Let the Memory

One of the rare and long-anticipated treats of being near New York City is the prospect of a live show. For practical reasons we don’t go to shows very often—years separate the occurrences—but once in a great while we manage to afford such a boon. Yesterday we attended the penultimate performance of the Cats revival on Broadway. The experience was transcendent. I’ve seen the movie version a number of times, and over the years I’ve caught a few live performances here and there. For whatever reason, this musical speaks to me. Although it doesn’t really have much of a plot—it’s more a series of vignettes—it is about redemption and being comfortable in one’s own skin. T. S. Eliot was a poet who knew spirituality intimately. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one needs me to say, writes stirring music.

Cats, unlike many shows I’ve seen, requires athleticism as well as vocal ability. The performers are in nearly constant motion as they play out their roles, often with acrobatic flourishes. Most of the parts are for the young, while those dwelling on the experience of older characters—Gus, Grizabella, and Old Deuteronomy—tend to be recollections of youth as a commodity that slips away leaving as residue the wisdom that comes with age. It’s quite biblical in that respect. Even the old can appreciate back flips and double cartwheels and the grace of ballet. For this particular production the lighting stood out as an integral part of the story. Illumination, I might add, is a powerful metaphor.

In our family discussions afterwards, comparison with other versions dominated. Although my wife and I saw a community theater production long ago (placing us, I reluctantly suppose, in the ranks of the older characters), our main introduction was through the filmed adaptation. Again, like the Bible, we tend to think of canonical versions. This is how it should go. Because of both its running time and its demands on the players, not all vignettes are included in each production. The character who narrates the story may change. Choreography is adjusted. Each show, as is the case with live theater, is a little different. Standing in the snow on a cold, New York City December afternoon awaiting the opening of the doors, we wondered what would be changed. The original Broadway run had ended while we lived in the Midwest, so this was both our first exposure but also our fourth rendition over the decades. None, it turns out, could be called canonical. That, however, took nothing away from the inspiration of the event unfolding before our very eyes.

Bible Stories

JosephSay what you will about it, but the Bible has some great stories. Based on classical measures of what makes a good tale, the Bible ranks up there with Greek mythology and other ancient fiction that is meant to teach us about being human. Stories do teach, and literature is among the greatest of pedagogues. For the past two decades, Plays in the Park here in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey, has been putting on a post-Christmas, pre-New Year production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (indoors, due to the time of year). With the kinds of production values you expect of many off-Broadway venues, the show is exceptionally well done, and due to the local color, never too serious. And they play before a packed house. The reasonable prices, I’m sure, have something to do with it, but the fact is the story of Joseph is classic. Full of radical reversals, dreams that come true, and reconciliation, the Joseph novella is one of the great stories of humankind. Unlike many tales of Genesis, God is rather in the background here, perhaps overseeing the event, but not interfering in the human drama.

Although the musical, like most adaptations, takes liberties with the story, it remains fairly true to the Bible. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice also had success with Jesus Christ Superstar, showing that, despite its detractors, the Bible still has some appeal. Negative sentiment directed toward the Bible largely derives from the wooden insistence of literalists that everything must be taken at face value. The Bible isn’t allowed its symbolic resonance. Perhaps we can get beyond a worldview where the sun literally goes around the earth, and pay attention to the very human dimensions of the stories it tells. Truth may be of scientific nature, but it may also be—indeed, it must be—human. The very concept of verity is human. We are the ones making up the story.

Scholars point out that even the colored coat of Joseph is based on a translation decision in the Septuagint (the Greek Hebrew Bible). For many people, however, who’ve never read biblical scholars, the truths of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as just as legitimate. The rivalry between siblings is something many of us have experienced firsthand. While not many of us get promoted from prison to vice-president, we still dream that our lives could get better. Our dreams could come true. The upbeat score, of course, helps to reinforce the message—one might say it makes the message believable. That doesn’t mean that the tale is not true. There was no historical Joseph. The colored coat may be a translation error. The story is nevertheless true. Doubters should watch the show. Next year in the State Theater in New Brunswick just after Christmas would be an excellent opportunity to do so.

Biblical New Brunswick

One of the true sadnesses of my life is that New Brunswick’s biggest institution, Rutgers University, couldn’t find a full-time place for a dreamer like me. Ever hopeful, I taught there for four years, counting on a miracle. Although I’ve got many good memories of my time at Rutgers, one of the side-benefits was getting to know New Brunswick a little bit. Probably not topping too many vacation must-see lists, New Brunswick, New Jersey nestles in the shadow of New York City and its train station is a place I’ve spent a bit of time. Last night I had occasion to stop in to get my bus pass so that I can start off the new year by going to work. As I climbed the stairs to the ticket window, I heard a street preacher holding forth. There he was, a young man, open Bible in hand, explaining to a mostly disinterested commuter crowd why they needed salvation. (If their experience on New Jersey Transit has been anything like mine, believe me, they already know.) Many of those in the waiting room are the homeless trying to get out of the cold for a while. New Brunswick has never struck me as a particularly religious town, although many of my students in my Rutgers days brought their religion to university with them. I didn’t have time for another conversion last night, however, as my family had another purpose for being in town.

A friend had kindly given my family tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the State Theater. Although put on by Plays-in-the-Park of Middlesex County, being in the shadow of New York City sets a very high bar for public performances. The show was excellent and energetic and I couldn’t help connecting the dots on how the Bible had played into the evening. Andrew Lloyd Webber long ago realized that even a very secular Britain had a hunger for biblical stories. Although I am biased, given my failed choice of profession, the story of Joseph is one of the great tales of all time. Although likely half the audience couldn’t say that the story occurs in Genesis, the rags-to-riches plot of betrayal and forgiveness is so deeply embedded in human dreams that even assigning it to the wrong testament would make no difference. As Lloyd Webber knows, we all want our dreams to come true. Joseph, certainly a flawed hero, does finally see himself as the second most powerful man in the fictional world of Moses’ Egypt. It’s difficult not to root for the guy.

Outside the temperature hasn’t managed to reach 40 degrees today. A few blocks away at the train station, some of those being force-fed the Gospel were almost certainly refugees from the cold. I’ve seen this every time I have to catch a train in Newark as well. The homeless know that at least they won’t freeze in the depot, even if they are chased off the seats by security. Moving from Joseph to James a moment, we hear “And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” In other words, if you are offering the homeless words only, you’re not getting the point of the gospel at all. The homeless would benefit more from having a dream come true, I’m certain, than from having a message of salvation before being turned out to the cold for the night. The real salvation in New Brunswick is being offered at the State Theater tonight, but you do need a ticket to get inside.

Any dream will do

Any dream will do

Phantom Prayers

Religion and theater have much in common. I suspect that this is one reason several religious traditions initially protested against the secular theater. Morality plays were one thing, but dramas about purely human matters are quite another. Being given the very generous gift of tickets to the Phantom of the Opera, I recently had the opportunity to experience Broadway’s longest continually running show. It occurred to me that theater can often, if done right, draw in huge crowds—the line to get in was certainly impressive—while other than megachurches and very conservative religious movements based on reaffirmation of one’s superiority, many religious houses struggle to draw people in basically for free. It could be argued that secular entertainment requires less of an attendee than a religious service, but I wonder if that’s true. To receive your money’s worth for a show, you must be willing to put yourself into it.

While Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been afraid of religious themes—think of Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or even Whistle Down the WindPhantom of the Opera is loosely based on the early twentieth century novel by Gaston Leroux, the story of a hideously deformed musician who falls in love with a beautiful opera star. Although characterized as “a monster,” the Phantom is, after all merely human. Lloyd Webber’s adaptation leaves much of the story undeveloped, allowing the imagination to chart its own course. This is precisely where theater diverges from religious performance—imagination. Religions frequently claim to possess all the answers and questioning or imagining new approaches to age-old dilemmas is often discouraged. Unless, of course, the dilemma is how to draw more people in. Those who run megachurches learned the lesson of theatrics long ago.

For all that, Phantom of the Opera is hardly devoid of religious sensibilities. In one moody scene where Christine visits her father’s grave for solace, and perhaps advice, the first set piece visible is the cross atop the tomb. It is from this cross that the Phantom in the guise of the “angel of music” comes to her. Having the representation of death emerge from a cross is a powerful enough symbol. During this scene Christine’s plaintive cries to her father sound like a prayer. The prayer is heard, however, only by a phantom. The end of the story is ambiguous, something religious performance simply cannot tolerate. And yet, as I was being pushed and propelled down a crowded Broadway after the show, amid a flood of humanity that had emerged from many theater doors, I wondered if this “secular” experience might not be religious after all.

Religious tracts?

Nine Lives

A warm and wet holiday weekend is a good time to watch movies. Since my daily work schedule leave scant time to view anything from most Monday-to-Fridays (and it would claim even more if I’d let it), relaxing often involves watching. I first saw Cats as an ambitious stage production for a local outdoor theater some years ago. Andrew Lloyd Webber has acute talent when it comes to mixing show tunes and popular music; so much so that even a vague storyline will do to carry a show. Cats, of course, is based on a set of children’s poems by T. S. Eliot—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There is no narrative, and they show’s emotionally charged hit “Memory” had to be culled from among Eliot’s other poems. Nevertheless, the musical, now long off-Broadway, exists in a film version that is heavily endowed with religious themes. This weekend I watched it for the n-th time, and each viewing brings out new nuances.

The “story,” such as it is, has two very basic events: Jellicle Cats choose who can be reborn on the night of the Jellicle Ball, and Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of Jellicles, is kidnapped (cat-napped?) and must be recovered before the choice can be made. The vignettes feature cats dealing with loss, love, and crime. The character who resonates with many viewers is Grizabella, the glamour cat. She is the has-been who sings “Memory,” the cat who was somebody before her fame and fortune faded to a tawdry existence among questionable society. The musical is about transformation, however. Transformation is a religious theme, the desire we have to be something more than we are, to transcend the hand life has dealt us. Now, I’m no theater or film critic, but I have to wonder whether the obvious fades and duets of “Memory” point to Grizabella as the older but sadder version of the young and lively Jemima.

Certainly as the finale builds, Grizabella is chosen to be reborn and is sent to the Heaviside Layer, but the camera keeps coming back to Jemima. She is often framed in the center and the suggestion is made that the new life has already begun. Religion thrives on transformation. I suppose that is the reason I find it so ironic that in politics religion, Christianity in particular, is championed as the pillar of the status quo. Whether they are new or old, religions serve no purpose if they do not challenge the “business as usual” model of the secular world. Perhaps that’s why successful artists such as Andrew Lloyd Webber thrive—they can pack theaters of seekers weekend after weekend, even for decades sometimes. Even those of us watching on the television at home click the eject button with a sense of hope that seems possible only on a holiday weekend.

A stray Jellicle cat?

Old Deuteronomy

Last night my family attended a performance of CATS. We can seldom afford shows, or even movies for that matter, but when CATS comes to town it is non-negotiable with my daughter. It is a must-see musical. Anyone who has seen the show knows it is all just for fun with only the thinnest of plots and the most colorful of non-religious characters (they are, after all, cats). T. S. Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, were/are solidly C of E, and that orientation comes through in both some of the characters from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the arrangement of the poems into the lyric of CATS. The basic message of the show is redemption, but the angle that I particularly noticed last night was the mosaic aspect of Old Deuteronomy.

Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of jellicle cats and father of many of the cats in the junkyard, is a hobbled, old character who assumes the aspect of a law-giver to the younger generation. He has been to the Heavyside Lair and knows the path there. He leads Grizabella to her rebirth with the Everlasting Cat. Even his name suggests his association with the Torah, famously summarized in the book of Deuteronomy. When he is kidnapped (cat-knapped?) his return leads directly to the culmination of the show, the return to Mount Sinai.

No one would claim that CATS contains a profound religious impact, and yet the show conveys an unexpected emotional power. T. S. Eliot was not particularly known for his religious poetry, yet his personal beliefs permeate the children’s poems that form the basis for the show. His Moses is non-judgmental, a cat who was quite frisky in his younger years and who knows the value of a life well lived. A cat that believes in second chances. That simple message kept audiences returning to Broadway to see CATS on its incredibly long run. For those of us whose careers have run aground in mid-course, a Moses more like Old Deuteronomy would be a hopeful religious leader indeed.

Redemption through work

Latest Temptation

It would be a rare day indeed when I claimed to be the first to see, read, or watch something. Caught up between constant obligations (part-time jobs can be more demanding than their full-time facsimiles) I often find my mind awhirl for a semester at a time, only to discover that inter-term courses start just two or three days after the current term ends. If there’s a great movie out there that everyone’s commenting on, I am lucky to catch it before it leaves the theater. Sometimes I even miss the DVD version. So it was that yesterday I finally got around to watching The Last Temptation of Christ, the 1988 Martin Scorsese movie. This film came out right after I finished seminary, while I shared an apartment with a seminary friend who was an irrepressible movie buff. Together we missed it and, despite teaching in a seminary for a decade and a half, I still missed this one by twenty years and a few. At last I can feel caught up with the late eighties.

I’m not a big fan of Jesus movies. Movie makers shooting such films portray an eminently likeable guy getting beat up and tortured to death with such contempt that it is wrenching to watch. Yes, I know that’s how the story goes, but must we be brought into the Schadenfreude? As a life-long religionist raised in the Christian tradition, however, I feel a professional obligation to see popular portrayals of the foundation stories. The first one I recall viewing was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, a movie so reverently rendered that it is frequently cited as the best ever. The eponymous Jesus by Peter Sykes and John Krisch came out in 1979 and claims to be the most watched movie of the genre. I saw Jesus Christ Superstar in college, but even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music couldn’t remove the depressing aspect. Then, of course, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004. All of them have left me depressed. Perhaps that is their intended purpose.

The Last Temptation was laden with controversy in its day. I was anxious to see why (okay, so not terribly anxious, but I was curious). So yesterday I got to satisfy an ancient itch. Despite the caveat at the opening of the film, many critics jumped on the portrayal of an indecisive Jesus who has a rather chaste love scene with Mary Magdalene in a “last temptation” vision while on the cross as irreverent. Perhaps two decades and countless movies later this criticism has been calmed, but I found Last Temptation to be a typical Nikos Kazantzakis introspective, full of self-doubt and deluded penance. Kazantzakis’ work is a man’s struggle against his personal demons. Do dream sequences count as theological fodder? The movie suffers from pacing issues and at times contrived dialogue. The best scene is where Jesus meets and dresses down Paul only to have Paul declare himself the true bearer of the message. Even that is in the dream at the end.

In 2004 a Fundamentalist atmosphere pervaded Nashotah House. Newly appointed “theologians” on the faculty easily bought into Mel Gibson’s theatrically distorted view of their faith. By the end of that academic year it was clear that the evangelical leadership had decided on a new victim for the sake of facile Christianity, but that is a story that can wait another couple of decades before being told.