SONG SPOTLIGHT: Where Am I Now
Musical theatre, from an outsider’s perspective, tends to get flack for not being “serious” art. And certainly in the pre-Okalahoma! heyday, excepting the occasional Showboat, musical theatre was dramatically simplistic and rather style over substance. Similarly, comedy as an art form has also tended to suffer when paired against heavy drama, so a musical comedy is hit with the worst of both worlds.
Enter Lysistrata Jones, the Douglas Carter Beane/Lewis Flinn musical, which draws on Aristophanes’ classic bawdy comedy, Lysistrata. In this modernization, Lysistrata and her fellow women withhold sex from their basketball-playing boyfriends to encourage them to end their team’s 30-year losing streak. Despite garnering mostly warm reviews both off and on Broadway, it had a short-lived life on the Great White Way. While the conversation that Jones’ move to Broadway generated about how certain shows are suited for certain venues is an important one to have, one puzzling thread that kept popping up was an unfavorable comparison to Aristophanes’ original play.
One reviewer wrote, “in the Greek classic the women banded together in a sex moratorium to keep their men from waging war. In Beane’s retelling, the biggest shortcoming of modern men is…their inability to compete at sports. (Really?!?)” Another said that Aristophanes “combined subversive comedic antics with hefty stakes. The derivative combines campy comedic antics with no stakes whatsoever.” The implication is that Lysistrata Jones is quite trivial and not deserving of Broadway consideration, unlike her foremother.
Modern readings of Lysistrata tend to cast it as an anti-war and even a proto-feminist play. While it is true that Aristophanes often wrote about ending the ongoing Peloponnesian War (The Achamians, Peace), Lysistrata is not really an anti-war play. Aristophanes had objections to the 27-years-long conflict because it was “Greeks against Greeks,” but he never objected war in general; the soldiers in Lysistrata are praised for their military operations against foreign enemies.
As for feminist interpretations, they certainly weren’t the playwright’s intentions. It “was a completely absurd notion to the Athenian audiences that women would have had any kind of power over men,” and the women in the play only desire a return to domestic stability, not permanent political power.
Furthermore, Lysistrata is a textbook Old Comedy, rife with puns, raunch and lampooning stereotypes. Aristophanes’ comedies were not so much focused on character as they were on one-liners. It’s satire akin to Dr. Strangelove, with shallow caricatures of real-life figures who only exist to skewer Cold War paranoia. In Lysistrata, Aristophanes skewers the Peloponnesian War in a similar manner, with one-joke characters propping up the plot. While wartime stakes are ostensibly hanging in the backdrop, it is hard to be invested in a walking punch line’s fate.
Lysistrata Jones, on the other hand, isn’t “only” about basketball, and its characters feel more real and have more heart than Aristophanes’ characters ever could. I even think that comparing Jones to Lysistrata is unfair because the “Lysistrata Gambit” has become such a stock trope, and Jones borrows that trope to tell a completely different story.
Some reviewers asked why the character Lyssie cared so much about the college basketball team, much more than the players themselves did. Flinn explains that he basketball team’s losing record is just a symptom of “complacency, and the cultural attitude that…you don’t have the power to change anything,” and that’s what concerns Lysistrata. In the show’s official study guide, it says a major theme is “the ability to be and believe in oneself even in the face of peer pressures and conformity.” During the play, the characters break down stereotyped identities and realize that they don’t have to follow their assigned roles without question—the cheerleader would rather make noise at a protest rally, and the jock is better at free verse than free throws. It’s not the most groundbreaking moral, but Jones is certainly more progressive than the original Lysistrata.
The Act 1 finale ballad, “Where Am I Now,” perfectly expresses Lyssie’s major conflict. At this point in the show, Lyssie has lost both her boyfriend Mick and the faith of her sisters-in-crime. The chorus oozes uncertainty: “Where am I now? How am I here? Which way do I turn, when it’s all so unclear?” These generalities work for the character because Lyssie is something of a stereotype who realizes that she wants more real out of life. She is quite literally lost, now that she’s veered off the “correct” course.
“Is this all there really is?” she opines, “Just endless days of making due” and “putting up with second best.” While on some level she’s talking about the basketball team, what she really is expressing is her desire to fulfill a role other than the supportive cheerleader girlfriend, to realize her potential. She wants her own story, “something new, something better to shake me to my core.”
The lyric is a bit general, but is infused with so much subtext if you are familiar with Lysistrata Jones. Even without the context, you understand Lyssie’s basic situation: something she has done has put her in an isolated position, and whatever she did, it was a bold departure for her, and despite the setbacks, she still wants that brand new thing. It’s definitely a playable song, no matter what backstory you want to give it.
“It is my goal to have musical theater songs be ‘popular’ and played on the radio, as was the case with Grease and Dreamgirls,” composer and lyricist Lewis Flinn has said. “Where Am I Now” is definitely a song that deserves radio play, and should be included in singers’ repertoires all over. It hits all the beats that a pop ballad should, with a simple melodic hook, an easy range and key for girls to belt in, and emotionally driven words backed up by gospel breakdowns and impactful modulations. So if you want to explore this unfairly overlooked show, or just have a great pop song for your next cabaret night, “Where Am I Now” is a great place to start.