most was a form of escapism that gives the audience an outcome that was foreseen, and musicals of that caliber provided exactly that.
Although as the 60s approached, musicals started to delve into more complex and racier narratives than ever before. As the world became less conservative and started to progressively begin to be more open minded, it made its way into the world of musical theatre.
The 1960s was an era defined by revolution, often referred to as the “Civil Rights era”. This tumultuous decade is marked by many social and political changes, such as the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war and anti-war movements, cults, presidential assassination, rising tensions caused by drug culture in America, and an emergence of a “generational gap”. Younger generations were finally opening their eyes to the decades of discrimination and violence that preceded them and began to rebel against the sexism, racism, and classism that has been so deeply ingrained in their society. During this era the term “Hippie” was coined to describe the youth who took on a grungy aesthetic and lead the anti-war movement, creating a movement revolved around peace, love, liberation, and equality.
During such a hectic era with many emerging movements, theater played a pivotal role to allow an outlet for artists to reflect and comment on the quick transition of cultural values. Currently, musical theater was able to raise awareness for important social issues while offering entertainment and even escapism for audiences. However, musical theater was also experiencing its own radical shift as well; Shifting toward plays based on revolutions, important figures and war. John Bush Jones’ book “Our Musicals, Ourselves”, cites the 60s as the emergence of “Issue Driven Musicals”, in which the musical centers around a socio-political agenda that is the main focus of the story and in which the music and dance aids in emphasizing the musicals main message on the topic. Many musicals from the 50’s made their way into film adaptations as well such as My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and West Side Story (1961). There was also various emerging new musicals both on and off broadway including Cabaret (1966), Oliver (1963), and the Fantastiks (1960).
1960s is well-known for its eclectic style and easily recognizable aesthetics. While it was easily reflected in fashion, theater also took on the popular styles of the 60s and often incorporated it into shows, most notably Hair! A rock musical which premiered on Broadway April 29th, 1968. Directed by Tim O’ Horgan with choreography by Julie Arenal and music by Galt McDermont, Hair! encapsulated the anger the young generation of the 60s had with the ongoing violence in Vietnam, while incorporating the psychedelic rock music that had blossomed due to bands such as The Beatles, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, and of course, the legendary festival at Woodstock.
Hair! placed 1960s counterculture front and center, featuring a group of college kids who are struggling to find identity, both personally and in search for their broader place in the world. Protesting the Vietnam war and coming to terms with the generational gap between themselves and their parents, while exploring the emerging psychedelic drug scene and playing a large role in the sexual revolution. This play touches on all the main struggles 60s-era youth faced in front of war and uncertainty. It thrust interracial relationships, bisexuality, and questioned monogamous relationships into audiences faces and was controversial for its loose sexual boundaries, vocality against the Vietnam war, and its portrayal of drug use. Hair! is the defining musical for the rock-musical genre, paving the way for plays such as Little Shop of Horrors, Jesus Christ Superstar as well as paved the way for film musicals such as Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Hair!’s soundtrack heavily reflects the psychedelic rock movement in the 60s, while also incorporating powerful messages on race, sexuality, and the generational gap. The song below is a great example of the music commenting on societal shift:
“I Got Life” Hair! (Original Broadway Cast):
With the shifting style and themes of musical theater in the 60s, so came a shift in how theater was received and viewed. During the 60s, as many controversial themes became broadcasted on the mainstages of Broadway, many audiences and critics caught eye of the new themes and either vehemently advocated them or abhorred them. Ticket prices on Broadway also began to surge, which caused many audience members to shift toward off-Broadway and off-off Broadway. The off-Broadway movement rebelled against commercial theater and the high prices with low employment rates that Broadway offers. Many of the prominent 60s musicals were created and performed in theaters that then moved to Broadway later on.
Overall, the 60s were a hectic, crazed, and groovy time where culture was beginning to change rapidly, becoming a forefront in civil rights, feminism, drugs, and sexuality, all things that were questioned and explored on and off- Broadway stages. The narrow confines of the 1950s were broken and expanded, paving the way for controversial theater pieces to come.
“1960s.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 21 Aug. 2018, www.history.com/topics/1960s. Asimenou, Gabriella. The Evolution of American Musical Theatre: A Sociological Perspective. Edited by Edel Sandars, Faculty of Education Music Department Charles University, July 2015, dspace.cuni.cz/bitstream/handle/20.500.11956/78896/BPPR_2014_2_11410_0_392872_0 _166230.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y. Bottoms, Stephen J. Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement. University of Michigan Press, 2004, https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.22965.
FilmSnobReviews, director. Top 5: Musicals of the 1960s. Youtube, 27 Nov. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcq2jNWHvjE&ab_channel=FilmSnobReviews. Otis, Mary. “Off-Broadway, 1960.” Dissent Magazine, 9 Aug. 2018, www.dissentmagazine.org/article/off-broadway-1960. Staff, Playbill. “Look Back at the Original Broadway Production of Hair.” Playbill, PLAYBILL INC., 29