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Kelley: That could be you up there
Annie J. Kelley, email@example.com Published 4:02 p.m. ET June 17, 2016 | Updated 11:15 a.m. ET June 20, 2016
Most of the best musical numbers start small, a lone spotlight and one singer. Then the music swells, more voices are added, the stage is filled with people and movement and even if the characters are at odds, they’re fitting together as a whole.
So let’s begin this column with a lone spotlight: “Godspell,” the year 2000, performed by the Battle Creek Civic Theatre.
My ninth-grade English teacher, Andrea Evans-Nessel, played the part of Jesus.
“Oh, of course,” I realized. “Jesus can be a woman.”
I saw the show two or three times and to this day it is one of my best theater experiences. That feeling stayed with me into adulthood, but last week’s Tony Awards brought it to mind again. I tracked down the phone number for the person I had known as “Ms. Evans,” and called her up to see what she remembered of the musical.
The first name that came up was director Lee Krahenbuhl, who encouraged the cast to improvise and have fun.
“I remember it being a time where I found my own creativity and some of my own talent that I didn’t even know was there,” Evans-Nessel said.
“We had such a mix of people. It was a small cast, so we got really close, but we were all different ages, from all different places.”
She hadn’t planned on auditioning for Jesus, but when it was brought up by the director, she instantly decided to give the main role a shot.
“Lee, our director, let us know that he was open to the idea of Jesus being a woman. And the reason for that was when people were told that the savior was this carpenter from Nazareth, people were in disbelief about that, how could that be true? And so he said, I’d kind of like the audience to go through that same moment of, ‘No, no way. It can’t be a woman.’”
I never had that moment of disbelief. In the arena of theater, as a girl trying to figure out gender roles and religion, it made complete sense. It wasn’t subversive so much as expansive.
It’s amazing what kind of seeds are scattered by art. It’s one reason last week’s Tony Awards ceremony was so powerful. The star of the night was the juggernaut “Hamilton,” and think of all the kids who see that and realize, “George Washington can be black. This makes sense. That could be me.”
Host James Corden tapped into that with his opening number, remembering the feeling of sitting in a theater when he was young and thinking how that could be him on stage.
After the requisite musical medley, he was joined by groups of kids while he sang to future leading men and dancing queens, “to the theater kids from any place with stardust in their eyes, of every color, class and race, and face and shape and size. To the boys and girls, transgenders too, to every Broadway would-be. Don’t wonder if this could be you, it absolutely could be.”
This is when the music swells. Through the magic of stage lighting, the kids transformed into this year’s musical acting nominees. This is could be you, they sing, this could be where you belong.
I was crying by that point.
Obviously, I never became a musical star after seeing “Godspell,” but it did give me empowerment. You can never exactly know what will stick with people when they go to a show. It could be a different understanding of the world, a song to sing in the shower, a new community to belong to, an inspiration to be creative, an urge to get up and dance or a life-long career.