That’s Why They Call It That
I recently had the opportunity to see the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, starring Elisabete Matos and Sondra Radvanovsky, who share the title role. I remember getting through the first act, when one of the group of people I saw it with turned to me and said “It’s funny. It’s so beautiful, but I’ve never understood what the hell this piece is about.” He was right. The opening act is sort of a weird comment on art, with a hint of a crazy love affair filled with ridiculous jealousy, the drama of which never really continues. The second act witnesses our lovers suffering the consequences for harboring a fugitive we meet in the first act, which ends in the death of a major villain (who has very little stage time, considering his theme is the first thing you hear in the entire piece, AND it’s the most memorable series of chords you may ever hear), and the third act continues to a tragic end, which really has little or nothing to do with the first two acts, and has more to do with miscommunication. It’s lovely. It really is. And you can never go wrong with a Puccini score, but it really begs the question, what the hell is this thing about?
Focusing on the musical theatre genre, I want to point out where several writers have gotten this question a thousand percent right.
Sheldon Harnick famously tells an anecdote about when Jerome Robbins had begun directing Fiddler on the Roof. Robbins would always ask Harnick and Jerry Bock what the show was about, and they’d reply saying it was about a milk man and his family in Russia. This wasn’t what the show was about. This was really just basic plot. What was the show about? Finally, they arrived at the answer. Tradition. Bam. It happened, and that shit has been running in every school, community theatre, college, and whatever since, making gobs of money and reaching millions of people with a brilliant story, and it opens with the song “Tradition.”
There’s something about making the damn point completely clear at some point in the show.
A lot of times, “the point” song is right at the beginning, such as with Fiddler and How to Succeed, where Finch sings (as a window washer) about applying for a job, working in the mailroom, and moving up to executive, all in one short verse, hinting at his incredibly fast rise to the top of the business world. Assassins opens with “Everybody’s Got the Right,” summing up the entirety of the screwed up and incredibly true thesis of Sondheim and Weidman’s show.
Sometimes it’s even better to hide it until later, like in Into the Woods, where we have to wait until the second act to find out what’s REALLY going to happen to all these screwed up characters, and then Steve hits us in the face with a song like “Children Will Listen” and the audience is like “Yup. That’s what it is. I guess I should be a better person.” Or in LaChiusa’s Wild Party, where we get treated to Eartha Kitt singing to us about what happens when the party ends, a metaphor for going through life recklessly without slowing down for just a second to see what’s missing.
“The higher the high, the harder you’re gonna crash back down when it ends.”
Or even in Company, the idea of the entire show being summed up in “Marry Me A Little.”
“Marry me a little. Love me just enough. Cry, but not too often. Play, but not too rough.”
Shows can be incredibly complex, and even confusing, but so many times, I’ve found myself speechless at how a writer decides to throw the title line at you. Tennessee Williams is the extreme version of this, beating you over the head with CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF! JUST LIKE A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF! CAT. ON. A. HOT TIN…. you get it.
It’s like the moment of the title drop in a film. There’s something really electric about finding that moment in a piece of theatre. When it all makes sense.
The best pieces I’ve ever seen have a thesis of some kind, a point, and the effectiveness of that piece relies so heavily, for me, on just how gracefully the artist maneuvers the audience around that idea, and just when they decide to release the essence of everything it’s about onto us.