Have you ever wondered about the Meaning of Life? If not, you need to smoke more pot. If you have, we've got a musical just for you.

In November 1968, Zorba premiered on Broadway with a score by the Cabaret team, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, choreographer Ron Field, and director Hal Prince; plus the bookwriter of Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph Stein. It was based on the popular 1946 novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, as well as letters the team found from the real-life Zorba. A successful film version had been made in 1964 starring Anthony Quinn, but the musical returned to the novel for inspiration, and the end product was very different from the film.

The show opens in a bouzouki parlor where a group has gathered to drink and tell stories. They tell the story of Zorba, his philosophy of living life to the fullest, and a dramatic, emotional, tragic, but life affirming encounter with a younger man and with love.

Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, "From beginning to end this is a musical with exquisite style and finesse. Prince calculates his efforts like a Mozart. He has learned the principle of the musical as a gesamtumskwerk, the Wagnerian ideal of theatrical unity where every part plays its role in the whole."

So what is this brilliant, rarely produced show all about?

On the surface, Zorba is a wild mix of sex comedy, romantic tragedy, social commentary, and philosophical debate. All in one. Along with some amazing Kander & Ebb songs. I've been telling people that Zorba is very much like their other shows Cabaret and Chicago, except Zorba really isn't cynical, while the other two are almost entirely cynical.

Years ago, I was listening to the Zorba cast album and had a huge revelation. The show's opening song is called "Life Is," in which a bunch of villagers in a bouzouki parlor in Greece debate the meaning of life. It starts with dialogue that segues into singing:
Manolako: So, what should we do now?

Fivos: Want me to sing? Anybody here want me to sing?

Crowd: No!

Konstandi: Shut up!

Manolako: How about a story? Hey, let's tell them a story…

Sofia: What story?

Manolako: The Zorba story…

Marina: Zorba! That's an old story!

Manolako: Old? 40-50 years! Old?

Mordoni: What's it about?

Manolako: What's it about? What's any story about? It's about life.

Konstandi: Just life?

Manolako: That's right. Life. Love and hate and joy and anger and death.

Konstandi: I had to ask.

Manolako: And sadness and happiness. Life.

Fivos: That's right. You know what life is? (He sings:) Life is a glass of rum.

Manolako: No! Life is a sip of sage.

Zorba: No! Life is the taste of raki flowing warmly from the cup.

Despo: Shut up! Life is a walnut leaf.

Hortense: No! Life is an olive tree.

Mordoni: No! Life is a scented, melon breasted woman, when her lips are red and full.

Fivos: Bull! Life is a pomegranate orchard and two lovers passing by it.

Konstandi: Life is my fist in your face if you don't keep quiet!

Fivos: What did you say?

Konstandi: I said, life is my fist in your face if you don't keep quiet!

What I realized at that point was the subtle, stunning brilliance of calling the song "Life Is." It's not an unfinished phrase, which is what it seems on the surface. After all, the title is not "Life Is..." No, the point of the title – and the song and the entire show – is that Life just is. Or in my own lingo, "It is what it is." No use trying to change it or rage against it. Life is good and bad and beautiful and ugly and tender and rough and everything else; and the only way to fully love life is to accept all of it. The only way to be truly happy is to love all of life. Even when people leave us, even when they die.

That's the secret to happiness that Zorba knows and Nikos must learn.

Or, as our Leader then sings:
Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,
Life is how the time goes by...
Life is where you wait while you're waiting to leave,
Life is where you grin and grieve…
Having if you’re lucky,
Wanting if you’re not,
Looking for the ruby
Underneath the rot,
Hungry for the pilaf
In someone else's pot,
But that's the only choice you've got!

Life is where you stand just before you are flat,
Life is only that, mister,
Life is simply that, mister,
That and nothing more than that!

Life is what you feel
Till you can't feel at all,
Life is where you fly and fall…
Running for the shelter,
Naked in the snow,
Learning that a tear drops
Anywhere you go,
Finding it's the mud
That makes the roses grow,
But that's the only choice you know!

Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,
Life is how the time goes by...

Lots of people have told me they think Zorba is depressing, but they're missing the point of the show, and they're not listening to the opening number. That's not depressing; it's aware. When Anthony Quinn revived (and emasculated) the show in the 1980s, they changed the Leader's first line to, "Life is what you do till the moment you die." A kinder, gentler Zorba. Fuck that shit. Zorba isn't about the fear of making the audience sad: it's about the embrace of the adventure of living.

I had another revelation about this same song in music rehearsal the other night. This opening is brilliant not only in its content, but also in its form. As we all know from Stephen Sondheim (all praise be unto him) that in the best musicals, content dictates form.

What I realized is that "Life Is" is a debate, an argument; and so is the rest of the show. This story, though so funny and emotional on the surface is as much a philosophical debate as it is a romantic comedy-drama. Throughout the entire show (and the entire novel), Zorba is teaching Nikos just as Socrates once taught Plato, through argument, through story, through parable.

Watch the original Broadway cast in 1969 perform "Life Is" on the Tonys:

According to Wikipedia, the legendary Symposium (upon which is based Hedwig's "The Origin of Love") is "a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love, and (in latter-day interpretations) is the origin of the concept of Platonic love. Love is examined in a sequence of speeches by men attending a symposium, or drinking party. Each man must deliver an encomium, a speech in praise of Love. The party takes place at the house of the tragedian Agathon in Athens. Socrates in his speech asserts that the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher or, literally, a lover of wisdom. Commonly regarded as one of Plato's major works, the dialogue has been used as a source by social historians seeking to throw light on life in ancient Athens – in particular, upon human sexuality and the symposium as an institution."

That sounds an awful lot like Zorba and Zorba. And a lot like "Life Is"...

Don't get me wrong, Zorba tells a straight-forward, linear story, but as with most Kander & Ebb shows, there's a whole lot more going on. Zorba achieves what Bob Fosse once called "Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics," or in other words, artistic beauty, pure diversion, and important issues, all in one.

It's really an extraordinary show, as emotional and cerebral as it is rowdy and vulgar, and populated by a bunch of wonderful characters that you're really not going to want to leave at the end of the show.

I cannot wait to share this with our audiences. You are going to love it.

Long Live the Musical!