The Real is a Construct

This is one of the densest shows I've ever worked on, so packed with meaning and metaphor, and so often in the form of gorgeous, rich -- but very dense -- poetry. I don't think I've worked so hard on a text since we did Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris back in 1997. I think there's something to be said for the idea that audiences will take from this show what they need, maybe something different for each person, depending on where they are in their own life's journey, their own personal, life-long Hero Myth.

But as a company, we have to agree on what these passages mean. We all have to be on the same page, telling the same story, to create a compelling piece of art.

The Real is a construct.

That phrase is the latest puzzle for me. And I guess it starts with asking what is The Real? I think The Real represents some essential truth that the Youth is searching for. It's what Eastern philosophies would call Enlightenment, a fundamental understanding of the nature and purpose of Life. This is the central journey of our story. In The Wizard of Oz (one of the most famous Hero Myths), Dorothy Gale's essential truth is that "there's no place like home;" in other words, the search for enlightenment doesn't require physically leaving home, but it does require leaving behind the assumptions of home. The Hero's journey is really an interior one in today's world. We've conquered the Wild West, we've explored all the physical space there is to explore. As our lives continually become physically easier and easier, we have more time and consciousness to focus on our interior lives.

From an African American perspective, that interior journey was largely a luxury when most Black folks were slaves. Though there were some early exceptions, the exploration of the African American interior journey began in earnest with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, led by (among others) James Baldwin, a figure referenced several times in Passing Strange, along with his novel Giovanni's Room, about a Black man living in Paris, (which is one of the ways Mr. Franklin knows about Europe in Act I).

Stew tells us in the show that the Youth's journey is primarily about finding The Real, but he does not explicitly define it for us. He does tell us that "The Real is a construct," but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. After all, construct means a product of ideology, history, or social circumstances. Civilization is a construct and so is time, but they both exist. And our lives are a construct. We create them. We build them over time, moment by moment. We fashion them as we live, as a product of ideology, personal history, and social circumstances. And when we realize that The Real is a construct, that necessarily means that your Real will always be different from my Real, because each of us has a different ideology, history, and social circumstance. Before he learns this, our hero keeps getting trapped in other people's version of The Real -- the Buppies in L.A., the hippies in Amsterdam, the Nowhausers in Berlin. They've all found The Real for themselves, but when they try to impose their Real on the Youth, it doesn't fit.

In L.A., they find The Real in religion; in Amsterdam, they find The Real in free love and hedonism; and in Berlin, they find The Real in politics. But the Youth has to find his own Real.
'Cuz The Real is a construct...
It's the raw nerve's private zone...
It's a personal sunset
You drive off into alone.

Is that related to this passage in Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George?
Anything you do,
Let it come from you,
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.

Strangely enough, the Youth discovers The Real isn't literally real. It's more abstract, more ethereal. The Real is a state of being. It's a way of living, a path, it's the Tao. According to Wikipedia, "In all its uses, Tao is considered to have ineffable qualities that prevent it from being defined or expressed in words. It can, however, be known or experienced, and its principles (which can be discerned by observing Nature) can be followed or practiced." In other words, The Real isn't real. Except that it sort of is...

For the Youth, The Real is artistic expression. Like Stew says "Some people feel like art is more real than life... And that really gives you something to think about." The song "Work the Wound" is about his acceptance that creating art is his path. The Narrator sings, "Every day I build a mask up to the task, another song, you see. I live behind the rhyme and verse. I lift my voice till I lift the curse; it's all rehearsed you see. This music always rescues me; there's a melody for every malady, prescription song, you see..."

Every character in the show lives behind a mask. They all "perform" their lives in some way. That's what the song "Baptist Fashion Show" is all about. That's what the character of Mr. Franklin and the jokes about the Mother's "Negro dialect" are about. But while the others aren't conscious of their mask wearing, the Youth/Narrator is. He chooses to be the storyteller. His masks have a purpose beyond hiding. This is his road. One of the most powerful moments in the show for me is when the Mother tells the Narrator (her son), "Don't be sad about your chosen path, and where it's taken you so thus far. 'Cuz this is what you did, and that is who you are. And it's alright." In other words, yes, he has made mistakes; yes, he has hurt and lost people; but this is his path. It accomplishes nothing to regret the past or to question the road he's on. It's his road.

In Berlin, Desi sings to him, "So come down now, remove your mask..." -- she's telling him to come down off the metaphorical stage he lives on, to stop performing his life (even though she does the same thing). But performing is his road. She's asking him to give up what is most essential in him, just as Edwina and Marianna did. And he can't do that.

But while finding The Real is the primary action of our story, Stew wants us to learn that though the search for meaning is important to life, it's not life itself. They say the unexamined life is not worth living. And while I believe that's true, Stew is telling us something deeper -- that the un-lived life is not worth examining. The pursuit of The Real shouldn't prevent us from living a full life engaged with the world. After all, as the Narrator sings, "Love is more than real."

Ultimately, Stew has offered up a fable for us with Passing Strange, sharing with us what he has learned in his life, as all great artists must, and this beautiful work of art takes it place beside similar works, including Federico Fellini's 8 1/2; Woody Allen's Stardust Memories; Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, and Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. Notably, every one of these autobiographical statements of philosophy toys with the idea of reality...

Stew's message to us in the end is that life is not a Hero Myth. Our lives are much more complicated than that. While storytelling can teach us important truths, it's just a story. There are things we can learn from art, but we can't live in art; we must live in the world to live fully.

With every show, I work to find the one sentence that sums up the central point of the story. Finding this sentence is the foundation for all the other work. In other words, what story are we telling here? We all have to know this if we're gonna do our job well. As examples... The point of Fiddler on the Roof is that traditions are important but they must adapt to a changing world. The point of Cabaret is that doing nothing is also a political act. The point of Rent is that there is always life to be found and celebrated, even in the midst of death. The point of Next to Normal is that some journeys must be taken alone.

I'm still thinking about all this, but I believe the point of Passing Strange is that life is a journey and we each have to find our own path and our own personal truth, but we can't let that search for enlightenment keep us from living life. It doesn't help us to understand life if we're not fully living it. In the song "Come Down Now," a female voice sings, "Now you are knee deep in your head's footnotes." Is this the inner voice of Desi or is it the voice of Stew the writer of Passing Strange, which would mean it's also the voice of the Youth, since he and the Narrator are the same person? The message here is that you can't live life inside your head.

If I'm right, if that is Stew's central statement, then we have to make sure every single moment in the show is working toward that idea. That's what gives a show unity and it's what gives a story power. As we work, I'll test my hypothesis, and if I find things in the show that don't point toward that, I'll adjust my hypothesis.

The work continues.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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