It's a primal ritual drama about Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love, sex, and wisdom, re-enacting the ritual of the hieros gamos, or Sacred Marriage, which takes place during the New Year Festival, symbolizing the union of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar and her lover Dumuzi. Doesn't that sound like a great idea for a musical comedy?
Okay, wait, that's not really right. Inanna and Dumuzi are surely more an inspiration for the story rather than its source material. Celebration is really more a classical Hero Myth story, isn't it?
Well, except the obvious hero figure, Orphan, isn't really the protagonist. He doesn't learn anything or grow really. He's a great guy when we meet him, so open and warm and sincere and guileless. And that's also who is he is at the end. Even though Orphan fits the description of the hero in most ways, and even though he's the first character introduced to us (after the narrator) – and most important, even though he seems completely innocent and naive – he's really the Wise Wizard figure in this story, like Ben Kenobi or Glinda the Good Witch. He teaches Angel to Follow Her Bliss, just like the late great Joseph Campbell taught us.
You might expect Potemkin, our untrusty guide, to be the Wise Wizard, but no, he's the story's Agent of Chaos, like Shakespeare's Wise Fools. The structure of a Hero Myth is here, but the roles are all jumbled around.
And in tune with the classic Hero Myth, much of the action of the show is a battle – both figurative and literal – between Orphan and the story's Evil Wizard figure, Mr. Rich. Rich tries to lure Angel to the Dark Side, in this case, a life built upon the love of money (and we all know what that's the root of). Orphan offers her the Light Side, not money, but Life. Literally, in the form of his garden, the oldest metaphor of them all.
Hey wait, I hear the dramaturgs grumble, Why does Angel end up with Orphan if he's really the Wise Wizard?
Because in this story, maybe Angel is the hero, the protagonist. She's the one who has something to learn, who grows, who perhaps sees a different path for herself by the end, following love/sex rather than money/fame. At the beginning of the show, we might make assumptions about her because she's an exotic dancer, because we see her almost naked in her first scene. Some among us may assume she's a bimbo or a slut. She does her first number, about wanting fame and fortune, and we might assume she's as vacuous as a Kardashian. But none of that is true. It's a trap Tom Jones lays for us, to challenge our assumptions.
Angel's life goals have been taught to her by a cold, commercial, disconnected world (is it any different today from the late 1960s?). She's never thought to questions them – just like most Americans never have. She has to be awakened to these new values (kinda like The Matrix), and then make the very difficult leap to consider a wholly different worldview from the one that's gotten her thus far.
What if money doesn't equal happiness...?
Angel's quest is to find her matching other half, to de-couple from Rich and re-couple with Orphan. To do that, she must find herself. But by the end of the show, we know only that she has some new self-awareness, not necessarily that it will lead to a Happily Ever After. We really don't know what will happen to Orphan either. (That really doesn't sound like a Hero Myth story, does it?) I have a feeling that opinions on their fates will be a kind of Rorschach test for our audiences.
Nobody said this was an ordinary musical...
On the other hand...
Okay, maybe Celebration is really just a musical comedy – that is, a musical comedy as only Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt could fashion one. But there really isn't a protagonist in the way we usually think about it. The story is more just a crazy allegory for the patterns of life. There are no Heroes when it comes to birth and death, summer and winter. We all just follow the cycles. The fascinating part is that though it was written in 1969, Celebration feels a whole lot like shows being written right now. I guess that's not a surprise, coming from the guys who brought us the wild experiments of The Fantasticks way back in 1959, almost a decade before Hair.
This show fits quite comfortably alongside the neo-musical comedies of this new millennium, and alongside the approach we New Liners have learned from working on Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other contemporary musical comedies: hyper-serious, with crazy-high stakes, but utterly totally honest on the inside. The more serious, the more honest the performances, the funnier the crazy stuff gets. (So many directors don't get that.)
Really, the truth is that Celebration takes from many different sources and traditions (as Tom Jones did with lots of his shows), all blended together brilliantly into something both ancient and new at the same time, both primitive and deceptively sophisticated, a pointed metaphor for each of our lives in this modern world.
Who do we want to be? Potemkin, the onlooker and toadie? Rich, successful but empty and lonely? Angel, chasing the culture's false gods? Orphan, all good intentions in a crooked world? The ultimate message of Celebration is that we all must choose. Every day. And that choosing is how we celebrate life.
Will Mr. Rich get an erection?
I've been re-reading Peter Brook's The Empty Space (I think this is my third time), which Tom Jones remembers as one of his early influences. The more I read about the small studio theatre that Jones and Schmidt built, The Portfolio, the more I see how much it's like our theatre. My designers will hate me for this, but my ideal theatre is live actors and musicians, on as little set as possible, with as few props and costume changes as possible, letting the audience's imaginations do as much of the storytelling work as possible. There's nothing like that kind of engagement. That's why I tried for so many years to get New Line back into a blackbox theatre, like our beautiful new Marcelle.
I think Jones and I are pretty simpatico in terms of what kind of theatre we love, but I'm also re-reading his book Making Musicals, which is a short history of musical theatre, and a deconstruction of the elements of a musical, all mixed in with Jones' own opinions and experiences working in our art form. Interestingly, he wrote the book in the late 1990s, right at the very onset of this new Golden Age of musical theatre, but the signs weren't obvious yet. Still, I think there are probably some fun insights here about his point of view that will help me with Celebration.
I haven't done a show this "high concept" and this sui generis in a while, and I really love getting back to this kind of theatre. It's the hardest and most fun kind of directing.
We're almost done staging Act I, and I feel really good about the path we're on. The adventure continues... Stay tuned.
Long Live the Musical!