The jail hospital suite

If I tell you I’m offended by something, here in this world of musical theatre, I’ll run the risk of seeming humorless. And what I really want to talk about today is spinach musicals: and they always risk seeming humorless.

So, I saw these words and my normal reaction would be to ignore them:

We need your help to bring an important, unresolved human rights issue into the light. If you care about human rights, if you believe in justice, please share this video with as many people as you can.

And I would have happily gone on with my day, but saw that this had been posted by a new musical a friend of mine is in. What the hell?

Soon I clicked my way to a crowd-funding request. Like many a charity, it had something to do with a societal ill. In this case, it had to do with the enslavement of Asian women by the Japanese army during World War Two. Your donation – should you choose to open up your heart and wallet – will help to fund a huge off-Broadway musical on the subject.

Offended yet? My friend’s part of a cast of fifty. And those performers should be paid. Because they’re telling a sad but rarely-heard story of man’s perfidy from more the seventy years ago. Nowhere was it explained how the victims of Imperial Japanese villainy would benefit from your giving. This was a ploy to fund an unusually expensive new musical.

Can a brother get an “ick?” Needless to say, I care about human rights; I also care about new musicals. The conflating of the two, well, it seems like a misuse of the medium. I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s outrage, “He lied to us in song, I hate it when people do that.”

So we need a palate-cleanser: let’s talk about spinach. As kids, we’re forced to eat the irony leaves because it’s supposed to be good for us. But the act of forcing virtuous food down our faces leaves a lot of disliking spinach, or vegetables in general.

I happen to like spinach, and vegetables in general, but I have to tell you I’m fairly revolted by spinach musicals. Writers see some societal ill, write a musical about it, and expect me to be moved because, well, that societal ill firmly tugs on the heartstrings. Rather than coming up with a story that moves an audience, the perpetrators take something that’s already moving, throw it up on stage, and think they’ve done their job.

Broadway’s about to see a show based on the true story of a slave-trader turned abolitionist who goes on to write the most famous American hymn (you know, the one the president recently sang). Then there’s going to be the stirring tuner about that time (World War Two, again) when America put its citizens of Japanese lineage in internment camps. Now, I know this is a matter of taste, but I can’t imagine purchasing a ticket to either of them. “Ick” to the nth degree.

In the not-so-gay 90s, the sad-but-true musical was becoming something of a trend. Show after show would musicalize some depressing problem. I was reminded of a song from a Julius Monk revue about creating a musical about “man’s inhumanity to man.” I joked, at the time, that someday somebody would write something called Juvenile Cancer Ward, put dying kids on stage, and the ensuing cry-fest would be produced around the world.

Be careful what you joke about:

Something else I saw this week was an exchange of e-mails between someone in Maryland who was very offended by the jokes about Hitler in The Producers and an actor in the show, eloquently defending it. To me, Mel Brooks’ show-within-the-show, Springtime For Hitler, which is supposed to be the worst musical ever written, is not nearly so offensive as the idea of a musical that takes itself very seriously, seriously telling us how awful Hitler was. I’m an intelligent theatre-goer: I got that. Yet, once, I had to sit through a reading of part of a musical Schindler’s List. (No, I’m not kidding.)

As the Spinach Farmers Association could tell you, it’s hard to market something that’s supposed to be good for you. This is particularly true in musical theatre, where, more times than not, audiences are hoping to have a few laughs. My own show that depicts a sad moment in history, Such Good Friends, kept audiences giggling from start to finish. Promoting it, though, I find it hard to escape the perception that a musical about blacklisting has to be depressing.

You can claim I’m jealous, but I think my distaste for spinach musicals is related to my seeing so many that were unremittingly bleak. Real life – which may be bad at times – always contains moments of lightness and humor. Too many tales that concern the saddest of human experiences omit the jokes, and avoid any moments of light. I suspect some creators feel their subject is too serious to include a laugh here or there. Their laughless musicals therefore seem lifeless, unlike life. To quote a cartoon that inspired an Irving Berlin song, I say it’s spinach and to hell with it.

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