When I get impatient with a show I’m watching, I sometimes feel an urge to yell, “Tell me something I don’t already know!” The song or scene that restates what we’ve learned, or merely understand, emotionally, is bound to bore. Theatre requires surprise, rocking audience expectations on a fairly frequent basis.
Two well-regarded musicals show wives of famous people confronting questions from pestering members of the press: My Husband Makes Movies (Nine) and You Don’t Know This Man (Parade). They provide a study in contrasts.The wife of the international superstar of Italian cinema is hounded because the film-going public demands to know about the personal life of its favorite director. We, in the audience, have just met Guido Contini: he’s charismatic and handsome and so we want to know about him, too. But what’s his wife going to say about him? Clearly, he’s sexually voracious: will his fickleness cause her to slip up and say something negative to the reporters?
“My husband makes movies. To make them he lives a kind of dream in which his actions aren’t always what they seem”
I find this intriguing because it reveals something of Guido’s artistic process. In order to make fantastic films, he divorces himself from reality. What he does cannot be read at face value. And the paparazzi may have been fooled by the face he shows to the public. As his wife, she knows the real Guido.
“When he was working on the film on ancient Rome, he made the slave girls take the gladiators home.”
This is a funny line, and makes us love the guy, as, like Dionysus, he’s encouraging carnality. Since his wife is saying this, we surmise it’s a reason she loves him, too.
Then, surprisingly, she dips into her own memory, no longer literally addressing the press:
“Twenty years ago: Once the names were Guido Contini, Luisa Del Forno, actress with dreams and a life of her own. Passionate, wild and in love in Livorno, singing with Guido all night on the phone. Long ago, someone else ago”
This is an example of how a good song about love gives the audience an experience that’s like love; we feel the ardor. Singing on the phone all night: it feels like I’ve been that person, in my happiest romantic moments. In terms of the whole of the musical, Nine, it foreshadows a different kind of telecommunication Guido has later in the show.
Luisa goes back to the reporters, but now it’s fraught with the frustration over how her relationship has changed:
“My husband makes movies. To make them, he makes himself obsessed. He goes for weeks on end without a bit of rest”
Note how songwriter Maury Yeston has the music rise, to a more fraught place in the voice, compared to similar lines earlier (“gives them to you all”). Great musical dramatists use such devices to emphasize important points. Here, the song is far less pretty than its lush beginning.
“My husband only rarely comes to bed. My husband makes movies instead.”
Uh-oh: She’s let too much slip. She’s revealed something we didn’t expect: that it’s not the adultery that bothers her, it’s being alone in bed too often. I find this utterly heartbreaking.
Leo Frank never intended to be famous, but he was falsely accused of murdering a young girl in his employ. As in Nine, we don’t know a lot about him or his wife when she’s surrounded by reporters in Parade. In order to surprise an audience, you have to estimate what an audience is thinking at the start of the scene. Leo certainly looks innocent: small and meek, polite, and taking very little interest in his employees. Naturally, we assume his wife supports him, and will proclaim he’s decent, honest and good. Will songwriter Jason Robert Brown surprise us, or will he reiterate what we already know?
“When a man writes his mother every Sunday, pays his bills before they’re due, works so hard to feed his family, there’s your murderer for you.”
Gee, she’s sounding like every other wife who’s ever defending her falsely accused husband, saying exactly the same things.
“Wise and good, he is a decent man. He is an honest man.”
O.K., everyone; yell with me: “Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know.”
Practically everything in Parade was a lengthy recap of stuff I already knew. The South, in 1913, contained bigots – thanks for telling me, Parade. I’ve known political folk who decry theatre that reinforces attitudes the audience already holds. I wouldn’t go as far as that: I just think it’s boring.