Certainly feels obligatory. Across the blogosphere, everywhere you look, there are solemn and sober remembrances of that tragic Tuesday morning ten years ago. This, I can promise you, will be different, since our subject is the creation of musicals.
I was asked, last weekend, how I felt about musicals about the Holocaust. In earshot were friends who were unaware that there have been many shows on that harrowing topic, including one on Broadway last season. It seemed the wrong time to admit that, in college, I’d written one myself. As this was a party, not an academic dissection, I merely mentioned one of my beloved tenets of theatre. “I would never want to see a show that found no place to break out for moments of humor.” The funny people around me nodded their agreement.
That college kid musicalizing Jews hiding from the Nazis thought the same thing then: There’s got to be moments of levity, because life, even at its bleakest, always contains some amount of humor, somewhere. The trouble I have with a lot of today’s musical tragedies is that they never lighten their tone. Relentlessly sad pieces of theatre, therefore, don’t mirror life at all. They’re unreal in their refusal to let in a bit of laughter. That’s not the way humans act. While these shows sell themselves as being “realistic” (as musicals go), nothing could be further from the truth.
Jeffrey Sweet’s think-piece (in Dramatics) about another one of my shows discusses how musicals usually celebrate something, most often a value the audience already holds. That’s not a rule – but when most people think about musicals, they think about singing and dancing that’s joyful, spirits so high they move the characters’ feet. I scratch my head in wonder, sometimes, that so many people choose to write shows on sad subjects: death, cancer, children with cancer, AIDS, drug abuse, suicide, the Holocaust, and, yes, 9/11.
You thought I’d never get back to that subject, right? Well, I’ll tell you a funny story. Ten years ago, I was hired by Second City to create the score for a comedy revue. A couple of days after the attack, fearless director Kevin Scott assembled the cast and they talked about being funny in fearful times. They knew they had an audience that was more apt to burst into tears than to crack a smile, yet they took on the Herculean challenge of creating a very funny revue in New York, starting in September of 2001. I believe the show opened in December. It was called We Built This City On Rent Control. Hailed as the first post-9/11 comedy revue, it included a number called Terror Sex, which played with the idea that, in those fraught times, people were abandoning old inhibitions and becoming promiscuous.
Some weeks later, Kevin and I began another Second City project, with a new cast that included the future Broadway star Mary Faber, A Time For Heroes and Hoagies. Emboldened by the successful Rent Control experience, we chose to take the subject head on: The revue kept returning to what was now called Ground Zero. We satirized the various types of people who visited there, early in 2002. I wrote a trio positing that the workers tirelessly sifting through the rubble might be turning on some of those ogling from above. Faber played an old Floridian running off at the mouth about how the anchors on The Today Show reacted that fatal morning while her beleaguered husband sang about the weariness of the overextended tourist. And our finale involved a father dragging a toddler to Ground Zero. “It looks like a big sandbox.” He then struggles to explain why he’s brought her there.
That finale certainly wasn’t a laugh riot, but both shows had a stunning cumulative effect: It provided catharsis, in part by demonstrating to New Yorkers that it was O.K. to laugh again. It felt good, after all the serious speechifying of the time. And the secret of the song’s success was its specificity. The lyric dramatizes the young father’s struggle to find kid-friendly terms, ideas and images, all justifying the visit to Ground Zero. I remember feeling, for years after the attack, a certain umbrage over how the site had become New York’s number one tourist attraction. As a lifelong New Yorker, I take pride in the things the people of Gotham have built: The Chrysler Building, Lincoln Center, The High Line, etc. The World Trade Center was there no more, and it bothered me that this had become tourists’ must-see. I guess one could say I worked out my issue by creating a song about it.