On The Town: Your Brain on Musicals

“Alzheimer’s Patients’ Brains Boosted by Belting Out The Sound of Music.”

Five years ago, headlines like this one from The Guardian newspaper garnered international attention and sparked some amusement. Could it actually lessen dementia if you made like Maria in the famous Broadway musical and belted out the lyrics to the opening song, “The hills are alive with the sound of music…”?

Or, depending on your tastes in Broadway shows, if you sing a little something from Oklahoma! or The Phantom of the Opera? Or Rent?

Well, quite possibly. The headlines referred to a four-month study in 2013 by George Mason University neuroscientists. They found that elderly residents with Alzheimer’s disease living in care facilities who took part in three 50-minute sing-a-thons of familiar show tunes each week did better on cognitive tests later. And in another study, researchers at Helsinki University in Finland learned that a 10-week singing course for dementia patients improved subjects’ mood, orientation, and certain types of memory.

For those of us who are longtime fans of Broadway musicals, this isn’t such a surprise. Even if you can’t recall the name of your sister’s neighbor’s daughter-in-law, how come you remember all the words to Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes? And even when you’re just crooning in the shower, isn’t singing a mood picker-upper?

There is a growing mound of research that illuminates exactly how the brain processes and retains music differently than spoken language. According to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, just listening to your favorite songs or sonatas can brighten your day and perk up your alertness. Joining in the chorus adds another positive, active dimension.

Broadway musicals aren’t for everyone. But stories studded with songs, humor, romance, and razzamatazz have been a popular national pastime for over a century. They’ve contributed most of the numbers in the so-called Great American Songbook—standards ranging from “Some Enchanted Evening” and “The Music of the Night” to “Send in the Clowns.” Each generation has favorites. (Today’s youth are listening repeatedly to songs from the cast recording of the current hit musical Hamilton on their digital devices.)

Apparently, you can please your brain by singing along, performing, or just regularly taking in musical productions. Lucky for us, the Seattle region produces many commendable live versions of toe-tapping musicals with tunes that can stick to your noggin. Here are a few coming up this spring at theaters around the Sound:

Kiss Me, Kate. Broadway meshes with Shakespeare in this sparkling show that follows a divorced (but still fond) couple backstage and onstage as they star in a dance-garnished musical version of the Bard’s romantic comedy, The Taming of the Shrew. A splashy mounting at 5th Avenue Theatre will feature some of the top musical theater talent from Seattle and Broadway.

Top Tunes: The score by Cole Porter is filled with great ones, including “Too Darn Hot” and “Wunderbar.”

April 6-29 at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Info: 5thavenue.org or 206-625-1900.

Hairspray. Adapted from a John Waters movie comedy, this nimble show melds campy 1960s nostalgia with civil rights protests in an ebullient tale of a plump teenager’s campaign to gain acceptance, and later to help racially integrate a TV dance party show. The original version had its world premiere in Seattle before conquering Broadway. The Village Theatre will present this rouser at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah and at the Everett Performing Arts Center.

Top Tunes: The Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score spoofs and celebrates ’60s pop and Motown music in such catchy songs as “You Can’t Stop the Beat” and “Run and Tell That.”

May 10-July 1 in Issaquah, July 6-29 in Everett.  Info: villagetheatre.org or 425-392-2202.

My Fair Lady.  This Broadway classic, based on G.B. Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, never goes out of style. It tells the story of a flower-seller in Edwardian London who gets a makeover from a phonetics professor who can’t help succumbing to her feisty charms. Broadway will present a new revival this season, and Tacoma Musical Playhouse plans its own version this spring.

Top Tunes: “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” are stand-outs in the witty, melodious Lerner and Loewe score.

May 18-June 10 at Tacoma Musical Playhouse. Info: tmp.org or 253-565-6867.

The Pajama Game. A Broadway musical about a fight between the union workers and their bosses in a pajama factory? It may have sounded far-fetched, but the show remains a delight, filled with quirky characters, great ensemble numbers, and a sexy will-they-or-won’t-they romance between management and labor.

Top Tunes:  The ballad “Hey There” and the deliciously bawdy novelty tune, “Hernando’s Hideaway.”

May 18-June 3 at Federal Way’s Centerstage Theatre. Info: centerstagetheatre.com or 253-661-1444.

Misha Berson writes about the arts for The Seattle Times and many other publications, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard).

Read more by Misha Berson

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