I have a love hate thing with Musical Theatre.
I have training in book and lyrics and can talk the craft with the best of them. I still find delight in the movie version of The Sound of Music or a random dance number utilizing jazz hands.
When I was a little girl, I danced around the living room to the Broadway cast records of Annie and Evita (they’re kind of the same show). I get choked up during sections of Les Miz (Oh Eponine, why must you die!) and when Bobby sings Being Alive in Company and during the Money song in Cabaret (long story).
However, when Musical Theatre gets crappy, it gets really crappy. It becomes The Sound of Mucus. It becomes more agonizing than the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland. It makes me want to crack my knuckles, and I hate cracking my bones. I then have to walk away from Musical Theatre for awhile until something good lures me back.
Yes, I have a dysfunctional relationship with Musical Theatre. I love it! I hate it! I love it! I hate it! Love! Hate! Love! Hate!
Gentle reader, I apologize for any musical theatre whiplash that last paragraph might have caused.
I recently got to work as Associate Producer on the spring musical at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood. The show was See What I Wanna See, Michael John LaChuisa’s chamber opera suggested by the stories of Rynosuke Akutgawa. I had really liked LaChuisa’s Wild Party on Broadway a few years ago, so I was excited about being involved with this production.
Both acts of See What I Wanna See begin in Medieval Japan with two lovers scheming to kill each other. This is what it feels like to be God! They exclaim in their songs of desire and blood lust. The rest of Act 1 is set in 1951 film noir New York where we the audience hear contradictory accounts of a murder in central park from a thief, a janitor, a psychic, and a married couple. What is the truth? Do we need the truth in our modern world as we lie and scam and cheat to become Gods of our fates. Act 2 is also set in New York in 2002. A priest, questioning his own faith in God, decides to come up with a miracle in a specific time and place. However, lots of people start to believe the lie. This is what it feels like to be God. The priest says.
This might all sound a bit heady with words like God and truth, but the piece is extremely watch-able and quite moving.
The music is excellent (technical musical theatre term) and carries a lot of the dramatic weight of See What I Wanna See. LaChuisa is able to connect ideas through musical and lyrical motifs. As an audience, we are listening to a score, not just a collection of songs. Each song fits into the larger whole.
The Blank production of See What I Wanna See was very cleanly directed. There was no frivolity. No dumbass musical theatre tricks. The set was minimal. Shifting locations were shown through lighting. The five actors knew what they were doing second by second.
As I sat through See What I Wanna See, I went to my happy musical theatre place. Maybe musicals weren’t so bad after all. Then, during a final dress rehearsal, something more happened. I got the lump in the throat. Yep, I was moved.
In the second act, the Priest meets an Actress who had heard about the fake miracle. I’ve met this Actress character before in other theatrical works. She’s the poor little pretty girl trying to find fulfillment. She usually sings a really pretty song in a spotlight. My reaction to such a character is usually reflexive gagging.
However, this Actress has a lot more in her. She might start off as laughable, but as she sings about her life in the Hills, a devastating auto accident, and her desire for something that has worth, she becomes something very truthful. Her song isn’t pretty. It has pain. All she wants a little miracle. She doesn’t want a big one. Just a little one will do.
So yes, I’m back in love with Musical Theatre, but I know, there’s something out there that will make it all bad for me. Could be. Who knows? It’s only just out of reach down the block on a beach under a tree.