Seeing "The Boy From Oz," the Broadway musical about the life of singer-songwriter-dancer-Cabaret performer Peter Allen was really eye opening. I went into the show knowing many of his songs, including "Best Thing You Can" (the theme from Arthur, which won an Oscar), "Don't Cry Out Loud" (which I sing and will be on my upcoming "Coming Full Circle" album), and "You and Me" (sung by Frank Sinatra), but was truly moved and blown away when I learned the context of these songs in his life story!
In the life story of Peter Allen, it is clear that for most singer-songwriters, many of their songs DON'T fit into genre boxes. And that having songs find their way into the world is more about the journeys we take the good fortune of meeting people along the way who help weave together the unfolding and interconnected web of life. That Peter's own songs could be woven together to TELL his life story is quite a message of its own. He grew up in Australia, musical from his very youngest days, supported by his dedicated mother, while struggling with the coldness and sometimes abuse of his alcoholic father. Recognizing the need to "create an act," he teamed up with another musician and formed a "brother team," even though the other musician was not his actual brother. And as the "Allen Brothers," a stage name that was neither of the two performers' real life name, traveled to far away lands, like Hong Kong, they crossed paths with Judy Garland, who truly discovered Peter and set him on a trajectory towards visibility and eventually fame and fortune. As Peter became Judy's opening act, he also saw the dark side of the spotlight, in Judy's alcohol and drug plagued life. He befriended her young daughter, Liza Minelli, who became his wife, as he struggled with his true identity, as a gay man.
Peter was ambitious and persevered, writing songs that became most famous in the hands of other singers, even as he gained some recognition for his own Cabaret act. His life partner, Greg, helped with the image making part of his show (lights, costumes, set and the glitz), illustrating the power of collaborative partnership. But Greg contracted AIDs and died far too young, as eventually happened to Peter at age 48.
When art makes it into the public eye, it is genre-boxed, packaged and delivered with a market spin that may be far removed from the origins of the inspiration behind the art itself. Some songwriters pump out formulaic songs specifically to fit into market ready genre boxes. But many choose to let life inform and inspire them. And honestly, I think these are the songs that most connect with people and inform life.
Recently, a new friend listened to my "Heart to Heart" CD and asked me the stories behind two of my songs "How Can I Reach You," and "You'll Never Be Alone Again." He loved the songs and they touched him. But he would have never known the first one came out of my two year struggle sandwiched between my mother's last years as her Alzheimers progressed and my teenage son's struggle after two concussions in 10 months and the surfacing of his pain from his parents' divorce early in his life. And he would have also never guessed the second one was written by the 21 year old singer-songwriter version of me as I introspected and learned about the depths of life and connections between people. One thing that is magical about songs, and other forms of art, is that they tap into the universality of human experience. And so while the conception lies in the life experience of the artist, their own power lies in their connection with common threads of people's lives, so that we can all map our own life stories and emotions onto the canvass a song or other work of art presents to us.
In this way, when we are going through particular passages, we seek art that comforts us, mirrors us and helps us understand where we are. I was very moved when after giving a 69 year old woman working in a shoe store my "Heart to Heart" CD, after she asked what kind of music I performed (I had just purchased a pair of shoes to perform in), she looked at the cover and said to me, "Thank you! This is exactly what I need right now! I need something "heart to heart." She had tears in her eyes, and mine teared up in response.
I may never know the details of her journey or story. It is enough to know that she has one and that my own journey that led me to put together my own collection of songs will enrich hers in some way. That is a precious gift.