The Rent kids, the Spelling Bee kids, Bobby, George Seurat, Edgar the Bat Boy, Rob Gordon, Cry-Baby Walker, Hedwig Schmidt, Fosca, Barfée, Ferderick and Desirée, Veronica and J.D., Queenie and Burrs, even Frank N. Furter and Sondheim's assassins – all of these characters, and many others who've appeared in our shows – essentially seek one thing.
And that's harder than ever right now, in this toxic culture of ours. While social media has connected us in ways we could never have dreamed before, it has also accidentally given us powerful tools to demonize and Other-ize.
On top of that, most of us have not yet learned how to tame our Inner Beast who has discovered how easy it is to be really mean and nasty when you're anonymous.
Couple that with the fact that most Republicans are both manipulated by and driven by fear, and you get a heady brew that manifests itself as anger and outrage, but quite often outrage over things that don't exist or aren't true, as long as they match their confirmation bias.
Too many conservatives fear Others, so they don't seek out connection. But we all crave human connection (just look at the success of Facebook), so those who fear those connections create for themselves even more disconnection, which leads to even more anger and outrage, as they perceive the world only in terms of Us vs. Them.
The reason humans tell stories is to make sense out of life, to make order out of chaos, to connect us all through the shared experience of being human in this time and place. We learn about ourselves and the people and world around us by experiencing stories. They teach us lessons, they show us our history, they explore human conflict, they deliver truths that we need.
Many people were freaked out by Jerry Springer the Opera earlier this year, but the central message of that show is Don't Judge. "Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy." Could there be a more potent, more timely, more important message right now?
What can we learn from George and Edgar and Rob? That connection is always better than disconnection, that disconnection leads to fear, misunderstanding, isolation, and sometimes violence. Just look at Ferguson.
Which is why live theatre is both awesome and important. It's pretty hard to disconnect when you're in the same room with the storytellers and an audience. The more we connect the better humans we become. The more we understand others and their experiences, the better we understand ourselves and the more fully we live.
That's what connection can do.
The thing a musical does best is emotional connection, mostly because the abstract language of music conveys emotion so much better than words can. It's hard to sit in an audience and not forge a connection with the characters in Spelling Bee or bare or Hands on a Hardbody. We are those characters onstage, so we automatically connect with them. We are reassured as we sit in the darkened theatre that everybody goes through trials and tribulations, and that we all survive them too.
If you need any proof of the connection I describe, watch a theatre audience sometime. They become a single organism, responding together in unison. Any stage actor or director can tell you that each audience has a collective personality, some quieter, some more rowdy, some more focused, some more emotionally engaged. A room full of strangers, with no previous agreement among them, all act together. If that's not connection, I don't know what is.
And let's be honest, for those of us working in the theatre, connection is also the appeal for us, the act of coming together for the common purpose of storytelling binds us more powerfully than "civilians" will ever understand.
Even John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald crave connection, at least in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins...
Free country –
Means you get to connect!
Means the right to expect
That you'll have an effect,
That you're gonna connect –
I've always wondered if this is a constant theme in Sondheim's shows because Sondheim himself has trouble connecting, if this is a way for him to work through his demons...? Almost every show he wrote is about this. Or is he just holding a mirror up to the times?
Once again, life imitates art, as we now watch Donald Trump forge a toxic but powerful connection with his voters by being J.D. (not coincidentally, "J.D." is mid-century slang for juvenile delinquent).
Trump does with his followers almost exactly what J.D. does with Veronica, a surprisingly subtle psychological seduction. Like Trump's followers, Veronica feels shit on by life, beat up, cheated, like she has no choice but to accept the abuse, the social nightmare, and her only escape is her brief daydreams into a better future. Doesn't that sound like what the folks think who go to Trump rallies? Like Trump, J.D. convinces Veronica that her fears and her hatred of this unjust world are Legitimate, that She is Right. And that leads to some really bad shit...
Both at Westerberg High and in the real world.
Musicals have always reflected their times, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes accidentally. In the 30s and 40s musicals were primarily about assimilation, fitting into a community. Either the hero assimilates or is removed. I think this is in large part because so many of these shows were written by American Jews who had fled Europe, who were working hard to assimilate into American culture.
In the 60s and 70s, many musicals were more about the Hero Myth, about a personal journey largely outside any community, as Americans looked inward, and grappled with the moral complexity of the Sexual Revolution, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and lots more.
Starting with the dawn of the our new Golden Age of musical theatre in the early 1990s, many musicals turned to stories about connection, in response to the selfishness and disconnection of the 80s.
Our musicals always reflect our collective lives. One of the reasons that in my books, I almost always discuss the political and social context in which a show was written, is because our art always reflects our culture and politics.
Political trends have been present in almost all musical theatre storytelling over the years. Casts became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual when American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion. Every choice made by writers, directors, and designers was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values. No, No, Nanette was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes was about America's habit of turning criminals into celebrities, and religion into show business. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was about America’s reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism. These shows are about us.
There is a powerful connection forged every night in the musical theatre, but that connection must evolve with our culture. The connection that once came from Rodgers & Hammerstein shows has diminished over time, as we have moved further and further away from the simplistic, mid-century morality on display in R&H shows.
To forge a connection with the audience now, today's shows have to connect to the culture, and they do. Just look at Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Next to Normal, Hands on a Hardbody, Bonnie & Clyde, so much great art that speaks so powerfully to our times.
I remain in awe of the power of my art form. And I can see so clearly what it gives each of us. We need connection in America, perhaps more than ever before. It seems there couldn't be a more perfect time for Hamilton to appear...
Director Gregory Mosher once said, "I have great faith in audiences. We only create problems when we treat them as customers instead of collaborators in an artistic process. . . We can let audiences down in all kinds of ways: by being dishonest with them, by betraying our own intentions and, therefore, betraying the audience's trust. All they ask the artists to do is what the artists want to do. Audiences say, 'I want to see what you want to show me'." All they want is human connection, and we betray them if we don't deliver that.
After all, that's our job: "Connection in an isolating age."
Long Live the Musical!