By Don Leavitt
Not long ago, a friend asked me: if my life had a soundtrack, what songs would be included? It is an interesting question, and not as easy to answer as you might think. Anyone who knows me well would likely assume that my life’s soundtrack would be full of music from the James Bond movies—I am a self-confessed Bond nut, and the fact that I have every soundtrack to every movie (and listen to them regularly) would be an obvious tip-off. But if Bond music is excluded, it’s a challenge to identify the songs that mean the most to me.
There are many songs which, when I hear them, can immediately take me back to specific moments in my life—my first date or my first kiss; my first big role in a play; my wedding and the births of my children; even funerals and the loss of people close to me. When I hear Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” for example, I immediately think of riding the bus in sixth grade to ice skating lessons; “Faithfully” by Journey invariably reminds me of the night in seventh grade when I finally worked up enough courage to hold a certain girl’s hand. Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” reminds me of my mother, while just about any song by Depeche Mode reminds me of things I’d rather my mother not know about! Every moment of my life, it seems, can be summed up by the song I hear in my head when I think about it.
Such is the power of nostalgia, that uniquely human ability to transport one’s mind to a previous time or place. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines nostalgia as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” Studies have shown that some of the strongest triggers of nostalgia include the senses of smell, touch and sound: few things have the power to transport us backwards in time like a strong scent, a pleasant embrace, or a good song.
It has been suggested that most people tend to gravitate to the music they listened to as teenagers and young adults and that the music from this era defines them for the rest of their lives. I don’t know if this is true, but I find it interesting that, while I genuinely like the music from many different eras, the music that feels most like me comes from the ’80s and ’90s. My parents say the same thing about the ’60s; most of my siblings, friends, and acquaintances agree. It’s a small wonder, then, that one era music makes us most nostalgic for is high school.
This is the central conceit of The Marvelous Wonderettes, a musical that seems to exist for the sole purpose of celebrating nostalgia. The play transports us to 1958 and the senior prom at Springfield High School, where four girls—best friends and members of the school’s song leader squad—are asked to perform for their peers as the Wonderettes. Through the course of the play, the foursome performs a number of standard hits from the ’50s, including songs like “Mr. Sandman,” “Lollipop,” “Secret Love” and “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” all while dealing with the ups and downs of the social and interpersonal relationships that seem, oh, so important in high school. The play premiered as a one-act production at Milwaukee Rep in 1999 and was re-introduced in its current two-act form in 2001.
Playwright Roger Bean, creator of the Wonderettes and directing alum of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, is no stranger to nostalgia, having penned eleven musicals that, according to his official biography, “re-imagine eras of American music through the creative use of established and lesser-known radio, phonograph, and jukebox hits.” What’s more, Bean is completely unapologetic when asked about the nostalgic tone that pervades his work. “I always knew it hit a sweet spot in people’s memories but of course had no idea how large the fan base would become,” Bean told Arts N Fashion Magazine. “It’s a very special and unique show, and I feel very blessed to see so many people get tickled and moved by [it]” (www.rogerbean.com/Roger_Bean/Articles.html).
The inspiration for The Marvelous Wonderettes began in childhood, when Bean would listen to his mother sing. “When I was growing up, my mother was always singing around the house,” Bean writes. “Lots of ’50s and ’60s girl group stuff. So the popular music from these eras is deep in my consciousness” (Roger Bean: My Wonderettes World, Broadway.com, September 23, 2008). Years later, Bean learned his mother had been a song leader in high school and that she had performed as part of a singing trio. “As I started thinking about . . . my mother’s particular circumstances of being ‘expected’ to become a homemaker, I got a little angry,” writes Bean. “Angry that she hadn’t gotten the chance to go on and do something she had clearly loved: singing.”
The very genesis of The Marvelous Wonderettes, then, is steeped in nostalgia, serving not only as a tribute to Bean’s mother and the era of music that she loved, but also as a vehicle for that most nostalgic of questions, “what if?” Curious to know what a song leader was and how it differed from a cheerleader; curious, too, to know if his mother could have been successful as a singer, Bean set out to see if he could transform the music his mother loved into the book for a musical. “This was the perfect creative idea for my second show at Milwaukee Rep,” Bean writes. “High school song leaders, best friends, singing at the prom for their friends and boyfriends—what would happen to them? How would the songs they sing influence their lives?”
From all appearances, Bean’s experiment in nostalgia has been successful. After opening for an extended run at Milwaukee Rep in 2001, The Marvelous Wonderettes opened in Los Angeles at the El Portal Forum Theatre in 2006 and then opened off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre in New York in 2008. The play has also been produced at numerous regional and community theatres, has spawned a sequel and a spin-off, and has won several awards, including the 2007 Los Angeles Ovation Award for Best Musical.
Bean acknowledges the nostalgic theme that runs through each of his musicals. “I’ve been told I wear my heart on my sleeve in my shows,” he told Arts N Fashion Magazine. But he also recognizes the power that nostalgia can have to lift and transport audiences. In the Broadway.com piece, he writes, “We seemed to be striking a chord with audiences, especially as people were looking back and remembering seemingly simpler times in the aftermath of horrible tragedies.” That’s because there is safety in nostalgia—an escape to a happier place and time that resonates with all people. We long for the familiar, the safe, the comfortable, particularly in times of hardship or trial. “I love hearing an audience ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ in recognition when a song they know begins,” Bean has said (Leszczewicz, Heather, Bean’s Milwaukee Originals Go Places [OnMilwaukee.com, November 9, 2006]).
Of course, at the heart of his plays lie the things for which Bean himself waxes nostalgic. “My mother never did get to see The Marvelous Wonderettes before she passed away a few years ago,” Bean wrote for Broadway.com. Bean has credited his parents for his talent (mother for music and father for humor) and is not shy about admitting who inspires him. “Mostly, I try to write things that I think my parents would enjoy,” he says (Thielman, Sam, Wandering wonder of stage [Variety, June 26, 2009]).