One of my favourite things about living in Canada is the access to live theatre, especially musicals. There’s always a new show to see, a new cast recording to consume and sing along to, and a bustling theatre community creating their own work right in the heart of Toronto. But my love for musicals wasn’t something that came out of having actor parents or seeing them performed on the stage. It was my local library that gave me access to the shows I grew to love.
My family wasn’t exactly upper-to-middle class when I was a kid, so dropping hundreds of dollars on jaunts to Broadway was out of the question. The 12-CDs-for-$12 deals were how I started building my music collection at 8 years old, and cast recordings were something I didn’t even realize existed. The only musicals I knew about were the few Rodgers & Hammerstein classics we had on VHS tapes.
I stumbled upon my first non-R&H musical on the video shelves at my local library branch, my arms already heavy with the latest Animorphs books. CATS might be much-maligned these days, but it was a spectacle that I hadn’t experienced before. As I watched the actors leap across their stage, telling me their stories, I learned how poetry (specifically T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) could become a single narrative. It was the beginning of an education in theatre that I shared with other library patrons, one that wouldn’t be possible without the library.
Over the years of visiting my local library in Philadelphia, the books I read all blend together into a bubble of knowledge and enjoyment. I can remember individual titles sometimes, but I consumed books too quickly then: I rarely borrowed less than 25 books a week, and I could return them all by my next visit.
The musicals I watched, though–they stayed with me. I can’t tell you now how many times the CATS VHS tape came home with me, tucked away in my backpack with the other movies I borrowed that week. My entire family learned the words rather reluctantly, overhearing them as they did from my endless rewatching.
I moved on to Annie (the original 1982 film) next, then Grease. I had my next introduction to the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Jesus Christ Superstar, and experienced “the rain in Spain” with a video of My Fair Lady that skipped more often than I would like. I sat entranced the first time I watched West Side Story‘s take on Romeo and Juliet, and then I alternated a rewatch with the 1968 film. A viewing of Hello Dolly! came in handy near the tail end of my time in elementary school, as it was that year’s school play. Needless to say, I knew all the words before auditions even started.
This is not to say I ever auditioned to perform in a musical. I learned early on that I loved seeing them performed, and I loved learning how they were created, but that I didn’t need to be part of the production myself. I borrowed sheet music books from the library as I got older, plinking away at a mini-keyboard that a beloved uncle had passed on to me. The library helped me learn to play more than “Music of the Night” and “Think of Me” on the keyboard, and memorize my favourite scenes in The Sound of Music.
Today, I’m able to see shows in my city, and to purchase cast recordings of the musicals that I love best. But I think a lot about the songs I know from my childhood, and the timeless stories that I was able to watch unfold because of my local library’s generosity. My love for musicals will always be intertwined with my love for libraries, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.