Doing the raging bull

I’ve been reading exhortations to artists to do what we do in light of our current governmental miasma as if we’re needed now more than ever and my reflex is to find them petty. But if I’m going to muse on something, here and now, it can’t be a quick dismissal.

And I’m aware you come to this page for amusement concerning musical theatre creation and history, not for politics, so let’s start with some little-known history: Once upon a time there was a celebrity who was sworn in as president. That same winter, an old friend of his, also a celebrity, put on a musical. The name of the show struck some as a comment on the new direction our ship of state was being steered to, Step To the Right. The show opened in Beverly Hills, California in a theatre I know pretty well from its movie-showing days. The show got nothing but terrible reviews, including one from the estimable Dan Sullivan in The Los Angeles Times. The star of the show was understandably distraught. He’d finished his second long-running (if undistinguished) television show and hoped fans would turn out to see his return to his musical roots. Many years earlier, MGM wanted to cast him as the Tin Man but an adverse reaction to silver paint, er, tarnished the plan.

I’ve gone on too long without naming names: The seventy-something song-and-dance man was Buddy Ebsen and he called his buddy in the White House and before you could say “crony capitalist” Ronald Reagan phoned Dan Sullivan in an attempt to coax him to say something positive about Step To the Right. Well, someone knew about the ethics of the job he held, and the critic refused. For some reason, the pressure-exerting failure went on to be known as The Great Communicator, although his best-known quote is not “Mr. Sullivan, take down that review!”

I’ve told this before, but hanging on a wall in the place where one of my shows rehearsed was a quote from Bertolt Brecht. “In the bad times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the bad times.” So, is that what we’re all supposed to do now, channel our grief and fear into some musical? Writing this so soon after the election, that seems, to me, like mighty weak tea.

It’s true I concur with Aristotle that theatre provides needed catharsis to a pained populace. But, by the time any musical I write today gets on the boards, we’ll be on to the 46th president, if not the 47th. I’m reminded of California’s infamous Proposition 8 some years back, an initiative designed to strip gay people of their civil rights. It passed, and, some weeks afterward, Marc Shaiman released an entertaining musical comedy number on YouTube. It was the sort of thing that might have changed a lot of voters’ minds had they only seen it before voting.

Thursday night I happened to see a new Broadway musical that had a developmental reading back when George W. Bush was president. I wish I had a greater understanding of why these things take so long. And what happens during those eight years? Are there daily improvements? Does the script spend a certain amount of time preserved in amber? Why are other shows rushed to Broadway with comparatively little pickling?

The day after the election I made a minor change in a lyric that had been bothering me for some time. I still don’t think I’ve fixed the song, but five words replaced five not-so-wonderful words and that’s something. It’s possible, though, that I’m making too big a deal of this minor adjustment.

But I can’t help seeing this in terms of those exhortations to artists to make art. You see, having voted and then bitterly crumpled up that “I Voted” sticker, we all feel pathetically powerless right now. It didn’t soothe me to read “You are empathizers and listeners and powerful agents of change.” – not one bit. What we do, when we get to do it, takes years of tinkering, sweating details to get things just right. It’s a long, slow process.

But so’s governing. I like the ship of state analogy, since it takes quite a bit of work to turn a ship in a different direction. Sure, candidates promise to do all sorts of things, “in the first hundred days” to reverse the policies of the previous office-holder. As we quake in fear that some of the wonderful advancements of the past eight years may get overturned, remember that most changes come slowly over time. Those “hundred day” promises are pie-in-the-sky and the alterations are likely to be incremental. It’s taken me two years to come up with a second draft of my current front-burner musical; I believe it’s radically different. The radical difference in the way the government does things might take as many years, at which point we get another chance to repopulate the houses of Congress.

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