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Bali Hai and Beyond

Marc Strauss Shares Love of Musicals at Provincetown Public Library

by Steve Desroches

It was the summer of 1958 when Marc Strauss fell in love with musicals. He was five, and his parents piled him and his brother into the family’s Ford to go to the Wellfleet Drive-In to see South Pacific, the film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. And much like the character Lt. Joseph Cable, Strauss became as enchanted by the musical as the young solider was upon hearing about tales of the mystical island of Bali Hai when sung to him by Bloody Mary. That trip to the drive-in is his very first memory, and so began a lifelong love affair with the musicals of stage and screen, a passion and vocation he’ll share when he reads from his latest book Discovering Musicals: A Liberal Arts Guide to Stage and Screen at the Provincetown Public Library this Sunday.

A resident of Wellfleet, Strauss is a retired professor emeritus of theater and dance at Southeast Missouri State University, where he taught until 2014.  He was so drawn to the theater that he began his career in the arts as a dancer, primarily in musicals, before pursuing the academic side of the performing arts. While South Pacific caught his attention, it was as a teenager that he really became bitten by the show business bug when in 1968 his grandmother took him to see the now famed production of Hello, Dolly! starring Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey. It was then he really began to be a student of this uniquely American art form.

“You’ve got McDonald’s, jazz, and the musical,” says Strauss. “Three big American success stories.”

Throughout his work and in his book Discovering Musicals, Strauss provides an historical narrative for how this American creation evolved out of vaudeville, musical revues, and traditional plays even going as far back as the Greek chorus in ancient times. The saplings of American musical theater were planted even before the British duo of Gilbert and Sullivan turned opera into pop culture in 19th century England. It’s America’s diversity that gave birth to this performance style of storytelling with African-American culture and our country’s rich immigrant heritage all contributing various artistic traditions to blend into the Broadway musical.

The musical continues to evolve. Classics like Show Boat, Guys and Dolls, and Carousel are part of the same artistic legacy as today’s modern musicals that pack theaters, like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and In the Heights, as well as contemporary retellings that give standards like Oklahoma! and West Side Story a fresh perspective, says Strauss. Even the jukebox musicals, ones that take popular music and write a story around it, such as Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, and The Cher Show, breathe new life into theater and attract more people to experience live performance.

Strauss’ interests are not just limited to the stage musical, but Hollywood’s adaptations of them, too, as well as their own original productions. The movie musical gets equal billing in Strauss’ book. Films like Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, and The Sound of Music have become engrained in the collective cultural consciousness of the nation. Times change and tastes shift, but these musicals can provide an anchor of not just nostalgia, but also heritage. A unique and interactive aspect of Discovering Musicals is the asterisks throughout that point to YouTube links so that, should the reader wish, they can watch a clip that corresponds to the musical, or a specific song or dance number, making the text perfect for a home course in the musical. As part of the program at the Provincetown Public Library, Strauss will illustrate just why the musical continues to be so beloved in American culture.

“One of the things that makes musicals popular is that they are the most collective of art forms,” says Strauss. “Composers, lyricists, costume designers, lighting; all these artists have to come together to make it all work. It’s one of the most collaborative art forms there is. It’s accessible to a larger audience than more specific art forms, too.”

Broadway actor Christine Pedi, who wrote the foreword to Discovering Musicals, will be appearing with Strauss to perform selected works (accompanied by Matthew Martin Ward on piano) related to his talk on Sunday, the day after she performs her solo show at the Art House. Their collaboration illustrates the mechanics it takes to present a musical. At its core it’s the story the moves the musical, which embellishes it all with all the variety of disciplines. Fans of musical theater have their favorites, be it The Phantom of the Opera or Kiss Me, Kate or Dreamgirls. Stories that touch us or just entertain are never in short supply and can come from unexpected places, like Fun Home, based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, or the Canadian musical Come from Away, which tells the story of travelers stranded in Gander, Newfoundland, when planes were grounded after 9/11. The cost of going to see a Broadway show in New York has reached the stratosphere, but there are plenty of ways to still indulge, says Strauss.

“If you can’t afford to go see a Broadway show go see a touring production, go see local theater,” says Strauss. “Go to the movies and see a musical, go watch an old classic and enjoy the Technicolor days and groove on the colors. There are so many ways to catch a musical. But if you can, save up, and go see a Broadway musical, even if just once. There is little substitute for seeing a Broadway musical. It’s just magical.”

Marc Strauss presents Discovering Musicals: A Liberal Arts Guide to Stage and Screen featuring special guest Christine Pedi on Sunday, September 8 at 2 p.m. at the Provincetown Public Library, 356 Commercial St. The event is free. For more information visit or call 508.487.7094. Christine Pedi performs at the Art House, 214 Commercial St., on Saturday, September 7 at 7 p.m. Tickets ($45/$65) are available at the box office and online at For more information call 508.487.9222.

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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