How my love of musicals inspires my work.
What do you do for fun?
I dread this question during meet and greets. I don’t have kids. I travel a lot, but it’s all for work. I’ve never really had hobbies. I live my job. It’s how I’m built. For example, I write this newsletter on the weekend because it’s the only time I’m not immersed in my day-to-day roles. This is how I reflect on the past week and explore new ideas.
That said, my existence isn’t totally devoid of fun. I’m a lifelong Philadelphia Flyers fan (which is often more depressing than fun). I enjoy going to theme parks - more for the environment than the rides. And I’m a theater nerd. I love musicals!
I wish I’d gotten into theater as a kid. I was too afraid of speaking in front of people, so I never considered it as an option. There was no one around to nudge me towards the theater, so I spent all of my free time playing hockey.
Thankfully, I saw Wicked for the first time in 2014 and was immediately hooked. Nowadays, I try to catch every musical that rolls through Orlando. I just attended my 30th show - the 25th anniversary tour of Chicago. As I sat in the Walt Disney Theater waiting for the curtain to rise, I started thinking about all of the ways my love of theater impacts the way I do my job. And I’m not just talking about my penchant for costume changes …
Here are a few lessons from musical theater I apply in my everyday work.
Every detail matters.
The Little Mermaid
This show should have been AMAZING! “Part of Your World” is one of the greatest Disney songs ever sung. The story takes place in a wondrous underwater environment filled with rich characters. And yet this musical was incredibly boring. Of course, the music was great, and the performances were solid. But that was it. The sets were sparse. The staging lacked movement. The music was there, but the magic of the animated film was nowhere to be found.
A few exceptional pieces do not make the entire product exceptional.
Any subject can be engaging.
“The best musical I’ve ever seen is about Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.” That statement would have sounded bonkers pre-2015. Today, everyone knows about Hamilton, but I can’t imagine a less interesting topic for a Broadway production. Lin-Manuel Miranda found a creative way into an important story and brought us along for the ride.
Every topic is interesting - if you come at it from the right angle.
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Never stop innovating.
The Lion King
This show was awesome. I just saw it too late. The Lion King changed musical theater in 1997 thanks to its blend of powerful music, stunning costumes and immersive puppetry. I saw it 20 years later, after dozens of other shows had time to learn from it and foster a new standard. I knew I was watching an important show, but it didn’t hit me the way it did audiences upon initial release.
The bar is always being raised. Today’s exceptional quickly becomes tomorrow’s standard.
Feels always win.
“I think this is the last time.” That’s what I told my partner as we walked into the theater for my fifth viewing of Wicked a few months ago. I love this show, but did I really need to see it again? Yes. Yes I did. All it took was the opening notes of “Defying Gravity” to remind me how this show makes me feel - no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
People aren’t just looking to be educated or entertained. They want to feel.
Gimmicks don’t sustain.
“You're a phony celebrity and in two weeks no one's going to give a sh*t about you. That's Chicago.” Billy Flynn sets Roxie straight after she pulls out all the stops to make a name for herself but fails to gain lasting recognition. All of the gimmicks in the world can’t overshadow who she really is (a con) and what she ultimately lacks (talent).
Gimmicks may garner quick returns, but people won’t hang around unless you deliver sustained value.
The HOW matters - until it doesn’t.
I love the production side of theater - figuring out the creative tricks used to bring the magic to life. They’re often so simple but so powerful when flawlessly executed. I know how Elphaba flies in Wicked. I know how Elsa’s dress transforms in Frozen. But I have no idea how that darn carpet flies in Aladdin. And it doesn’t matter.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke
Know when to move on.
Love Never Dies
I left at intermission. I’ve only walked out early twice in my theater-going life - this and the movie Wild Wild West. Then I found out how the show ends, and I was even more pleased with my decision. The Phantom of the Opera was my first musical. I didn’t get it then and still don’t get it now. And then they went and made a sequel …
Read the room. If people aren’t buying what you have to sell, adapt or find a new gig.
Here’s a ranked list of every show I’ve seen - in case you were wondering.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
The Book of Mormon
Dear Evan Hanson
The Play That Goes Wrong
Come From Away
Harry Potter and the Cursed Prince
Beauty and the Beast
School of Rock
The Lion King
To Kill a Mockingbird
Fiddler on the Roof
The Phantom of the Opera
An American in Paris
The Little Mermaid
Love Never Dies
My Fair Lady, Into the Woods and Beetlejuice are coming up soon!
What about you? Do you enjoy musicals, plays or immersive theater? What’s your favorite show, and how has it influenced you?
Discover the future of L&D on ITK!
We’re hopping into the DeLorean to explore the past, present and future of workplace learning on this week’s In The Know. Donald Taylor’s had his finger on the pulse of the industry for years thanks to his annual Global Sentiment Survey. Don will help me turn back the clock to find out how L&D’s biggest trends have impacted the workplace over the past two decades. Then we’ll accelerate to 88 mph (or 142 kph) to explore new ideas that are shaping the future of L&D, including AI, reskilling and the metaverse.
Sign up to join our live (virtual) studio audience on Wednesday, April 26 at 1130am ET. Subscribe to ITK for show updates and recordings.
Join me at the ATD Houston Virtual Technology Conference.
I may be the keynote speaker, but there’s plenty of other reasons to register for Thursday’s Virtual Technology Conference hosted by ATD Houston.
Sarah Mercier and Don Becker will be there to talk xAPI.
Matthew Pierce will share insights on video.
Britney Cole and Ann Rollins will school you on learning experience design.
Jennifer Solberg will invite you into the metaverse.
I’ll explain why adopting a modern learning mindset is the first step to L&D transformation.
BONUS: this event is eligible for APTD, CPLP and SHRM certification credits. I’ll see you there this Thursday, April 27 at 830am CT.
Until next week, be well. JD