Hey, Mr. Somebody in the Sky!

Celebration is an experiment.

In my last post, I was trying to figure out exactly what this show of our is, how it works, what its rules are. I could sort of identify the elements of a Hero Myth story, but it really didn't exactly match up, and it broke a lot of those rules.

So the other night in rehearsal, I'm watching our actors do a first run-through of Act I, and I realize that this has nothing to do with Hero Myths, any coincidental similarities notwithstanding. You can see how this story feels kind of normal, with our Young Lovers, and our obvious Villain. But it doesn't fit any of the forms we're used to -- because it's just not the kind of story we're used to. It has a different purpose than the stories we're used to.

In bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones' book Making Musicals, which I'm currently re-reading, he writes:
Before I finished my college education, I came gradually to realize that there were two kinds of theatre: one that I liked, and one that I didn't like as much.

The kind that I liked was what might be called "presentational" theatre, "poetic" theatre, the theatre of Shakespeare and the Greeks and Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht. The kind that I didn't like as much was what might be called "realistic" theatre, "prose" theatre, the theatre which almost totally dominated the stage for the first half of the twentieth century.

I didn't like stage sets very much. That is, I didn't like "realistic" stage sets -- sets which purported to be the actual environments where the action took place. I didn't like living room walls and charming bric-a-brac and pretend windows with pretend bushes outside. Something in me resisted the whole thing, as if someone were trying to trick me. I felt the urge to say: "Come on, who are you kidding? I know that's not a real door. I know that the tree outside is made of papier-maché and held up by a stage brace."

On the other hand, if little or no pretense was made to literally depict a place, I had no trouble in believing in its reality. A suggestion was all I needed, all I wanted. Any more than that took away the fun, the magic, the creation. It robbed me as an audience member of my part in the proceedings. It limited my imagination. The whole thing was a paradox: Try to convince me that it was really real and I resisted. Admit to me that it was false and I could believe in its reality.

Also, and in a similar way, I didn't like plays where the actors spent all of their time just talking to each other and never acknowledged the presence of the audience. It seemed stupid to me. And rude. And again, it robbed the experience of the direct involvement and participation of the audience.

By the way, that's exactly how I have felt since junior high.

Jones writes:
"The theatre, after all, is surely one of the last bastions of the spoken word. In an increasingly Visual world, the theatre provides a place where people may gather and have a group experience induced primarily by the power of words. And, surprisingly, these needs are still deep within us. They will not be dropped so quickly. They are part of us, part of our species. To gather in a circle and have a story told, to experience a group reaction (possibly even a group revelation) this is a basic need. Too bad the theatre nowadays so often forgets that."

Though all theatre is ritualistic in some way, Celebration isn't just a modern descendant of ritual; it is actually ritual itself.

Jones wrote in the introduction to the published script:
Celebration is different. For one thing, it is mostly in prose. For another, it requires a bit more explanation. It is "different" from other musicals. In fact, I'm not even sure it is a "musical" at all. Not in the usual sense of the word. It is a fable. It has ritual overtones. It is based upon ancient ceremonies depicting the battle between Winter and Summer. It was suggested by an editorial in the New York Times about the meaning of the Winter Solstice. It annoyed the hell out of some people. It delighted others. It ran for only 109 performances on Broadway. But it is done often around the country and the world. And it has been phenomenally successful in Scandanavia (where the Winter Solstice is something to be reckoned with.)

There is no subplot here, no secondary couple, no eleven o'clock number. No, as Sean, our "Orphan," pointed out to me, our four leads are the four seasons. But this isn't just a story about nature; this is a story of nature. This isn't a story about the passing of time; this is the story of time. There is no Fourth Wall. And our stage is infinite. Which means the audience's imaginations will do much of the work. Which means our audience will be engaged.

My favorite kind of theatre!

Potemkin tells us himself in the show that he's autumn. Rich is obviously winter, cold and dying, which makes Orphan summer (he has his a garden, after all). And Angel has to be spring since she's the only woman here, the only one who can give birth.

Once you see that structure, everything else makes more sense.

This really isn't like any other musical you've ever seen. (I find that's true of a lot of the shows we produce.) This is ritual disguised as linear narrative. This is a storytelling experiment. The "story" here is just the changing of the seasons and the calendar, and the climax is literally the clock striking twelve on New Year's Eve.

But there's so much more here in addition to that, so much more put into the service of this ritual story Tom Jones created...

The more we Google elements of this show (especially the character names, Potemkin, Orphan, Angel, Rich), the deeper we get into the origins of this wild story that Jones has fashioned for us, with so many different strands going back to the ancient world, all woven together into this quirky, smartass, unexpectedly powerful, contemporary musical comedy.

This show is chock full of references and devices going back to our earliest human history. I've already blogged about Angel's roots in the Sumerian fertility goddess Inanna, who name means "Lady from Heaven," coincidentally (not). The action of Celebration essentially follows Inanna's ancient Sacred Marriage rite. How crazy is that?

I've been thinking a lot about whether Angel is being "used" for her sexuality, or if she's "using" her sexuality as power, as a tool? And depending on that answer, is she in charge here or are the men...? Is the story unintentionally sexist because it's originally from the late 1960s? Or is sexuality just Angel's nature (as a stand-in for Inanna), something which she must "use"?

An article on AncientHistory.net, says, "Contrary to claims that Inanna's priestesses engaged in ritual prostitution, it is more likely that they were in control of their choices of bed-mates along with the high priestess engaging in the ritual re-enactment of the sacred marriage between Dumuzi and Inanna with a young man of her choice once a year on the Spring Equinox. The tales of Inanna make it very clear she was not shy in picking lovers and promoting them to Kingship and her priestesses would have followed her example."

As I read about Inanna, I also came across The Ancient Green Man, who sounds somewhat like Orphan. That same site says, "During the Neolithic Age, which was the era when, as some say, God was a Woman, the Goddess and Her Son, the Green Man, were venerated by people worldwide for annually bringing forth the Earth's material abundance. A universal legend about them arose that began with the annual impregnation of the virgin Earth Goddess by the Sun, the 'Father in Heaven,' and the subsequent birth of Her Son, the Green Man."

Sounds a lot like Christianity. Long before Christianity.

It's worth noting that three times during Celebration, Orphan sings, "The sun! The sun! The sun!"

The article goes on: "This important event occurred annually at the time of the Winter Solstice, when the spirit of the Green Man that had been slumbering underground in the underworld was shaken back to life. But although his dormant spirit had been stirred, it was not yet fully awake. This did not occur until a few days later, on December 25th, when the Sun or Solar Spirit completely reversed its downward path and took measurable steps along a northerly route."

This sounds kinda like Celebration...

Another parallel struck me. The same article says, "In order to awaken Dionysus from his slumber at the time of the Winter Solstice, female representatives of the Goddess would loudly bang pots and pans as they danced their way in ritual procession to the snowy summit of Mount Parnassus. And then after receiving his new set of clothes at the following spring equinox, the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego, Pan, a name meaning 'the All,' as in All of Nature.

Likewise, in Celebration, Angel and her backup girls, The Hittites, do a big dance number early in Act I, and soon after, Orphan gets a big number himself, "My Garden.". In the second part of "My Garden," Orphan sings his song, even making up a bridge on the spot, and the Revelers all sing with him, in echo. That sounds a little like, "...the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego..."

Now, in terms of our friendly guide and con artists, Potemkin...

According to Wikipedia...   "In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is. The term comes from stories of a fake portable village, built only to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. While some modern historians claim accounts of this portable village are exaggerated, the original story was that Grigory Potemkin erected the fake portable settlement along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool the Russian Empress."

Unlike most narrators, Potemkin is built to deceive. He's literally a con artist. And he pulls a helluva con on Mr. Rich.

So what does all this information mean for us?

It will all just help us (sometimes directly, other times indirectly) find the best, clearest way to tell this crazy, wonderful story Jones and Schmidt have given us. But also, all these gods and goddesses are windows into the humans who invented them. That these gods still serve our story today says a lot about how universal they are, how deeply human these feelings are, even after thousands and thousands of years.

I was saying to Sean last night that I think this story is, at its heart, about the choices we all make that forge the path of the human life ahead of us. The whole show is about these people making choices, and the show ends with Orphan faced with yet another choice. Jones refuses to tell us what's next. That's not the point. The season has turned. Winter has died, and here comes Summer. What happens happens.

Boil it all down and it's so primal. Angel/Inanna's true nature is to create life (as goddess of fertility and sex), exactly like Orphan (with his garden). Rich's nature is nothing but appetite, to destroy, to consume. Angel and Orphan are Life (the New Year), while Rich is Death (the old year), which is why he has to die when the clock strikes twelve. If Angel were to choose Rich, that would be against her nature. She belongs with Orphan because together the two of them can create life. She must choose Life because she's the fertility goddess. Which is why the show first presents her nearly naked, not for sexist titillation, but to present and make central to the story the female body itself, the crucible of Life.

But how can our story be about choice if it's about the relentless, unforgiving cycle of the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar, the passing of time? Aren't the perpetual cycles of life and death inescapable?

Maybe their (our) choices are illusory, and they're really all just cogs in a cosmic machine that just keeps going. Maybe there will always be Angels and Orphans and Riches, whose battles and triumphs keep the calendar turning. It's The Story of Humanity, or maybe of Time. After all, there's always another New Year's Eve...

Tom Jones wrote in his book, "I decided that the American musical offered a wonderful opportunity to pursue the kind of theatre that I felt in my bones was the real theatre." Theatre like Celebration.

As Sean/"Orphan" wrote to me a few days ago, "So. Many. Layers." Yes indeed.

At the end of his intro to the 1973 published script, Jones wrote, "We did Celebration first at our Portfolio Studio. It felt good there. It belonged. When we moved it into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didn't feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasn't a Broadway musical. Who knows? Perhaps we will do it again someday. With revisions. And in a proper place."

Tom Jones has given New Line the honor of premiering the revised Celebration, right here in St. Louis in our beautiful blackbox theatre. A proper place, indeed.

Long Live the Musical!