“Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch… Again!” As I banged out the opening octaves from the first song of A Chorus Line, the baby grand’s sound filling our black box theater, I realized I should have practiced more. And I definitely should have prepared more for the ten-minute persuasive speech I was about to give.

But this was a project of passion, not perfection — of journeying, not judging — just as it had been for the past six months, in cahoots with three other faculty members obsessed with musical theater.

As I played the last chord and stood to speak to the crowd of fifty students, my heart backflipped in a way it never does when I teach history or English. But then I remembered the only criterion the four of us had established all year: We had to speak about what moves our souls. Well, that sounded scary. But I could do that. 

Light My Candle

Let’s rewind:

With three talented colleagues who love Broadway shows — all of them more creative than you because they came up with this game in the first place — decide on the 32 best musicals of all time.

Acknowledge that even creating this list involves unacceptable compromises. Meet with these colleagues as often as possible (never often enough) to pit the musicals against each other two by two, March Madness style. 

Don’t shy away from painful pairings — how else will you narrow the list? Try to avoid alienating anyone by raising an eyebrow at their favorite show. Fail. 

Slot a date, far away in April, when you’ll present your findings to some sort of audience, if anyone shows up. 

Do extensive research, in the form of listening to soundtracks on your phone, so you’re primed for the next conversation. Say things in these conversations such as, “We could lead with passion and see what that leaves us with,” and “This whole thing is really scary,” and “Okay, guys, it just gets really hard from here.” Repeat as often as possible until you reach the final four.

It’s April already. Film a wacky video (chairs will be thrown) inviting the whole school to help you judge the greatest musical of all time. Put together a slide show of the musicals that got away, with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Misérables playing in the background. Create a make-your-own musical bracket as a parting gift.

Second-guess your final choices: Into the Woods, West Side Story, Rent, and A Chorus Line. How could we ditch Rodgers & Hammerstein? Where did Lin-Manuel Miranda go?

Prepare an argument for your assigned musical, complete with clips, pleas, and childhood tales of impact. 

Worry that no one will come. Worry that everyone will come. And, as the show begins, realize that it doesn’t matter, because all of you could not be more yourselves in this moment.  This kind of authenticity lights fires.

I Know Things Now

The night after our performance, still hyped on adrenaline, I wondered why this passion project had captured my mind so completely.

First, the four of us shared an adoration for and a deep knowledge of the topic. We had created the type of informal, hobby-driven atmosphere that fizzes up in clubs. Our students have slam poetry and retro gaming, and we had Musical Madness. I loved the camaraderie, the chance to geek out. We could have talked about musicals all day long, dissecting details as tiny as whether a song’s new tempo in the Broadway revival diluted its effect.

Second, we were meeting because of our own affection for musicals, and any future student audience was just a bonus. Much as we may love our assigned subjects, we are somewhat beholden to them, duty-bound. Musicals have little sense of duty about them. And how often do we as teachers do something during the school day that is entirely for ourselves? 

Third, we were learning about each other in ways that we hope our students do every day. Even within the context of a collegial faculty, and even knowing these three colleagues pretty well (for two, twelve and eighteen years), I discovered more about what moves them at their core, inspired by the psychological gasps of Into the Woods, the wrenching knife fights of West Side Story, the genre-shattering shape of Rent.

What We Did for Love

And, looking back to that persuasive speech I hadn’t practiced enough, what moved my soul about A Chorus Line is similar to what makes me want to teach every day: the cavalcade of “I Want” songs, much like the dozens of motivations at play in any one classroom. The fast burn of “The Music and the Mirror,” when Cassie cries out to do what she was made for — to dance. The wistfulness of “What I Did for Love,” not the romantic kind, but the kind fuels a career or a life. The wondering what we, what I, what you would do “if today were the day you had to stop dancing,” or teaching, or whatever fills you up. 

Finally, if you were wondering which musical our student audience chose as the greatest of all time, it was Rent. Some of us feel completely vindicated. Some of us chalk up the vote to a generational misunderstanding. But all of us would do it again in a New York minute.