Everyting's Changed

And here we are at another year's end. The cable news networks are looking back on the top news stories of the year -- and the decade! (Yes, I know the decade isn't over for another year, but I fear we've lost that argument.) It's very funny to me that the vast majority of the pundits and experts still seem genuinely baffled at what's happening in our politics and our culture.

They shouldn't be.

I've been thinking and writing about this for a while now. We are in the middle of massive, fundamental change in our society, our culture, our communication, our health, our politics, our art, and our relationship to the world around us. Everything is different now from what it was twenty years ago. Everything.

And change terrifies many (most?) people. And as long as they're scared, it's going to be harder for them to acclimate to the new world that's taking shape around us. Jason Robert Brown was genuinely prescient almost twenty-five years ago when he wrote:
It's about one moment,
That moment you think you know where you stand;
And in that one moment,
The things that you're sure of slip from your hand.
And you've got one second
To try to be clear, to try to stand tall,
But nothing's the same,
And the wind starts to blow.
And oh,
You're suddenly a stranger
In some completely different land;
And you thought you knew,
But you didn't have a clue
That the surface sometimes cracks
To reveal the tracks
To a new world.

Of course, he was talking in metaphors and universal truisms, but that traumatic experience that is the core of every song in Songs for a New World is a universal human experience on an individual scale, but it's also the national experience Americans (and the Brits and others) are having right now. That is precisely how American conservatives feel right now. Whether or not liberals think it's legit, many conservatives feel like strangers in a strange land. They don't understand the rules anymore.

So what is JRB's prescription?
A new world calls for me to follow,
A new world waits for my reply,
A new world holds me to a promise,
Standing by...

That New World is waiting for us to arrive. We have to take action to get there. We have to grapple with all of this. We have to learn how to navigate the Information Age, the Browning of America, the Nano-tech Revolution, and so much more, including a fundamentally transforming job market. But when people get scared, they shut down and they look for an explanation, which often means they look for someone to blame. It's happened over and over throughout history and it's happening again now.

It's not that hard to understand the craziness in our world right now, as long as you remember that people fear change. And what does Yoda teach us? Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

That, in a nutshell, is America's partisan politics in 2019.

The answer to that is to keep going, to keep moving forward. And we artsies, we storytellers, have a big part in that. We are the ones who help our fellow citizens understand themselves, each other, and the world around us, through our stories.

But don't just take my word for it. President Obama once introduced a concert of theatre songs at the White House, saying "In many ways, the story of Broadway is intertwined with the story of 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."

But today our art form is changing as drastically and fundamentally as everything else, and that kind of change scares people too. Why do theatres -- and audiences -- want to see those Rodgers & Hammerstein shows over and over today? It's about comfort. Like Twinkies. In scary times, some people retreat into nostalgia.

But it's truly beyond my comprehension why anyone under seventy would want to see an R&H show again rather than seeing the astonishing, exciting, brilliant new shows being written now. In my personal opinion, every song in Rent, Hedwig, Next to Normal, and Passing Strange is superior to anything Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote. I'm not kidding. They wrote great shows and broke some important ground (more than 75 years ago!), but R&H's writing is comparatively less interesting, less sophisticated, and less dramatic than the best work today. As good as he was, Hammerstein never achieved the level that Steve Sondheim, Bill Finn, Brian Yorkey, Andrew Lippa, and Larry O'Keefe have.

And that's how it should be. Our art form should be advancing far ahead of where it was seventy-five years ago. How depressing if that weren't true! But advancing means changing, and we know what that does to people.

The opposite of change is stagnation, death. Change is better, no matter how scary.

Toward the end of Bill Finn's masterpiece A New Brain, our hero Gordon sings:
Everything’s changed.
And nothing’s changed.
I mean, I’m different but I’m still the same –
I still complain.
But I’m not the same that I was,
Except I’m the same that I was,
But different…
At least I hope I’m different…

I think that sums up these times pretty well; that could be our country speaking. And significantly, Finn wrote that way back in the mid-1990s, about the same time JRB was writing Songs for a New World, and just a few years after New Line was founded. A New Brain taught us that change is painful and it's healthy, and both shows taught us that change is life.

I have no idea if Trump will be re-elected in 2020. It's certainly possible. It's gonna be a wild ride, however it all ends, and we have front row seats. And meanwhile, we get to keep finding great works of art that speak to these crazy, turbulent times. We will keep finding them, because humans have been going through times like these for a very long time, and they'll be doing it long after we've left this mortal stage. It's not just us. It's not just now.

That's a little bit comforting, right?

Long Live the Musical!