Care and Feeding

My Middle Schooler Is Delusional About Her Musical “Talent”

Musical theater is her passion.

Young girl singing into a mic.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Red Fox Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a teen who enjoys musical theater. During summer camp when she was still quite young, she was in a play and got hooked. I signed her up for an after-school theater program where she made some great friends so I was thrilled. I then signed her up for voice lessons. We went to at least one musical each year.

Her after-school program emphasized equity, everyone had equal lines and they rotated lead roles from one production to the next. While this seems great in theory, in practice it contributed to some not-so-great self-awareness about her singing skills. As a result, middle school musical theater was a rude awakening. She thought she was a shoo-in for a good part on the basis of having been in theater for “years” and told everyone she was trying out for the lead. She did not even get called back. In a recent production, about 70 kids were given at least a single line to sing. The fact that she was one of only about 20 without a line was particularly humiliating for her.

Over the years, most of the kids in her original theater program have come to the realization on their own that this isn’t for them and have pursued other interests. This is not happening with my daughter. I’ve taken her to several high school musicals so that she gains awareness about the depth of talent in our community, but this has only encouraged her to continue auditioning. She has now decided the middle school drama teacher doesn’t like her and that’s why she’s not getting the parts. After one particularly brutal audition process that ended in lots of crying and grumpiness, I suggested that she maybe take a break from theater. This was met with: “Don’t you know theater is my passion?”

If she enjoyed being part of the ensemble, it would be one thing. But she’s generally miserable, unable to get over not getting a part, and she then takes it out on her sibling. There’s also the issue that once you agree to be in the musical, you have to keep all of your weekdays free for three months. She’s rarely asked to come in, so she just sits at home instead of participating in other clubs. I’m wondering if instead of waiting for her to come to the realization that this may not be her thing, I should perhaps be more direct, and suggest she sing in the choir but give up musical theater. I keep picturing her as a 20-year-old asking me how I could have let her pursue this for so long. She’s very driven academically, another reason I’m thinking that maybe I should be more proactive in redirecting her toward interests where she can thrive, feel good about herself, and be happy.

—Unsure Mom

Dear Unsure Mom,

As someone who is still smarting from not being cast as one of the brides in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers because I was too tall and heavy for a middle-school boy to lift in the air as part of the choreography, I know there are lots of reasons that keep kids from getting cast in notoriously cliquey school productions. (In retrospect, this was also a deeply disturbing musical choice for teenagers.)

But maybe it’s true that your daughter simply can’t compete with the other kids talent-wise. To me, though, that wouldn’t be an issue if she was also having fun. After all, you don’t have to be a top-tier dancer to enjoy taking a dance class or have perfect pitch to have a blast at karaoke. There is a lot to be learned from participating in theater, from self-expression to social interaction, without having to be a prodigy.

Try explaining to her that if she truly loves theater, the process itself is supposed to be fun, not just the validation of receiving a coveted role. You could also try appealing to her sense of professionalism—while a few days of disappointment is natural, getting rejected is a huge part of any kind of artistic endeavor and it’s really something she’s going to have to learn to tolerate if she is going to continue being a part of that world. Similarly, some roles and productions are better suited to one person over another for reasons beyond their control. (Not that I’m still smarting from my high school deciding at the last minute not to do Annie for which I would have been a perfect type fit for the role of Mrs. Hannigan.)

If she simply isn’t going to be happy performing unless cast in a leading role, I wonder if her professed love for the theater could be translated into a role on the crew instead. What appeals to her about musicals could possibly be applied to directing, stage managing, or designing sets or costumes. There are also other performance mediums she may be better suited for like dancing, comedy, storytelling, spoken word—even magic! If your daughter was planning on pursuing a career in musical theater, I’d say it might be time for a Simon Cowell-style intervention. But if she can learn to enjoy participating in theater without necessarily being the best at it, I think that’s an underrated life lesson. (Not that I’m still smarting from getting to my late-30s before discarding the idea that I had to have professional-caliber talent in order to participate in and enjoy activities that brought me joy.)


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