Why Musical Theater?

“‘It’s just playing pretend.’”

Musical theater is sometimes viewed the way non-sports fans view athletics; they do not understand the point. For those that do not see theater as an art, can it really be considered important?

“It was something that really wasn’t taken seriously,” said Allison Heinz, director for the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival who provided the opening quote. “My major was musical theater. A lot of people laughed it off.”

The Chicago Musical Theater Festival (CMTF) is produced by Underscore Theater Company, according to their website. They produce brand new musicals each year and assist in the shows’ developmental stages. Organizations like this are few and far between.

“...the high risks of producing new musicals means that few companies are willing to take a chance, especially with emerging authors,” the website says.

Involvement in the industry is also a rigorous and competitive process.

“Auditioning in New York is intimidating,” said Nora Culley, graduate of Kent State University for theater and former New York City local. “The only way you can survive the pressure is to separate yourself from the process (which is not easy).  You have to know that it’s not that you aren’t good enough, it’s that you just aren’t what they pictured going into the casting room.”

Despite these challenges, writers continue to make new musicals and actors continue to audition. Many argue that new works are imperative to this art form.

“Everybody has a story to tell,” Heinz said, commenting on why she wants new musicals to continue being created. “The way you want a singer to keep singing and a dancer to keep dancing.”

This year, the CMTF is producing 9 new musicals, including the show Heinz directed, “Liberators: An American Musical.” Still in its developmental stages, “Liberators” is about three intertwined families that lived through the tragedies of World War II.


(Rehearsal for “Liberators: An American Musical. Photo courtesy of Jaime Raglow.)

Passionate about her work, Heinz believes being involved in a musical is a learning opportunity. The actors learn about their roles, connect to their characters and learn from that how to deal with their own lives, according to Heinz.

“The root of theater to me is making an impact,” Heinz said.

Choosing theater as a career can be a risky business, one that families may not support or view as lucrative.

“I have found, with the outside community, that theatre is often seen as a side gig to your day job,” said Jaime Raglow, Loyola University Chicago alum, choreographer for “Liberators” and studio teacher at All About Dance. “But people absolutely can make it a career. It’s something that I personally am figuring out. I graduated almost three years ago, and I’m still navigating theatre professionally.”


(Raglow choreographing “Liberators: An American Musical.” Photo courtesy of Alison Heinz.)

It’s still worth it, though, according to Raglow.

“The people are what it’s all about,” Raglow said. “And I’m much happier in a job teaching, choreographing, and performing than I would be sitting behind a desk.”

For these reasons and more, students continue to choose theater as their course of study. For Alejandro Shydlowski, it “comes down to passion, ultimately.”

“I think theatre is actually quite respected as an art form. It's definitely not as popular as other entertainment medias, but that is due more to accessibility than anything else,” Shydlowski said.

Shydlowski believes theater can cross the line into the content that is taboo in film and television. He believes it is an unrestricted art form. Others carry this same viewpoint.

“My boyfriend is of the mindset that he just wants to feel happy and light when he sees art, but theatre is not just there to make you feel good and forget your worries,” said Raglow. “Theatre should sometimes make you uncomfortable. It can be a call to action.”

As shown, theater may be stigmatized to some as just “breaking out in song and dance, with jazz hands” but many who are involved in the industry think it is a very serious art form.

But what about the audience?

“They’re hopefully learning something, enjoying something, relating to something, or escaping something,” Alison Heinz said.