The Intersection Between Star Trek and Musical Theatre

I've been thinking a lot the past few years about my early artistic influences. I guess I'm at that point in my life where I feel I'm pretty good at what I do and I think I've developed my own personal aesthetic (maybe that's not the right word) or style (not exactly right either).

And that makes me think sometimes (like when I'm baked) about how I got here from there. Artistically speaking.

Kinda Like Frank Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along:
How did you get there from here, Mr Shepard?
What did you have to go through?
How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard?
How did you get to be you?

I've already blogged about some of my early influences – working at The Muny, a live encyclopedia of musical theatre for me to study for eight years; seeing Grease and Rocky Horror as a teenager, the two films that changed everything I thought I knew about musicals; seeing The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway, discovering Cop Rock...

But I realize now that one of the biggest influences on who I am now was the original Star Trek. I was too young to watch it when it was first broadcast, but I watched it in syndication for years, seeing every episode many times. One of my strongest memories of childhood is in the summertime when my mother would be getting home from the grocery store just as Star Trek came on; so when they were in season, I ate about a pound of green grapes every Saturday afternoon watching Star Trek.

Only musicals can make me happier than that.

One of the things that I think connected me so powerfully was the very essence of Star Trek, even though I was too young to consciously register it – that Star Trek was a show about politics and sociology and that it traded in unabashed optimism about the human race. Like many of the greatest works of science fiction, the science/future stuff allowed a distance and a mask that gave Star Trek virtually unlimited freedom to talk about the issues of the day. Gene Roddenberry, the true genius behind Star Trek, addressed racism, the industrial-war complex, the hippie movement, nuclear weapons, government overreach, unjust wars, terrorism, environmentalism, and so many other issues, and he got away with it, even in the explosive 1960s, because the stories were set hundreds of years in the future.

I find much the same is true with musicals. The presence of the inherently joyful act of singing, and the ridiculously artificial act of actually breaking into song, give an audience a little intellectual distance – exactly the effect Bertolt Brecht advocated – that allows them to spend some time with people or issues they might otherwise avoid. I mean, who would ever want to really be in the same room with Sweeney Todd or the teen murderers of Love Kills? But the unreality of musical theatre makes it okay.

I can see now that New Line has a philosophy almost identical to the philosophy of Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek (which is not really a surprise to me, now that I think about it) both cynical and idealistic, serious and funny (and often both at once), intellectual and very big-hearted, and profoundly aware of the power and importance of storytelling.

And Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is both one of the most entertaining shows we've ever worked on and one of the most political. After all, it's a story specifically about politics. And just as Roddenberry addressed current issues by setting them a few hundred years into the future, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson addresses our current political and policy challenges by setting them a couple hundred years in the past. But there's no mistaking what the show's creators Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman are talking about. They're talking about Us. Here. Now.

Timbers and Friedman have held up a fun house mirror to our current political climate and it just happens to look a whole lot like the politics of 1828. As Mark Twain said, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." Yeah, no shit.

At New Line, we believe in the theory that all great entertainment, all great art should contain three important elements – poetry, popcorn, and politics. In other words, it must be good art, it must be entertaining, and it must be about something of import. Otherwise, why bother? BBAJ (as we theatre folk call the show) gets an A+ in all three categories

Acting guru Stella Adler once said, "Unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger – better – do not act." Actor Ben Kingsley has said about actors, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you." And not just recognizing themselves individually, but also collectively, as a society.

In 2010, President Obama hosted an evening of Broadway music at the White House (and how fucking awesome is that!), and he said, "In many ways, the story of Broadway is intertwined with the story if America. Some of the greatest singers and songwriters Broadway has ever known came to this country on a boat with nothing more than an idea in their head and a song in their heart. And they succeeded the same way that so many immigrants have succeeded – through talent and hard work and sheer determination. Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics."

Exactly.

The real final frontier is the dangerous but fascinating terrain of the human heart and mind. That's where the adventure lies. Just ask Luke Skywalker or Rob Gordon.

Working on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is going to be such a gift. I can't wait to see what this cast of incredibly talented character actors and comedians are going to bring to this brilliant, ballsy, thrilling piece of political theatre.

The adventure begins. Again.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

2 comments:

Ethan Jones | August 7, 2012 at 9:16 PM

Scott,

I can especially relate specifically to two of the things you bring up in this blog. The first is what you said about "Star Trek". I was just a kid when this wonderful show was broadcast in the late 60's, but I didn't really appreciate it until I watched the reruns in the 70's. It was and still is a phenomenal show and I find its message about the human condition to be spot on and just as relevant today as it was during its original run. I could go on and on about how much I still love this show.

I also like what you brought up about acting. I have been in several productions here in the St. Louis and St. Charles metro area and what keeps me going on auditions is the joy of storytelling. I specifically audition for projects in which I feel that I can make a real contribution to telling a certain story. It is never about me, but instead it is about holding up a mirror to the audience to show them themselves. Speaking of Ms. Adler, she once said that theatre is a kind of social x-ray in which a society can examine its own vices and virtues. This is one of the things that stays in the back of my mind every time I accept a role in a theatrical production.

May you and I both keep doing our part to support live theatre!

Ethan Jones

Anonymous | August 7, 2012 at 10:52 PM

Great post. I, too, remember Star Trek with respect and admiration. I swear I use stories from it in my directing all the time. Especially the one where Kirk breaks the "war" computer, and the one where the half-blackface/half-whiteface folks are fighting each other. Pertinent stuff, that show, and still so relevant. Thanks for sharing!
Peace
Cat Parker
http://catlander.wordpress.com/the-interviews/