I recently had a conversation with a new theatre friend about what their favorite musical(s) is/are, and I said something that I immediately felt awful about:
"As long as it's not Phantom of the Opera, you're ok in my book."
Now, in my defense, I said this as a joke, but since we were newly acquainted, my friend (though, for who knew how much longer after that sleight) wasn't yet aware of my sarcastic nature, and looked a little taken aback by what appeared to be my judgmental statement, rightly so. It was like I was saying that if someone loved Phantom, then there is something wrong with their taste in theatre, or even, with them as a person.
I will admit, Phantom is not one of my favorite shows, but in truth, what the hell does my opinion matter anyway? I'm not NYT theatre critic Ben Brantley, and even if I was, who is anyone to tell anyone else what they should enjoy (or not enjoy), in theatre or anything else?
There are plenty of musicals, movies, music, books, and other forms of creative expression that I adore and I know people detest. Last year, I got into a heated debate with another theatre enthusiast over the musical Be More Chill; I loved it, he hated it. It feels personal when you cherish something so much that someone just tears apart, and I took his loathing of the Faustian tale as a way of him criticizing me as a person. It's ridiculous now that I put that in print, because this friend is a mature, friendly, and all-around lover of musical theatre. This one just didn't sit right with him. I know that his favorite musical is my least favorite -- literally, you couldn't pay me to watch or listen to it again. I'll let you wonder what it is. To each their own; as my mother likes to say, "That's why they print menus." I'm glad this friend of mine loves something so dearly that so many people put their blood, sweat, and tears into. They deserve to have their work acknowledged, just like every other artist.
Besides feeling like an affront to your character, part of us, I bet, wants to try and convince the other person why the (in this case) play or musical is so good, and that they're wrong. That if we can clearly communicate the brilliance we see in it, we will be able to bring another person over into the light of this show's love. In my case, I often fail at this, and it might be because, while I can point out some of the interesting music or writing choices, or the acting performances, or any other number of nuances, what we love about a piece of art can often not be put into words. It's usually, to me, the magical combination of all the elements working in tandem at just the right moment.
Timing is just one of the factors that has caused me to feel one way or another about something I've seen (I hated Into the Woods at age eight, loved it at thirteen), but so does the performance space, the lighting, even the temperature of the theatre. I remember disliking the Broadway mounting of Moulin Rouge because, up in the balcony, with the strobing red lights, I was sweating bullets. Likewise, when Come from Away came from New York to Boston's Opera House, or Once did the same a couple years before, I felt too distant from the shows; both stories have a feel of intimacy and community that I didn't think played as well in an enormous performance hall (though I understand the financial reasons behind booking them in such large spaces), the sound too diluted by the large number of people in the audience and the football field distances. In a smaller venue? Who knows? This does not mean they're bad shows and no one should like them; I fully admit I may be too picky sometimes. This is just my experience and how a variety of factors can influence one's view of art.
I've heard other theatre folk say that if your favorite musical is Phantom, or Rent, or Les Miserables (the "classics") then "you just haven't seen enough musicals." Putting aside the pretentiousness of that sentiment, it's also irrelevant. Whether you've seen one musical or one-hundred, it's your favorite. For whatever reason, it spoke to you, and that's enough. Those other people can enjoy what they enjoy. Who's being hurt by it? (Now I will say, there is one particular musical that is popular among theatre nerds that I think actually is dangerous, and when this title pops up in conversation, I can't help but share my concern.) More often than not, however, only your relationship with the other person is getting damaged if you voice your distaste of something they like.
Every year pre-pandemic, my family went to see The Nutcracker (one year, we saw it twice). It's not exactly my favorite theatrical outing, but I know they love it. So why rain on their parade? I can sit through 2 hours of ballet (twice is pushing it), since it brings them such joy. Generally, though, no one is going to force you to watch something they love that you don't. The point is, let people like what they like, because isn't enjoying something more important than spreading negativity? Your life will not change one iota by someone liking something you don't, and there's more than enough theatre for all of us to fall in love with many times over.