With the World So Much Amiss

We had our first read-through/sing-through of New Line Theatre's I Love My Wife last night. I love every single song in the score and this is one of the funniest scripts I've read in a long time, like really funny. At the same time it is such an artifact of the 1970s -- the unconscious sexism, the public "discovery" that people are sexual, the still prevalent assumption that a man can order a woman to do something...

I've been watching the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (from 1970) to get my head into that time and place, and the more I watch it, the more I start to understand I Love My Wife. I was born in 1964, so I remember the 70s, but only from the point of view of a child. I remember the adult women at some family gathering all going back into a bedroom and closing the door so they could look at the souvenir program from Oh! Calcutta! (that's the original cast above), which my aunt had seen on Broadway. I also remember hearing about Deep Throat, and I finally saw it on video in 1982 (it's a really funny movie).

And thinking about all this helps me understand that I Love My Wife is more than just a comedy about these two couples. It's a really well-crafted, insightful, cultural snapshot of America in 1977, the wrenching changes the country was going through, the tentative openness about sex, the morphing of gender roles that had been solidly in place since the creation of the suburbs in the postwar years. Like Hair and The Rocky Horror Show, this is a concept musical about America itself, and it uses these two couples as stand-ins. Among these four characters -- Alvin and Cleo, and Wally and Monica -- we see the whole spectrum of people's comfort with sexuality at this pivotal point in our cultural history. Wally is the most open, the most adventurous (the Hugh Hefner of the story); Alvin is scared but still really wants this. Cleo doesn't want to be adventurous, but gives in to Alvin; and Monica is horrified at the adventure laid out before her. Of course, the two at the extreme ends, Wally and Monica, are married to each other.

I also realize now that the songs all work entirely as commentary on the times. The songs also sometimes relate directly to the action in the book scenes, but they never grow out of the script organically, like songs in most musicals do. They step out of the story. This show works a lot like Stephen Sondheim's Company.

The song "Monica" is about sexism, about men objectifying women. This was the first time in American history that that wasn't okay. Wally's song "By Threes" helps to move the plot along to some extent, but it also gives authentic voice to the "pro-sex" forces in America who preached the gospel of Sexual Liberation. Their rallying cry was, "If it feels good, do it." It's no accident that Wally works in public relations, still a trendy, new industry and an ironically funny label for group sex!

The song "A Mover's Life" confused me at first -- why is it in this show? But now I realize it describes what America had become, nomadic, rootless, disconnected. These characters are grasping for connection. America's culture had evolved faster than its citizens. They say that moving is one of the most stressful events in a person's life, and yet by the 70s, Americans were moving more often and further away than ever before, often disconnecting from family (and this is before airplane flight was as common as it is now). The song is all about how sad and apprehensive all this furniture is (standing in for us disconnected humans), but these movers gently bring all of it to some new place that's warm and safe. To some extent, that's what these guys also do structurally, as a Greek Chorus, for the couples and for us, the audience. They move us gently through this treacherous adventure, step by step -- and of course, they also move the set pieces. (Later in the show, when the two couples are all in bed together, Alvin's job as a mover will become ironically funny.)

The song "Love Revolution" is Cleo's moment to try and convince herself to go on the adventure. But it also characterizes many Americans at that time -- they didn't believe in what they were being told, but they didn't want to be left out either. Since the invention of the suburbs, "keeping up with the Joneses" was an important social duty. If everyone else was doing it, you didn't want to be the only one who wasn't! In this song, Cleo examines her lonely, empty suburban life and, compared to the adventure being offered to her, her life seems even worse...

In "Someone Wonderful I Missed," we see the questioning of lifelong monogamy, which was part and parcel of the Sexual Revolution. All the rules were in question. In the Act I finale, "Sexually Free," they sing the praises of sexual freedom, except... The entire lyric is phrased in terms of "if." If we could do this, if we could think this way, if we could just forget about that, then we'd be sexually free. The trouble is, most people can't get through all those ifs. Here at the end of Act I, the writers are already telling us how the story is going to end...

The second act opens with another song that doesn't immediately seem like it belongs in the show, "Hey There, Good Times." But when you really listen to the lyric, these guys are begging the Good Times to show up, so they can no longer be "out there where the bad times blow." This song is a funnier, brighter companion piece to the very dark, less optimistic song "Let the Sun Shine In," from Hair. Both songs have the same basic agenda, to end the bad times and bring on the good times. But while "Let the Sun Shine In" is asking the audience directly to end the darkness of war and death, "Hey There, Good Times" is talking about tough economic times and cultural confusion. The 70s was a tough decade -- the energy crisis, recession, massive cultural upheaval... These guys are trying to fight the "malaise" that was bringing the whole country down. This song is there to give us context for this story, and it's also part of the larger snapshot of America. Of course, it also describes the emotional state that has led these characters to this crossroads.

"Lovers on Christmas Eve" is an important song in the show. Two-thirds of the way through the show, this is the first song about romance. And the sudden realization of that makes the events of Act I even creepier. But this song also contributes to the Big Picture. As people in the 70s felt less and less comfortable with the Sexual Revolution, many couples revolved 180 degrees and decided to tune out all the cultural bullshit, focusing instead on having a loving, nurturing relationship, something the culture around them made very hard. Lots of self-help books for couples flooded the market.

The song "Scream" perfectly describes both the 70s zeitgeist and these two couples -- jumpy, confused, anxious, frustrated. All the music in this show is amazing, but this song is extra cool because the music does what the lyrics describe, plowing through the weirdest chord changes, the jumpiest melody line, and literal primal screams at the end. Likewise "Everybody Today is Turning On" shows the bafflement more conventional folks felt over marijuana and the other now more socially acceptable drugs, and the nostalgia they felt for "simpler times." But the times, they were a-changin'. Until this time, drugs were for hippies. But now the hippies were growing up, and for the first time, lots of adults were smoking pot. For those who weren't, this was a very disturbing development. All their lives they were told how deadly marijuana was; now suddenly their next door neighbor is smoking every night. What do they make of that?

"Married Couple Seeks Married Couple" is a funny commentary on the (then) new invention of personal ads for sex. But as they sing, we see they're doing all this not out of adventurousness but out of boredom. Our high energy, senses-assaulting, high speed culture was creating citizens who needed constant stimulation. (Within a few years MTV would make this even worse.) Normal, conventional, old-fashioned lives now seem boring. Like Pippin, these couples seek "fulfillment" and don't know yet that they aren't going to find what they're looking for.

In the finale, Alvin (as a stand-in for the others) finally figures out what he really wants... But I can't tell you what that is or I might give away the ending. Suffice to say that the show ends as the 70s end.

Like a lot of New Line shows, this one doesn't operate like conventional musicals. The closest relative I can think of is Company, which is a pretty weird show itself, even still today. Musical theatre got adventurous in the 1960s, but it got subtextual in the 1970s.

Have I said lately how much I love this show?

Long Live the Musical!