Would You Care For a Revolution?: An Almost Essay
Time continues to tick as war rages on. Factions of people with differing opinions and the willpower to make their opinions the majority are on the rise. Instead of “seeing eye to eye,” “an eye for an eye” becomes the golden rule. Blood spills and hearts are heavy as the struggle for something better continues. These occurrences happen in some of our most popular musicals. Strikingly, these musicals become hits during real life times of strife. Are audiences thrilled to know that real life stories are being told as they happen? And does it hurt a revolution-themed musical to debut in a somewhat less volatile year? These are not questions I feel I can truly answer, but they are definitely thoughts I would like to examine.
I started wondering about these things recently thanks to a musical named Venice. This show, about what happens when a community has been divided for years and two lovers try their hardest to bridge the gap, was quite an emotional firestarter. Picture this: two communities at war – a rich and entitled group who had the resources to rise above the tortured ruins of the city, and the idealistic yet struggling members of the seemingly lower class who must find a way to bring peace and change where none has existed. It made its debut in LA, with a long workshop process that, according to my friend Sarah, was a thing of beauty. The show had drive and integrity. It had a warrior’s heart. And thanks to a sprinkling of Shakespearean flair (closer to Othello, less so the famed merchant), it seemed like it had wheels. Yet when it debuted at The Public, it lost much of its steam. The show my friend invested so much love, energy, and cash for countless tickets was suddenly gone in the night. Although I can’t say I didn’t recognize some of the show’s flaws when I saw it, I thoroughly enjoyed the things that were good. Having Uzo Aduba break my heart on stage is something I could never complain about. Being enamored by Matt Sax’s rhymes and charisma was something worth feeling. Having a bird’s eye view of the ramifications of splitting a city via the good side and bad was a worthwhile experience and an amazing conversation starter. Yet this little piece about a revolution did not take flight.
I thought about what would have happened if this show had made its way to New York a year later. If Venice debuted during this fall’s political unrest, could it have made it to Broadway? Were there parallels between what I and many others felt as names like Trayvon, Mike, and Eric were painted across the media and the battles of these characters? Could a challenging show about fear, change, betrayal, and hope have made its way deeper into our hearts during such a period?These thoughts led me to wonder about other political, yet successful shows. Les Miserables caught its momentum during a tough era in London. The disillusionment with a Thatcher-led government might have played into its power. Miss Saigon became a runaway hit during similar political strife. Yet these were both British successes that transferred. It occurred to me that maybe American strife led to more insular storytelling. For example, though both take place during World War II and found great acclaim, Carmen Jones and South Pacific focused on specific relationships and not the overall uproar. Carmen Jones debuted in the midst of the war and tackled the idea of black relationships. It allowed African Americans to be modern, sexual, and have lives not devoted to servitude on a Broadway stage when most other forms of media would not allow such a scenario to be seen. Yet this was not a rebellion. Its storytelling did not focus on a physical battle. South Pacific, debuting after peace had been met but the fear of Russia was at a peak, blossomed thanks to its militaristic flair. Still, at its heart, it allowed audiences to see a single father be a parent and a young white woman understand that race should not be a factor in love. Again, not a physical coup. Hair debuted during war time in Vietnam, but focused on a group of outliers and not the unrest of the whole. Cabaret follows a similar pattern of strife, though the political upheavals that add depth to the story occur in the background. If the personal struggles are to be the focus, it becomes a great tale of a woman making her own path. They were adventurous and daring, but in a subtle manner. These musicals broke down our country’s ideas of how individual people choose their own fates, what people of color could aspire to in their private lives, and what freedoms young people were allowed. It was a smaller pill to swallow as opposed to a direct shot in the arm.
Venice seemed to stray from this mold. There are controversial relationships in the show, specifically the main love story between the character Venice and his paramour Willow, but they grow out of the theme of war. It’s almost as if the love between these two has been heightened due to the suffering the war has caused. The battles and upheaval in the story almost become their own characters. This differs slightly from the American musicals mentioned above. In its own way, Venice united a bubble in history, harkening back to centuries’ old storytelling. In spite of that, it just could not find its footing. Maybe American audiences like our creations to be straightforward. Maybe it is easier to focus on our own issues in a minute form of storytelling. Maybe I am missing several bombastic musicals that shocked the world and the box office. Or maybe I should stop asking questions that can’t be answered.