Music is the Universal Celebration of Life

TAP’s own Amy Ensign shares her music memories in this week’s Key to the Door column.

Walking into Third Avenue Playhouse these days is pretty darn fun. Opening the door reveals the most beautiful music. I hear voices singing, a saxophone playing, the treble of a flute, a piano, an underlying hum of a sewing machine, and then… laughter. Always laughter.

I find myself looking for reasons to step out of the TAP daytime box office in downtown Sturgeon Bay and cross Third Avenue to visit the theatre. Usually I wait to amass a few errands before a visit, but lately I jump at the chance. “Paperwork? I can drop that off! A picture of artwork for our annual fundraising auction? I’ll take it over!”

As I cross back to work, notes from Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE linger. Throughout the afternoon, musical memories from when I was a child bubble up – moments I haven’t thought about for years; and I wonder why. Catching these snippets of rehearsals for CANDIDE (running July 27 – September 2) seems to be stirring up the most lovely memories of music and laughter.

It got me thinking about the connection between music, singing, and laughter. Whether in a musical, around a campfire, at mealtimes in summer camp, or in the car on road trips with my family, every musical experience I have been involved with is punctuated with joy.

We all remember singing around a campfire. As we relax after a long day of setting up the tent or cabin, finding the perfect spot for sleeping bags, gathering wood for the fire, making a meal, we start singing. There is something about punctuating the shared experience of a great day with song. Like characters in a musical, we need more than just words to celebrate the day.

At mealtimes during my summer camp years we would all sing as we waited for the last table to be cleared and the announcements to begin. Occasionally someone new would look with disdain at me and ask “What are you doing?” as I gleefully joined in with “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” But in short order, even the most jaded non-singer (“I don’t even sing in the shower!”) joined in. It is difficult not to join in with the joyful expression of music.

Growing up as Army brats, my sisters, brother and I were used to travel. It was long before tablets and electronic devices. We brought books, car bingo, and Mad Libs on road trips. We played the alphabet game. (“I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing….”) Mom taught us op-talk. (Put an “op” before every vowel sound; try it. It’s fun!) Who could find license plates from the most states? But our most favorite way to pass the time? Singing. Each of us had our favorites and we all took requests.

As a group activity, for entertainment, to sing out one’s place in the world; music is the universal celebration of life.

The cast of Leonard Bernstein’s (WEST SIDE STORY, ON THE TOWN) CANDIDE is hard at work celebrating life as they rehearse the “witty and wacky comic operetta.” Every day they dance, sing, and tell a fabulous story on the Third Avenue Playhouse stage and I continue to look for all the excuses I can find to walk across the street to listen in on the fun.

And fun it is! The hilarious story features an awe-inspiring score by Leonard Bernstein and is based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name. CANDIDE takes the audience on a round-the-world romp of idealistic optimism as it clashes with a series of absurdly unfortunate events. A young and naïve gentleman (Candide – played by Michael Penick) is engaged to the Baron of Westphalia’s beautiful daughter Cunegonde (Kaleigh Rae Gamaché), and along with the maid Paquette (Anna Cline) and Cunegonde’s brother Maximilian (Doug Clemons), they all subscribe firmly to the doctrine that has been instilled in them by their teacher Dr. Pangloss (Drew Brhel): that everything that occurs is for the best, no matter what. Although they soon find out that isn’t always the case, the music and adventure make the journey worthwhile.

It’s a delightful story! But I have seen a lot of great stories and happy endings and they don’t all make me want to skip across the street. And they don’t all bring up childhood memories.

I recently read in an article from Psychology Today (November 2011) that “music is a core function in our brain.” The article states that “our brains are wired from the beginning to process and understand music.” And did you know: music isn’t stored in just one area of the brain. The Atlzheimers Association ( writes, “because music is stored in many areas of the brain and is a basic part of what makes us human, music helps reach and engage a person.” (Take a look at the documentary Alive Inside for a real treat.) And a recent study at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada says that music releases dopamine, the same chemical that is released from eating, sleeping, and honeymooning. So there is a reason singing and listening to music feels good. And CANDIDE really makes you feel good.

After dropping off a piece of paperwork and giggling my way through the first half of the show, I sat with the cast during a break and asked why they thought music makes us feel so good. Becky Spice, who plays a couple of characters in CANDIDE (you’ll get a flavor of the satire of the piece through her character names: Baroness Thunder-Ten-ton-Tronck (tee hee) and The Old Lady) says, “singing is a release, like running or deep breathing. It feels good to let things go.”

Anna Kline, who returns to TAP after last year’s wildly successful MADAME SHERRY to play Paquette in CANDIDE agrees with Becky, “It’s like yoga,” but adds that there is delight in being able to express yourself; “It is the ultimate expression of joy!”

“Sometimes it’s all I have to give.” shares Kaleigh Rae Gamaché. “On my worst days, I can always sing. It’s always been a part of my life. I wouldn’t be Kaleigh without it.”

If you have ever heard Ms. Gamaché sing, you know how lucky we are that she figured that out and how generous she is to share it with us!

CANDIDE opens tomorrow. I am still not sure why the moments I catch of the rehearsal process have conjured up all of these wonderful memories of music in my life. It could be the soaring score by Leonard Bernstein or the clever and loving direction by James Valcq. It might be the dress of tulle and sparkles that costume designer Kelsey Wang (also singing in the show) dresses Kaleigh Rae in or my joy in seeing Matt Frye (who played Ken in TAP’s last show RED) happily embracing such a vastly different series of characters or watching my past acting partner Drew Brhel turn on a dime into Dr. Pangloss. I don’t know. But on July 27th, I am going to sit back and let it all wash over me as the cast and company of TAP’s CANDIDE invites me sit around their campfire and celebrate the day. Please join me. You’ll be glad you did.

An actor, director, and educator, Amy Ensign is the Marketing and Development Director of Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay. Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE opens July 27 and runs through September 2.