Tag Archives: Broadway

Addicted to Heaven

I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.

For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.

Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.

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.

Hamilton

Religion and politics. It’s difficult to get over the wisdom instilled in your earliest years, and I was one of those who learned that religion and politics always cause potential friction in polite conversation. They are both, however, very important to people and knowing how to communicate about them irenically is a sign of maturity. While I can’t afford Broadway shows, I have read reports about the brilliance of a couple shows that feature—what else?—religion and politics. “Book of Mormon” has continued to be a success in the theater district, and, starting this summer, “Hamilton” joined the ranks of most popular Broadway shows. A hip-hop-inspired version of the story of Alexander Hamilton, the show offers history to audiences traditionally just out for a good time. I haven’t seen the show, but on a recent long car ride, I listened to the soundtrack and I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Part of the reason is the sadness of the story—the dual between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton ended up with one of the “forgotten founding fathers” dead, and another cast forever as a criminal.

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Although my interest in history has defined my career (such as it is), I don’t pretend to know much about the revolutionary period. One of the reasons is that I’m more than a bit ashamed by the treatment of American Indians by the colonials. It is hard to celebrate when you feel like a criminal yourself. Another reason has been that ancient history has always captivated me, and events two-to-two-and-a-half centuries ago feel too recent. Nevertheless, I find myself in New Jersey where much of the Revolution played out: Washington crossing the Delaware, the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Monmouth, and many other famous episodes. The British of that time enjoyed the power of empire—keeping others down so that the privileged might see themselves entitled. In the musical, King George has a role, in my mind, similar to Pontus Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar.

I can’t help but think that what Lin-Manuel Miranda has offered in “Hamilton” is an extended kind of parable. The show is noted for its multi-ethnic cast in a story that was almost entirely, historically speaking, one of white privilege. Who can hear the songs swirling around the shooting of Hamilton and not think of the equally insane shooting of young African Americans who, like Hamilton, have no intention of causing harm? There are writers and poets and lovers who still try to find their place in a country that bathes the uber-rich with adoration and tax breaks and far too much power. “Hamilton” may, if people actually pay attention, turn out to be revolutionary. Politics and religion share that feature in common.

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?

Funny Faith

The entertainment industry is a window through which we might see what it is we value. After all, our mad-money and disposable income are often channeled toward the things we want, as opposed to what we really need. Living near New York City, it is clear that entertainment is also big business. Last night Spider-Man opened on Broadway to decidedly lackluster reviews. The web-slinger has had quite a journey from comic book to the musical stage—sometimes making it big, other times getting squashed. Earlier this week, however, it was The Book of Mormon that was making the news. Winning nine Tony awards, this musical is the first thing to pop up on a Google search when “Book of Mormon” is typed in (at the moment), I suppose, much to Mitt Romney’s chagrin.

A friend recently asked me why people take religion so seriously. To me it seems that it is a matter of historical development. Most religions developed before the culture of leisure took over. As I tell my students each semester, even in the early part of last century most people lived on farms rather than in cities. Time for leisure was rare and life was taken seriously: all work and no play. If we push that back a century, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was started, the effect was even more widespread. Go back to the days of Muhammad, Jesus, or Moses and the struggle to survive gets increasingly more difficult. Religion is a coping mechanism. When worries about food and shelter become less onerous, we can laugh at the path that led us here. Along the way few of us have met radioactive spiders, but most of us have been warmed, singed, or wholly consumed by religion in some form.

Well, in the entertainment industry talent also plays into it. But it has to be the right combination of talent. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have been making the social commentary A-list for several years now. (Bono and the Edge have too, but Broadway just doesn’t seem to be their genre.) Maybe trying to convert those of vastly different culture to white-shirt-and-tie, clean-cut American values is inherently funny. I suspect there is something more at work here. We are allowed to laugh at Mormonism—the other white religion—without too much recrimination. It is safe. What I doubt we’d ever see on Broadway is The Book of Common Prayer: the Musical. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Incredible Hulk lurch onto stage and burst into song.

Everybody dance!

Kings and Lions

Most parents come to know the Disney Empire intimately. Apart from cheap knock-offs, it is the main entertainment industry for children in a world of leisure. When weighed in the scales of intellectual achievement, Disney productions often end up in the lighter pan. Even some of the more serious stories, such as The Lion King, strive for a gravitas that eludes them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch, however. Yesterday, in a celebration of two closely spaced birthdays, we went to see The Lion King on Broadway. Being in Times Square reminded me that New York City is where many adults go to play, the Disneyland for grown-ups. Even with the rain for which this April has been an overachiever, hundreds of tourists were about, flocking to the famous chapels of the temple to American consumerism.

Having sat through many decent productions of high school, college, and touring company musicals and plays, I never really appreciated how a long-term professional show could raise the standards to a nearly unattainable level. The Lion King story-line has many mythological – Christian, even – themes, but the immediate sense of awe in being in a Broadway theater was underscored mostly by the professionalism of the actors and singers. The play does try to raise the level of awareness of African culture, a heritage nearly wiped out in many locations by overzealous missionaries, albeit in Disney-approved fashion. It is very easy to comprehend why those who frequent Broadway find other productions lacking. In short, the show was spectacular.

As today is the official start of Holy Week, and as Easter is about self-sacrifice and rebirth, The Lion King was an appropriate choice to experience (it was selected by my daughter). The death of Mufasa in the salvation of Simba is played out in a resurrection of sorts when Simba realizes that his father still lives in him. The character of Rafiki also makes for an excellent example of a shaman. Glancing through the playbill, it was evident that many Broadway shows are keyed to religious culture: Jerusalem, Sister Act, Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon, and even Mary Poppins has a magical being descending from the skies to set a minor injustice to right. Now as millions lift their palms on this Sunday the drama will carry on and art will continue to draw its inspiration from religion.

Broadway 1986

Joseph Smith in the Spotlight

Mormons on Broadway? Well, not actual LDSers, but their famous founding document, The Book of Mormon, is now a Broadway show. While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for The Quran to be produced, holy books have often been utilized by the media as rich venues for timeless tales. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind as Lloyd Webber adaptations. Godspell, while not as directly scriptural, drew its inspiration from the Gospels (particularly Matthew). Those who lose are those who resist the free press of popular culture.

At the risk of sounding Niebuhrian, the religion that refuses the blessing of society is the one that will fade away. Religions are human institutions, and as such, require human adherents. Critics often claim that popular adaptations of their sacred writ are making fun of the texts, but is not cultural adaptation all about celebrating a story that has won its way into the media and outside the confines of rigid orthodoxy? Which version can be said to be truly alive? This is not theology, it’s theater.

Working with students who have very little background in the Bible, I clearly see the wisdom of taking what are admittedly dry texts and bringing them to life. Religions often founder in the process of mistaking form for substance. Literalism has done more to damage religions that it has to keep them pure. Reviews from the Book of Mormon attest to its appeal, and in a country where the Latter Day Saints are generally considered the second-fastest growing church, the musical is a boon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can hardly be accused of attempting to convert the heathen, but their show cannot but help to bring this particular denomination into the public eye nearly as much as Mitt Romney’s attempted candidacy will. That’s what I call rose-colored glasses!

You've seen the show, now why not read the book?