This Is Robotics
Recently there was an article in the New Yorker about Google’s quest to build a self-driving car. In it, Charles Smart, an M.I.T. professor, describes the process of figuring out how to get a dirt bike to drive itself, which involved more than six hundred failed test runs. He recalls a colleague of his telling him, “You don’t understand, Charlie, this is robotics. Nothing actually works.”
I can’t think of a more apt statement to describe musical theater. Nothing actually works about musicals. You have to tell a story in front of a live audience where people burst into song that somehow sustains itself for an hour or two and doesn’t crash under the weight of its own implausibility or sentimentality. You stick it together with glue and spit and chord changes and rhymes and hope that it will float, against the laws of emotional physics and the currents of the culture. And for the first hundred times, it usually doesn’t. Or it floats a little while and then sinks, floats and sinks. And you rebuild it and start again.
Which is why I’m always impressed if a musical actually works on some level, whether or not it’s my cup of tea. I recently saw Bayside! The Musical, an Off-Broadway parody of the TV show “Saved By The Bell”. Being too old to have seen the show outside of a few Youtube clips I watched in preparation, I was definitely not the intended audience. I got the basic ideas of what was being made fun of, while missing the nostalgia and sense of personal identification you get from being immersed in a certain form of pop culture when you’re too young to know better. But the audience clearly loved it. The show was raunchy, crass, hyper-referential, with an underlying sweetness about it, a fondness for lost innocence that couldn’t help but seep through the dirty jokes. And it embraced and celebrated the absurdity of what it was doing fully.
More up my alley was Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, which is also running Off-Broadway. Author Dave Malloy adapted a section of Tolstoy’s War and Peace — which, now that he’s done it so successfully, makes perfect sense. Russian novels of the nineteenth century are full of drama kings and queens, people full of emotions — despair, love, lust, anger, etc, with never a moment in-between — and so the show is a joltingly loud, sung-through evening, with the characters constantly ranging from emotional highs to lows and back. Malloy weaves together musical styles, from romantic classical, art song and opera to EDM, funk, Balkan and indie folk, and, improbably, turns them into one perfectly coherent score that is as wild and temperamental as his characters.
Both of these shows have a kind of insane, over-the-top quality, an insistence on existing despite or because of their implausibility. It’s that defiance of what ought to make sense — coupled, as Scott Brown pointed out recently in New York magazine, with rigorous structure — that makes musicals work. Because we as the audience, underneath our cynicism, want to see the impossible happen. We want to watch this giant, unlikely ball float before our eyes. We want to see someone bold and crazy enough to take that leap.