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The Shirley Series, Part 1: The Musical

The first time I watched Little Miss Broadway I was two years old, my second birthday to be exact. That was the year I got my first pair of Capezio tap shoes with black bows on them. I had been introduced to the Shirley Temple movies by my parents and apparently realized that tapping along in socks was no fun, because that year all I wanted was a pair of my very own tap shoes. (Cut to the infamous home movies of me putting them on and falling down seconds later).

My love for dance only grew from that point, as did my desire to emulate the star of all of my favorite movies. This desire was fostered throughout my first few years of dance class, where many a routine was choreographed to “The Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers”. By the time I was five years old I convinced myself that Shirley Temple and I were long lost sisters because we both had the same ringlet curls and loved to dance and sing. It was a solid theory at the time. When I was 8, I auditioned for an allergy medicine commercial using a Shirley Temple song. Looking back, it must have been comical to watch as the other auditionees got up onstage singing the latest Hilary Duff or Avril Lavigne song and I proudly took my turn singing “We Should Be Together”.

Needless to say, as a performer and an old soul whose favorite movies and television shows were not created past the 60’s decade, Shirley Temple has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and has remained one of my childhood, adolescent and adult role models.

Enter Julia Belanoff, a senior at Harvard who, to my total and complete envy, shared a hometown with the late Shirley Temple Black and decided to dedicate her senior thesis project at Harvard to telling her story. I was fortunate enough to go and see that story played out onstage for myself.

The show, entitled Shirley: A New Musical About (the Life of) America’s Little Sweetheart, ran from November 30th to December 3rd at the historic Agassiz Theater at Harvard. The show’s creator, Julia Belanoff, “first met the late Shirley Temple Black while trick-or-treating as a young girl in her neighborhood of Woodside, California. She fondly remembers seeing Temple power-walking the neighborhood with her friends, in matching track suits no less, and looks back on time spent singing along to the songs in her movies. Over a decade later, as a senior at Harvard College in the Theater, Dance, and Media concentration, Belanoff is drawing on her childhood fascination with Shirley Temple Black to write the book for Shirley, a mature and nuanced view of the performer’s complicated life that travels through her transition from childhood stardom, to homemaker, to politician, all the while interrogating the way that Shirley Temple Black inspired other women around her and exploring the ways in which she eventually makes peace with her own journey through life.”

The intimate setting of the Agassiz Theater was perfect for such an intimate story. As I was watching I felt as though I was part of the story itself. This is in part due to the setting as well as Belanoff’s captivating script and well-placed, recognizable Shirley Temple classics like “Good Ship Lollipop” and “On Account A I Love You”.

The story was told by a small, but committed cast who encapsulated and conveyed the spirit we all feel from watching the classic films.

Belanoff added another, darker layer to this show, however, by revealing the title character’s desire to quit show business and be a stay-at-home-mother, and the pressures she felt to stay in the public eye. It revealed shocking and little-known facts, at least to me, such as her marriage to a first husband who left her, and a case of sexual assault by a high-ranking executive at MGM. This portion of the story, delivered in a heart-wrenching monologue by Belanoff, clearly struck a chord with the audience due to its timeliness and relevance with the current events in our society.

Overall, I walked away from the theater understanding that the Shirley Temple we all know and love simply grew up. She is forever captured on film and in the minds and hearts of those who watched her, from ordinary people like me to major stars. However, just like all of us, she grew up and could no longer be the tap-dancing, little girl her fans craved.

She had a very difficult time establishing an adult identity when the entire world saw her in one light: a bouncing toddler/child with brilliant performing abilities.

She wanted to be known as “Shirley”, not Shirley Temple or even Shirley Temple Black, but simply who she was: Shirley.

Stay tuned for the next installments of The Shirley Series to hear about Julia’s fascinating connection with Shirley Temple, the evolution of her thesis project, and where she hopes to take her production and talents post-graduation.

The Shirley Series, Part 2: Interview With Creator Julia Belanoff

The Shirley Series, Part 3: Up Next For Julia Belanoff

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