I’m on the brink

I hope you enjoyed your holiday season, filled it with frivolity, and enjoyed enough reviews of things that happened in 2014.

Because I’m about to throw a bucket of cold water on all that.

You see, when I look back on 2014, I’m immediately struck by a couple of disturbing and newsworthy incidents in the wide world of dramatic arts. True, they didn’t happen to musicals: one was a dramatic work of musical theatre that nobody mistakes for a musical; the other was a goofy movie. The crossbreed of those might be a goofy musical, and since I’ve written more than a few of those, the last part of last year was, in some way, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moment.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time, you know that I urge creators to consider their consumers. Write with a specific audience in mind, I say. But, of course, one can’t always predict who’s going to react to your work. And, in the pair of problems I refer to, it’s a matter of people who never saw the work in question reacting strongly.

I’ll never claim to know much about classical music, but I try to get an inkling of what’s going on. In the minds of many, the pre-eminent living American composer is a trail-blazer named John Adams. Don’t confuse him with the classical composer who celebrates nature in unusual ways, John Luther Adams – he won the Pulitzer this year. Mr. No-Middle-Name won his some years ago, and was a finalist this year. The two men know each other, and I keep picturing them dining at a table for two when a telegraph boy rushes in and says “Telegraph for John Adams.”

The best known work of the John Adams I’m talking about is probably an opera about actions taken by a president (no, not John Adams, nor John Quincy Adams) called Nixon In China. I’m fascinated by the ambition involved in taking a piece of recent history and dramatizing it for the musical stage. Surely everyone walking in to the opera house already has some feelings about Mao Tse-tung and Richard Nixon, probably really strong ones. The musical dramatist deals with a hot potato. (I feel some remote kinship here, having dealt with Senator Joe McCarthy as an off-stage presence in Such Good Friends.) The response to Nixon In China – can you think of a more famous opera from the last half century? – inspired Adams to take on another dramatic episode from the not-distant past, the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists.

Wow. Pause for a moment to just say “Wow.”

And take another moment to consider how you’d create a work of musical theatre dramatizing that tragedy. Would you spend a lot of time convincing your audience that hijacking is evil? That killing innocent civilians is wrong? Does your audience really need to know that?

It just flashed into my mind that my first year in college I worked on a theatre piece made up of Brecht excerpts, including The Jewish Wife. A director I respected derided it: “Wow: That show was really convincing that Hitler was bad.” Brecht’s works make a lot of interesting political points, but by focusing on the anti-Nazi material, the show had made the century’s most important playwright seem trite. I’ve seen a lot of musicals that preach to the choir the most obvious of messages. Does the audience need to be reminded Hitler was bad? Terrorism is bad? Cruise ships shouldn’t be taken over by machine gun-wielding thugs?

Go beyond the obvious pieties. If I were writing about the Achille Lauro, I’d probably go into what the various characters were thinking. Their demands unmet, the terrorists decided to take a handicapped Jewish gentleman, who used a wheelchair, and push him overboard. What’s going on in the victim’s mind? I’d probably give voice to that, but I think it’s not nearly as fascinating as what’s going on in the minds of the murderers.

This might remind you of Shakespeare, who reveals the inner thoughts of Macbeth and Othello. (Not coincidentally, these were adapted into famous and successful operas by Verdi.) In many a great work of art, we peek into the brains of very bad people. Crime and Punishment, anyone?

So, the Metropolitan Opera decided to produce John Adams 1991 opera about the Achille Lauro, The Death of Klinghoffer. And a hew and cry was heard. Hundreds of protestors, including politicians, showed up with signs, chants and taunts at Lincoln Center. Their message was clear: How dare John Adams (and his librettist, Alice Goodman) give voice to Palestinian terrorists? They chose to kill Leon Klinghoffer because he was Jewish, so depicting this on stage is an act of anti-Semitism that must be condemned, and loudly.

What were they so afraid of, I wonder? Would New York’s opera-goers, upon hearing Adams’ soaring arias for the terrorists, then decide to hijack another cruise ship? We all realize that the situation between the Palestinians and Israel is a subject of much controversy. The protestors seemed agitated over the idea that an opera depicting pro-Palestinian violence was somehow going to convert people to the pro-Palestinian cause. Does this make any sense to you?

December brought a silly piece of cinema, The Interview. In it, Seth Rogen and James Franco are enlisted in a plot to kill the leader of North Korea. To everyone’s surprise, threats were made against the movie studio. Show this film and we’ll blow up the theatre – leading the studio to pull the film from its planned wide release. I’m no expert on risk-assessment, so I’ve no comment on whether too much caution was exercised. What interests me is what The Interview has in common with The Death of Klinghoffer.

People, people who wield a certain deal of power, decided the public shouldn’t view these entertainments. And what gets my goat is that they came to that without having seen the works in question. Some opera protesters even admitted this, with perverse pride. We can’t be certain that The Interview’s threat-maker (thought, at one point, to be the North Korean government) hadn’t seen The Interview, but it’s a safe bet. I’ll come clean: I haven’t seen The Interview or The Death of Klinghoffer, but I just gotta say these were two battles between creators and those who sought to prevent these works from being seen. One side’s adding something to the world (even if it’s a low-brow comedy flick) and one’s subtracting from it.

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