Musical Inspirations (December 2021)

At the beginning of the year I said that I hoped Harris Westminster would change you for the better and that I would use assemblies to quote musicals at you. Well, at the end of the first term, a little more than a sixth for the way through your time here, it seems appropriate to audit those changes and to make good on that promise.

Let’s start like all good fairy stories with once upon a time, a girl in a red cape, and a journey through the woods. From the pen of Stephen Sondheim and the voice of Little Red Riding Hood:

“Mother said ‘Straight ahead’ Not to delay or be mislead I should have heeded her advice But he seemed so nice And he showed me things, many beautiful things That I hadn’t thought to explore They were off my path So I never had dared I had been so careful I never had cared And he made me feel excited Well, excited and scared”

The “he” in this song is, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, the Big Bad Wolf and the musical is “Into the Woods”. I don’t intend to cast myself as the wolf and I don’t think you should be scared by your experiences of Harris Westminster (the next verse describes the experience of being swallowed whole, which is not something I’m going to explore, even metaphorically), but I do think you should be excited; I do think you should have seen beautiful things that you’d never thought to explore; I do think you should have been taken off the careful path in your learning. So, checkpoint number one: has this happened? Have you stopped thinking about school as a carefully plotted route towards the final exams and started to explore the woods of learning – they are, as Robert Frost says, lovely, dark and deep. If you are sticking to “straight ahead” then you’re missing out – you’re not getting the most out of Harris Westminster and I encourage you to take a book out of the library this week that is completely unrelated to your subject: two books in fact, one novel from the fiction shelves, and one non-fiction from a subject you don’t study. Explore some of the beautiful things that are waiting for you in the world.

Talking of which, let’s shift our scenery around and I invite you to an alpine meadow: grass growing high, wildflowers everywhere, off in the distance the high mountains, glinting with snow, and in the centre, a young woman with a guitar.

“Let’s start at the very beginning A very good place to start When you read you begin with ABC When you sing you begin with do-re-mi The first three notes just happen to be Do-re-mi, Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti... Let’s see if I can make it easy: Doe, a deer, a female deer; Ray, a drop of golden sun; Me, a name I call myself; Far a long long way to run; Sew, a needle pulling thread; La, a note to follow Sew; Tea, a drink with jam and bread; That will bring us back to Doe”

What we have here is a mnemonic – a way of memorising a set of notes, which is rather a useful idea for you, living as you do with bags full of notes. Checkpoint 2: have you got better at learning – have you become more strategic in the way that you learn. Are you responding to the assessments, thinking hard about the things that you find difficult and then thinking imaginatively about how you’ll remember them. Interestingly, do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do was itself a mnemonic for the notes of the scale. The syllables are taken from a hymn by Guido of Arezzo in which each phrase begins one note higher (the observant will notice that the first syllable is Ut rather than Do – this got changed because Doremi is easier to sing than Utremi)

Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris
Famuli tuorum
Solve poluti
Labii reatum

On to the glorious landscape of urban Sheffield and the musical “Everyone’s talking about Jamie”, lyrics by Tom McRae, based on the true story of Jamie Campbell a teenage drag queen. A change of pace from Arezzo’s plainchant

“There’s a clock on the wall and it’s moving too slow. It’s got hours to kill and a lifetime to go, and I’m holding my breath ‘til I hear the last bell. Then I’m coming out hard and I’m giving ‘em hell. I’m a superstar and you don’t even know it, in a wonder bra and you don’t even know it. You’re so blah, blah and you don’t even know it. I’m like, au revoir and you don’t even know it.”

You are all superstars – whether you know it or not – but it is the friendship between Jamie and his classmate Pritti that struck me when I went to see this. Friends don’t always want the same thing – they never come from exactly the same world – but they support each other, they look out for each other, they tell each other when they’re being jerks, they cheer each other on, they want what’s best for each other. Checkpoint number 3: have you made some good friends in your time here – good enough to have your back if you decide to come into school in clothes that make a statement, good enough to tell you to back down when you’re upsetting someone else. Are you such a friend? The Everyone’s talking part of everyone’s talking at Jamie is a heavily nuanced phrase: everyone’s talking about him because he’s different, but he wants everyone to be talking about him because he’s a superstar, but are they then talking about him or his persona? I don’t think you should aim for everyone talking about you – better to hope that when they do talk about you they say things that make you proud to be you. That’s a big idea, and to explore it fully you’ll have to watch the musical because we’re moving on and back.

Back to Sondheim and on to New York – to the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story. Some of you will know this retelling of Romeo and Juliet, those who don’t are in for a treat as Stephens Spielberg and Sondheim have teamed up to make a new film of the musical. The story is centred on two gangs – the poor white Jets and the even poorer Puerto-Rican Sharks. I think, and hope, that neither the gang warfare, nor the racial emnity have been part of your experience within Steel House, and I think and hope that you will have done your best to make sure that they aren’t part of anyone else’s. The song I’m taking from this musical is America – the Puerto Ricans are singing about their experiences in New York and, whilst the women are seeing the positives, the men are struggling.

Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America
If you're a white in America
Here you are free and you have pride
Long as you stay on your own side
Free to be anything you choose
Free to wait tables and shine shoes
Everywhere grime in America
Organized crime in America
Terrible time in America
You forget I'm in America
I think I'll go back to San Juan
I know a boat you can get on (Bye Bye)
Everyone there will give big cheer!
Everyone there will have moved here.

Maybe you’re listening to me talking about how great Harris Westminster is and muttering under your breath about the homework, and the commute, and the lack of outdoor space – maybe there are days when you wish you could go back to, if not San Juan, then at least a school that is more normal? Well, if that’s you, I hope you see the pluses as well – I wouldn’t want any of you to get on that boat. I can’t do much about the outdoor space except to point you towards the park, and as far as the commute’s concerned I can only recommend carrying a small paperback in your bag and developing an addiction to podcasts. So, checkpoint number 4: have you got on top of your workload, and I have three pieces of advice to help it all be manageable. Firstly – organise your life: work out when you can fit in the sixteen hours of homework (my top tip is to get in at 8 and stay here until 6.30 each day – that gives you three quarters of an hour before school and two afterwards: together with Lab and your non-contacts that takes you over 16 and your evenings and weekends are untouched). Second, use your time efficiently – settle quickly to work, don’t have music on whilst you study, have a planner (electronic or physical) so you know what needs doing. Third, draw a line – when you’ve done four hours of work for a subject in a week then draw a line under it, write “I’m sorry, I did four hours and ran out of time” and stop. If anyone asks you say that Mr Handscombe and Stephen Sondheim collaborated to tell you to do this.

Time for a closing number – from Six (which I saw at the weekend), the song Six:

"It’s the end of the show of the historemix
We switched up the flow and we changed the prefix
Everybody knows that we used to be six wives
But we want to say before we drop the curtain
Nothing is for sure nothing is for certain
All that we know is that we used to be six wives
We’re one of a kind no category
Too many years lost in his story
We’re free to take our crowning glory
For five more minutes
We’re six"

This closing number doesn’t come with a checkpoint but an inspiration. The show is the six wives of Henry VIII telling their stories, reflecting on how badly history has treated them and concluding that there’s nothing they can do about it now – except, in the conceit of the show, this is their show and they can rewrite their endings: instead of Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived we have happy endings the wives might have chosen: Catherine of Aragon joined a gospel choir, Anne Boleyn wrote lyrics for Shakesy P, Jane Seymour had seven children and formed the Tudor Von Trapps or the Royalling Stones, Anne of Cleves went partying with the House of Holbein, Katherine Howard had a career as a solo artist, and Katherine Parr became a music industry impresario representing all six. It’s uplifting nonsense but the thought that stayed with me is that you are writing your own futures – you’re not Tudor women trapped in a world with little agency, you’re bright, ambitious, young Londoners with the world at your feet and so, circling back to Wicked, the musical that I quoted to you in September, it’s time to try defying gravity.

"I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But ‘til I try, I’ll never know!
So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately
Everyone deserves the chance to fly
It’s time to try defying gravity
I think I’ll try defying gravity
And you can’t pull me down."

Keep exploring, keep getting more scholarly, keep building those friendships, keep organised and looking on the bright side, keep hold of your ambitions and nobody will pull you down.