Angels in the Snow

The Story of My Life is about Tom's quest for The Answer -- though arguably, Tom is asking the wrong question. In many ways, this is a Hero Myth story, but an entirely interior one, taking place entirely inside Tom's head. We know, from the beginning of the show, that Alvin is dead, and Tom is trying to write his eulogy.

But each of those two facts carry with them powerful meaning, subtext, pain, and serious symbolic heft. And as Tom works through all he has to work through, the images and phrases in his head take on ever-changing meanings as he goes on this interior journey.

Throughout the show, the phrase, "Write what you know," comes up over and over, sometimes as encouragement from Alvin; sometimes as a way to say, "acknowledge that there are things you don't know;" sometimes it's a push to confront what Tom knows; sometimes it's about "knowing" concrete details versus "knowing" greater truths. And ultimately, "write what you know," comes to really mean, "Don't try to write about what you don't know."

When Alvin demands that Tom acknowledge his friend's contributions to his stories, Tom gets overly defensive at the suggestion -- but it's not really Alvin demanding this, after all; it's the Alvin in Tom's head, Tom's idea of Alvin. So, it's Tom suggesting this. Tom is chastising himself for refusing to acknowledge his Best Friend and Muse -- and not just Alvin's contribution to his stories, but the contribution of everything around him, all his experiences, all the people, all his Butterfly moments.

The first story Tom writes is called "The Butterfly," about the Butterfly Effect in everyday life. Significantly, Alvin is a human Butterfly Effect in Tom's life, though Tom doesn't know that yet (at least consciously) when he writes his story. Alvin is even the Butterfly Effect in Tom's head! Alvin is the butterfly. Alvin is Tom's first story. Alvin also gave Tom his first book -- his first story -- Tom Sawyer. In Tom's head, Alvin and storytelling are inextricably linked.

Throughout the show, the show's creators, Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, use two iconic works of American storytelling to add richness to the story and to bond the audience to these characters in these shared cultural experiences. Tom Sawyer becomes Tom's doorway into the magical world of storytelling and storytellers.

It's a Wonderful Life becomes almost a parallel roadmap for our story, with strong parallels that the characters themselves recognize. In Tom's head, Alvin becomes George Bailey, the protagonist of It's a Wonderful Life, but it's not a good fit. The parallels aren't as clean as Tom would like. And as Alvin's story diverges from It's a Wonderful Life, the classic film becomes a meaningful storytelling counterpoint. As the two stories end, they are nearly opposites. Alvin's life isn't a movie; it's much more complicated than that.

Tom Weaver is cousin to Pippin, both of them on a quest, without really knowing what they're questing for. Pippin thinks he's searching for fulfillment, but he ultimately realizes that he was searching for the wrong thing; what he needed was connection, which is what he gets from Catherine and Theo. Grandma Berthe was right along -- it was about finding and enjoying the "Simple Joys."

Likewise, Tom is trying to tell the story of Alvin's life, but Tom thinks that means searching for the answer to why Alvin ended his life -- and what it had to do with Tom. Ultimately, Tom discovers he was searching for the wrong story. Alvin's death isn't what defines him; his life, his joy is what defines him. Only when Tom gets that, can he finally write the story -- and find the answers, the redemption -- he seeks.

The "Write what you know" motif, weaving throughout the entire show, represents Tom's futile attempts to write Alvin's story so that he can deliver Alvin's eulogy. And composer Neil Bartram has set that phrase to a melody that is an upside-down version of the famous dies irae theme, from the Catholic Mass for the Dead, music which composers have been quoting for hundreds of years. Sondheim used it to accompany, "Swing your razor high, Sweeney!" Sondheim also turned it upside-down for the accompaniment of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Tom is literally dealing with death (with the dies irae) in the wrong way, upside-down!

Bartram has constructed a very intricate architecture for this score. It's built on a collection of leitmotifs, short musical ideas connected to a specific character or idea. The "Write what you know" motif is only one of many. There's a staccato instrumental "writing" motif that accompanies Tom's torturous attempts to break through his writer's block; the motif always ends on an ugly dissonance, the musical equivalent of Tom's block. Musical quotes pop up throughout the score, as a storytelling motif.

The "Saying Goodbye" songs are four numbers that chart the slow disintegration of Tom and Alvin's friendship. In "The First Time That We Said Goodbye" (called "Saying Goodbye, Part 1" in the score), Tom leaves for college -- it's the moment their paths diverge forever.

In "The Next Time That We Said Goodbye" ("Part 2"), Tom has come home from college with his girlfriend Ann, and Alvin isn't happy. In the third piece, also "The Next Time," the song is now intercut with Alvin's "This is it, Tom." This time, saying goodbye isn't about someone leaving; it's about the end of the friendship. The fourth version, now "The Last Time," completely deconstructs itself, as Tom has a musical nervous breakdown, this time frantically intercut with music and dialogue from throughout the whole show -- all those "thousands of stories" in Tom's head attack. This is the last time because Alvin is dead.

In the final moments of this Story of Stories, Tom has found what he needed inside himself, as many Heroes do, and both Tom and Alvin know that this Zen-ghost-Alvin has fulfilled his purpose; he can rest in peace now. This really is the last goodbye (not to mention the end of the show). Tom has found redemption, peace, enlightenment -- and his writer's block has been cured! The show's joyful, redemptive finale, "Angels in the Snow," ends, and segues into a familiar, though probably subliminal, musical phrase; it's the intro music to the "Saying Goodbye" songs. It's the last music we hear in the show. It's the show's goodbye to us.

In The Story of My Life, the music is a fully equal storytelling element here, so expressive, so meaningful, so narrative.

So often, the music turns ugly in Tom's anger (at Alvin and at himself) and his frustration in not being to tell stories, which is supposed to be his thing. And the music often becomes Tom's writing process, stopping and starting, sputtering, just as Tom's words do.

But fragments of music aren't the only things swirling around in Tom's head. There are also fragments of scenes, some that we see more than once, or in different forms. There's one key scene -- one story -- about writing Alvin's father's eulogy, that is so painful to Tom, so close to the bone, that he abandons it several times before he can finally finish the scene. And it's in finishing that painful scene that Tom finds Alvin's magic.

The path to enlightenment is rarely easy or painless. Or direct.

The big, central metaphor of the whole show is Snow Angels. They represent everything joyful and childlike about Alvin, but they're also loaded with other meaning, about creation, about the evanescent nature of art, about symbols and ritual. Traditionally, snow and whiteness are symbols of death, the Big Chill. And since Alvin is already dead when our story beings, he is the "angel" who guides Tom back onto his right path. But snow angels are temporary, elusive. As Tom says, "Turn your back and there they go."

Just like live theatre.

Beyond the act of making the snow angels, the story that Tom is (unsuccessfully) trying to write about making those snow angels is the spine of the show. In Tom's implacable frustration over his writer's block, the "Snow Angels" story relates back to the eulogy for Alvin's father that Tom is also apparently unable to write. Even though Tom is a professional, award-winning writer, these two stories stifle him because both stories inevitably lead him to back his unresolved, contradictory feelings about Alvin.

For the first part of the show, Tom repeatedly tries to start this story ("Every Christmas Eve, we'd make angels in the snow..."). But he can't get past the first sentence. He can't even get this autobiographical story started. Later in the show, in the songs "Nothing There" and "Saying Goodbye #4," Tom painfully, fitfully continues working on his story, one torturous sentence at a time, and essentially he has a breakdown.

Notice the line on which Tom gets stuck in the "Snow Angels" story -- "And as the sun disappeared..." He can't get past this phrase. Why? Maybe because his subconscious equates the sun disappearing with Alvin, arguably Tom's muse, being essentially removed from Tom's life. Tom can't get past that line because he is constantly reminded -- by Alvin's annual Christmas cards, among other things -- of the "sun" that he "disappeared" from his life.

This device is strong textually, but also musically. The musical phrase that accompanies this text ("And as the sun disappeared") ends on a dissonant ,"ugly" note, which sounds wrong -- but only as long as Tom can 't finish it. And to underline its wrongness even more, Bartram set this plain, F major melody over a Bb bass note, forcing this plain melody into a much more complex tonality, changing a simple major chord into a dissonant, harmonically ambiguous Bb9+2+6 chord -- Tom is musically "lost" -- and still the last note sounds wrong.

Finally at the end of the show, we hear that same phrase and its "wrong" note in their proper harmonic context and the phrase is beautiful. Tom is in a better place now, both emotionally and musically. In its correct musical context, that note isn't wrong; it just moves us into a new key temporarily. But without that chord underneath, it sounds ugly, dissonant.

When Tom finally breaks through his block, and this melody continues forward (with new text now), that "wrong" note sounds inevitable. In its full and proper harmonic context, this melody starts on the root chord of the key (B major in "Angels in the Snow," which is already a half-step up from the previous fragments in Bb). And as the melody gets to that "wrong" note (on -peared), the chord under it moves us out of the key of B major. This previously missing pivot chord works as a III7 chord in B Major, and as a V7 chord in C# major. Now in this new temporary key of C#, the story goes on, "There was magic alive in the air," with the word magic leading us into this new key. The music then returns to B major under "for the angels we made." The music, the story, and Tom are all Back Home.

We can now hear in the music the magic of creating art, the magic of both the creation of snow angels and the creation of Tom's story.

Under the last word of this short section ("there") the music moves into a new key again, as Alvin says, "Hm, I like this one." Tom is moving forward, no longer stuck in one key, no longer trapped in his guilt and shame. And the story continues until we get to that powerful, previously torturous phrase, "And as the sun disappeared..." Now with the proper music under it, Tom can get past his block. He's at last "in tune" with his story -- and his past -- and with Alvin, his muse and his angel. At last Tom can see the inherent magic in his story, in the snow, in the setting sun, in the angels they made, in his friendship with Alvin. He can even see their angels "dance" in his memory, as the shadows advance.

And finally Tom comes to the wisdom he needed, some of the childlike joy and special sight of Alvin:
Every Christmas Eve, we'd make angels in the snow
And every year, we watch them disappear.
But I know that they'll return,
And though the years may come and go,
When I need to have them with me, they'll be here.

Tom finally realizes the answer he seeks is in rediscovering the joy and wonder of the way Alvin -- and Tom, once -- saw the world. It's about finding joy in simple things. Almost every story in the show is about Alvin finding magic in everyday things. Tom shares that ability when he's a kid, but in learning to conform and fit in, as they move into high school, Tom loses that ability. Only when he finds it again, can he finally write "Snow Angels," about simple everyday magic. And now, the changing light of the sun setting makes the angels dance. The phrase that so bedeviled him now makes magic.

Tom finally understands that the real magic is in our memories and the stories we tell, which brings those memories -- and people -- back to life for a while.

Tom has the understanding he needs now. Sure, his snow angel Alvin has "disappeared," but when he  needs to have Alvin with him, he'll be there -- in Tom's stories, in Tom's memories. He'll always be Tom's angel, his Clarence.

Which brings us back to It's a Wonderful Life... and allows Tom to deliver Alvin's eulogy, to make peace with his past, to see again the value and the magic in their relationship, the magic that we've just spent ninety minutes exploring.

Because, as Tom says at one point in the show, "It's life." Yes it is. A little later, Alvin reminds Tom that life doesn't work the same as stories do, that stories are only tiny, selective slices of life, that real life leaves questions unanswered, unresolved, unrelenting, "and isn't that refreshing?" Yes it is. Or as another musical bluntly and honestly explains it, "Life is random and unfair; life is pandemonium." And isn't that refreshing?

I can't wait to share this beautiful, honest musical with all of you! We open this week!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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1 comments:

Unknown | September 30, 2021 at 9:28 AM

So excited for you to be back doing what you love for us!