Reunion Travelogue 4: Return

When my brother picked me up from the airport a week ago it felt like we picked up a conversation we had been in the middle of however many months ago we last saw each other. When he dropped me off today the conversation on the ride to the airport was more of the same from the week. Nothing retrospective, nothing conclusive, no ceremony. I think that’s the correct way to interact with the world. Everything is positional. See you later.

Inspiration happens during those moments in between. Like when finishing an early morning beer at the airport bar, listening to an unfamiliar song on the speakers, thinking: why am not in a rock band?

While in California I went to world-class escape rooms in San Fransisco. Tomorrow I am going to Six Flags St. Louis. Roller coaster enthusiasts and escape room enthusiasts across the country look down on STL’s available selection in both categories. Do we have a prestige issue?

The adage, “Dont worry about what other people think about you,” cuts in some weird directions. Don’t be surprised when what you say affects how someone sees you.

I got a window seat this time. I want to know what all these reservoirs are. I want to know what all these rivers are. Whitewater rafting is manufactured adventure.

I successfully identified KC from the air because the Royals and Chiefs are parking lot roommates.

The flight attendant offered me a second coffee. I said I was fine, but she said she was trying to get rid of the tray. After unsuccessfully offering to the final row before me, I offered to consume the last cup. Good deed for the day.

What a stupid phrase. I did my good deed for the day. Let’s compete to see who can do the most good deeds in a day.

All Art Was Once New Art

(Note: I thought I’d avoid excessive parentheticals by placing extraneous commentary in footnotes, but that has only served to increase the amount of footnotes, and not decrease the parentheticals. But I suppose that’s my voice.)


Before it converted to a public service organization to identify and label bad drivers, 99.1 FM in St. Louis was the classical* music station. And on the breaks, the DJ repeated this wonderful catchphrase: “all music was once new music.” The point being that the pieces they broadcast were, at one time, contemporary to the culture and had never been heard before. And it’s no false equivalency to say that those composers were the pop stars of their time. If you don’t believe me, take a quick look at the life of Franz Liszt.

That mantra stuck with me, because when I first heard it, it immediately shifted my perspective. Before, I had a chronocentric relationship to any piece of media created prior to my cultural awareness. I may not have been able to articulate it, but all my life, if I encountered a piece of art, music, film, etc., I always viewed it as if it had always existed – as a time capsule and representation of the era. To my mind, classical music has always been hundreds of years old, Shakespeare’s works have always been a complete compendium known to all, and a portrait of the dead, historical, Charles I has always been a part of the eternal collection at the Saint Louis Art Museum. When you enter the world, everything is as it is, and has always been that way.

But the history of art is two-in-onefold: a search for human connection, and a response to all art before it (in that same search for human connection)**. When and how and why any media was created is equally as important*** as the perspective the individual experience an audience brings to the piece. So the point of the mantra, “all music was once new music,” is an implied petition that the audience ought to marry the original cultural context with the contemporary perspective – looking back to fully experience, evaluate, and value said music (or any other given media). “But Bradley,” you† say, “do you really expect me to research the social, political, and economic factors surrounding the creation of any piece of art I view?” By no means! While it certainly adds value to the experience, it is not necessary to the consumption of said media.

Now let’s put a pin in all that and talk about FEAR. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear can drive us to action or inaction, but when it comes to choosing what media to consume, whether it is the risk of time spent, or time and money spent, the direction fear drives us is typically toward inaction. I fear that this twenty-two minute documentary of YouTube may not be worth my time, so I will instead choose to watch several shorter informative or comedic videos from unknown sources, because I perceive them individually as lower risks. Fear makes us less likely to give a chance to something unproven. To bring this around to my primary artistic discipline, it has been said that going to the theater is a leap of faith. And nowhere is the leap further, or the need for faith greater than with new works.‡

Which brings me to the pivot: I am not arguing (though I do agree) that it is valuable to reconsider the classics with fresh and re-contextualized eyes. But rather to look at the inverse of the adage that catalyzed this conversation. All new art has the potential to become old art. If all art was once new art, how does new art become old art? Did the classics persist because they are good, or do we view them as good because they have persisted? And what about the pieces that have not persisted? Do they lose value because they take up less bandwidth in the public consciousness? You won’t hear Sopwith Camel on the oldies station, but does that diminish the fact that they got minor regional airplay in their time? And some college kid in the late 70’s was so impressed with their sound he called record stores all over the state and drove cities away to find a copy their album?

If it sounds like I’m making a postmodern argument that all media is inherently equal, well – yes and no. I don’t believe that the postmodernism is a viable philosophy to carry at one’s core. However, it is useful counter to other extreme views. It protects us from the trap of measuring everything down to the ultimate dismissal of the idea that something can have intrinsic value. And art, by the definition above, by nature has intrinsic value.

Everyone is participating in the search for human connection through the creation of media, and the consumption of said media. And the value of that media, or art, is not defined by how successful it is in a capitalist structure, but rather by how it creates and uncovers human connection. This is why art is a fundamental human right. We are all participants whether we think we are or not, so make the most of every interaction. You may wander into an independent art gallery, or hear a songwriter in a coffeeshop, or see a play you’ve never heard of – and maybe you will find something you didn’t have before. You may connect with a perspective you didn’t think you could connect with, you may learn about a fear or desire you didn’t know you had. Do not allow yourself to be driven by fear to the familiar. Your neighbor needs an audience. You need an audience. New art is vital to the human experience, so make be a part of it.


*I am aware of the distinct genres such as baroque and romantic that are often erroneously lumped in with it classical, but for simplicity of semantics I’m using the fallacious term as an umbrella to cover a few centuries of piano, chamber, and orchestral music. I know it’s wrong, but it’s common in the vernacular, and we’re not going to linger here too long, so write your own blog post if you have a problem with it.
**Okay, so this thesis is moot, and I’m not taking the time to fully develop and defend it now, but maybe I will at a later date. Even if it’s not entirely correct, it’s not entirely wrong.
***Once again, moot and fairly postmodern, but go with it.
†the strawperson
‡I first heard this in a curtain speech before a play at Tesseract Theatre Company, but I know they stole it from someone else, so I’m not really sure where the credit is due.

 

Reunion Travelogue 3: Mid-week

Camping at a coffeeshop. I’m on vacation, visiting family. This local grind ‘n’ brew is on the small town main drag, but it’s the middle of the week, and even if this was a destination it would be an off-peak season, but I don’t think they have tourists here.

Am I the only person with a social fantasy that a stranger will approach me, break the ice, and then ask me to tell them my life story?

So it’s quiet. So I work on personal projects. So I’m productive.

Prior travelogues felt more inspired. Does this mean I have traveled poorly?

Is there a market for flashnonfiction?

I traveled from home to see people. I saw people. Do we not see the people we live with?

Reunion Travelogue 2: In The Air & On The Ground

The Flight

I came prepared. I downloaded some podcasts, I have an actual book, and worst case scenario the flight offers wifi for $8.

However, I find myself waiting as long as I can before I decide to do something to pass the time.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to engage my diversions until I have had my ginger ale and pretzels. There is an order, a ritual. We push back, we take off, we climb and fail to identify anything on the ground by sight. Then snacks are served, and then the flight has begun.

It’s a strategic choice, too. The longer I can go sitting, doing nothing, the less time I have to occupy until we touch down, therefore making the flight feel quicker.

Part of me wishes we had to take turns rowing or something to make the plane go. Travel is active. Riding on a plane is not.

A woman on the opposite aisle ahead of me is playing an iPad slot machine game. She wins. A lot. She tires of that and plays a differently themed slot machine game on her iPad. She cycles through several different themed slot machine games. The flight is four hours long.

Flight attendants who wear watches: do they constantly re-set to local time or pick a zone and do the math?

I wanted to listen to the Falsoettos cast album, but I didn’t download it before leaving. It’s about time. I listen to Follies instead.

You don’t have to be a star to be a great actor, and you don’t have to be a great actor to be a star.

——–

On the Ground

Saturday evening was spent in conversation.

Sunday morning was spent in conversation. The rest of the day was fun and games and new strangers.

These strangers are friends with my family. I have conversations with them as if they are friends.

Reunion Travelogue 1: Arrivals & Departures

I’m sitting at an airport barstool, enjoying (consuming) a mediocre hotdog and overpriced craft beer. I was expecting a concession stand quality dog, but that’s not what I got. What lies partially in front of me, and partially in my stomch, is more like a home-version of a gas station dog, haphazardly adorned with nacho cheese, sauces, and relish plastic-spooned out of a jar. Perhaps I was foolish to believe anything could ever taste as good as the links that band moms served up under the bleachers at JV football games, but a boy can hope.

Last time I was in this airport, I wasn’t even traveling. A few years ago, I spent two weeks working on special assignment for a foodservice management company on behalf of Big Coffee to train their new staff in licensed systems and procedures. And before that, if memory serves, the last time I traveled by plane was eight years ago. In that instance, also California-bound, on a spring break missions trip – primarily to do touristy things, and secondarily to canvas for and perform community service on behalf of a church plant in San Francisco.

I am not largely a stranger to commercial flight, but the bulk of my experience was in my youth, and particularly pre-9/11. Therefore, I am observant of the peculiarities of this place.

The history of air travel is a frontier mentality, full of exploration and excitement. But magic has become mundane, and history is not experienced, but rather relegated to an informational placard, ignored by the smart travelers power walking down the jetway.

Air travel now is the antithesis to exploration. An explorer departs full of wonder and anticipation for the new worlds they will discover in their travels. They return having expended their energies, ready for respite, before sharing their stories of adventure with the tribe. Here at the terminal, the gates, that energy is reversed.

It is the arrivals that carry the optimistic hopefulness. A bright energy and pep in their step, freshly sprung from the steel cage they were shipped here in. It doesn’t matter if it’s home or elsewhere – being able to extend one’s arms to full wingspan forthe first time in hours invites the world of possibilities.

Conversely, departures are morose, facing the inevitable. Loading their stomachs with carb heavy food to better hold them to their seat. A self-sedation to combat pressurized cabin fever. Or possibly piling on weight to spite the corporation carrying them by adding to the necessary fuel consumption.

Where’s the connection? I don’t know, but as my time comes, I must unwrap the duffel straps from my legs and dismount the stool. Time to wait. Time to load. Time to question my choice of food.

I really should have followed my nose to Auntie Anne’s, because family will never let you down.

I Don’t Know How I Feel About “Paint Your Wagon”

History & Background: AKA The Boring Context

For the uninitiated, the script of a musical is made up of three parts: the music, the lyrics, and the book. The music is the actual melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. The lyrics are the words that are sung within that music (and sometimes spoken words during a song, but that can blur into the final element). And the book is all the spoken dialogue, occasionally inserted within a song but often whole scenes that help connect the songs through the course of the show. All three of these components work together to shape the story.

The original production of “Paint Your Wagon” opened on Broadway in 1951. The music was written by Frederick Loewe, and the lyrics and book were both written by Alan J. Lerner. Lerner and Loewe have worked as a team often, and together are responsible for other well-known musicals: “Brigadoon,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Camelot,” all of which they wrote with that same division of responsibilities.

In 1969, the show was adapted into a film of the same name starring Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg. Lerner is credited with the screenplay alongside Paddy Chayefsky (of Network fame) for the adaptation.

Pulitzer prize-nominated playwright Jon Marans wrote a new book for the musical which premiered in 2016 in Seattle, and also showed that same year in St. Paul, MN. This is the version that is playing at The MUNY from July 27-Aug 2.

My only experience with this show is in its latest iteration, but I have perused the synopses, and all three have markedly different plots and characters – primarily sharing the central character and general premise of ‘things that might happen in a gold-rush boomtown.’

I did not know the plot or premise before watching the show. I only inferred that it had a Western flair due to the titular wagon on stage prior to curtain emblazoned with “California or Bust,” and the fact that I was aware of Clint Eastwood’s casting in the movie. So judgement here will be passed purely on the merits of the show based on the script and production I witnessed Sunday evening in Forest Park.

Disclaimer: I Apologize For All My Broad Generalizations

Any sweeping claims I make do not necessarily reflect my overall perspective on the art form of theatre, but likely informed my expectations for viewing this piece. Plus if I don’t make mention of such now, I know I will hem and haw over, “when I say this, I mean is this or that context, but broadly I accept…” and that would be difficult and disinteresting to read, I imagine. And I may still qualify my statements regardless, such as in the first sentence of the next paragraph.

Setting Tone: You’re Not Required To Tell Me How To Feel, But You Probably Should

A piece of theatre does not need to telegraph its message to be good, but leaning on tropes and archetypes can be a useful way to quickly bring an audience into the world of the story. As we will see later in the song breakdown, the overall structure of shows from this era nearly requires this type of shorthand to get us started, because there’s a heckuva lotta songs to sing, and we still need to tell a story.

Ultimately my biggest complaint is that I’m not sure how I feel about the show due to either a lack of clarity in the overall tone, or possibly a disjointed relationship between the new book and the source material.

In broad strokes the plot is this: when all the things our protagonists hoped for finally came true, it inevitably leads to their destruction.

Many more things happen through the course of the show, but that’s just it: things happen. There is no greater through line pushing or pulling our characters to some other end through escalating conflict. They only make decisions because they woke up that day and encounter the natural circumstances of life in a soon-to-be boomtown.

Our main protagonist, Ben Rumson, begins as a wanderer, and is only brought to town when he pities a wayward soul and helps him find his way there. Once in town, Ben hangs out because…Armando promised him money? There is no dramatic tension, no motivation blocked by a conflict that needs to be overcome. Eventually he falls in love with the Only Woman In Town, but before he has a chance to, what keeps him there? Why doesn’t Ben go back to trapping pelts?

It is not until the wife-auction do we see any dramatic stakes beyond “digging for gold is hard work and uncertain.” There is a bit of social tension between the equalizing nature of the wilderness vs the privileged class trying to assert oligarchical structures out west, but that is never highlighted as a true dramatic conflict, so it only serves as matter-of-fact world building texture.

Throughout the exposition, Ben is moved only by the inevitable virtue of Being The Good Guy, rather than being motivated by his wants. It is not until he has acquired a windfall of sweet, sweet, nuggs do we learn of his desire to build back his lost former life. And maybe that’s a strong statement about what money does to the heart – but if I’m only discovering deeper thematic insights after reflection and analysis, do they really count? Theatre lives in the moment, and if the audience doesn’t connect in the moment, they don’t connect at all.

These structural foibles leave us with no clear entry point into the story. These elements are not necessary to exist as a piece, but they are expected by virtue of the medium. If your goal as a writer is to frustrate the genre by doing something unexpected, then you have to DO something unexpected, not just be unexpected. Unless the goal is narrative torpor as a comment on the entire medium of storytelling in general, but the Muny is not that hip.

Up to this point, I’ve characterized the show as a bit of a downer, which isn’t entirely true. But honestly it would have had a stronger identity if it was a downer the whole way, not a Muny identity, but still.

There is an odd disconnect between the two acts. The first act feels like it’s trying to be “Singin’ In The Rain,” and the second act is trying to be “Ragtime,” until the final scene when it turns around and ends on a hopeful sounding note.

However the journey through destruction and despair does not end with a concrete lesson learned other than, “well that was bad and we burned it all down, let’s not do that.” There is no reason to believe the characters have been inexorably changed – we have only seen an external journey, not an internal one. Take the Wheels Off echoes the same optimistic uncertainty of I’m On My Way. The only difference is one is about adventure out there, and the other is about adventure right here.

We are left with no hope that after the curtain Ben & Co will see prosperity and happily ever after. His language does not telegraph a clear and definitive paradigm shift. Maybe it won’t be dancing girls and roulette this time, but it will be something. And that conclusion may be truer to life, and I don’t expect every show to be a fairy tale. But the show did not actively set my expectations, so in the vacuum I assigned my own based on the era of the original production.

I refuse to believe the purpose of this show is to present a cynical, plainspoken look at the moral entropy of man (and men) left to their own devices. But ultimately that’s how the show comes across – just not as elegantly stated. And all that has a lot to do with how the book and songs fail to work equally together in shaping the story.

Why Write More Lyrics When We Can Sing The Chorus Again?

With its initial debut in 1951, “PYW” falls squarely into what is often referred to as the “golden age” of musical theatre. Shows of this era tend to have simple plots, centering around a romantic relationship between two main characters (the ‘A’ story), including a secondary plot line (the ‘B’ story) often involving a romance between supporting characters. There may also be a villian, and/or some greater societal crisis.

Few of the songs in this show actively drive the plot or set up motivations, and none of them dynamically move us from one place to the next in the story. That fact in and of itself is no flaw, and for “golden age” musicals this is a feature, not a bug.

In a typical example, all the songs are laid on an efficient foundation of archetypal characters and a nearly guaranteed happy ending. There’s a familiar framework that’s uncomplicated. The songs don’t need to do a lot of heavy lifting in moving the plot forward because, well, there’s not that heavy of a plot to move. It’s tried and true and it works, and that’s just a hallmark of the genre – neither good nor bad.

To this point, the bulk of the songs in this show fit into one of three categories: (a) love songs, (b) emotions-manifesting-as-nature-metaphor songs, and (c) we’re-out-here-doing-western-things songs.

Proof: (a) What Do Other Folk Do?, How Can I Wait?, I Talk To The Trees, Carino Mio; (b) Wand’rin’ Star, Another Autumn, They Call The Wind Maria; (c) I’m On My Way, No Name City, Four Hundred People Came To No Name City, Whoop-Ti-Ay!, Gold Fever, There’s A Coach Comin’ In, Rumson City, Take The Wheels Off The Wagon.

The only exception is I Still See Elisa, which is an emotional response song without a poetic metaphor. It serves for the main character to reassure his daughter that he still loves/cares for his late wife, her mother, even though he has remarried. Also, Wand’rin’ Star also doubles as a character establishment song.

But the new book has attempted to make the show more than what it was, which is ambitious, and maybe even commendable. But taking what we know, it’s not hard to imagine how that aim can lead to trouble.

Let’s Face It: A Reworked Classic Is Functionally A Jukebox Musical

In both cases, the job is to take established popular songs and interpolate them into a book musical. Within that proposition the options tend to be: vignettes, simple story, or mash-up and re-work the source songs to help tell a layered, dynamic tale.

If we have sixteen songs plus six reprises (which we do), and none of them move the character perspectives or drive action of the plot, then you won’t have enough time to develop a multi-faceted story with stakes and characters the audience can connect to and care about.

Marans’ version of the gold-rush drama inserts enough plot to fill a novel. This is exciting, as contemporary audiences are often happy to have something a little more to chew on than the standard A-plot and B-plot and a quadruple wedding in the sky. It is also foolhardy – not so much the task of updating and enlarging an older property, but trying to do so by only adjusting the book.

Songwriters have access to cheat codes of the human emotion. And that’s one of the wonderful things about musical theatre – there is an efficiency in music. Singing a song is like speaking in two languages at once, and if done well we can fit a rollercoaster of emotional buy-in across an A-plot, several C-plots, and even some pointed philosophical musings or broader societal commentary within two-and-half to three hours. But not every show is “Into The Woods.”

Now the songs of “Paint Your Wagon” were not written that way. These songs were written to fit the classic, simple, golden-age show structure. By trying to fit an A-story and several C-stories into this setting, you have to speed through vignette moments with the characters, telling and not showing motivations so we can comprehend the struggle.

The songs as they stand do not do any of the narrative heavy lifting, so that responsibility lands with the book. And when you add the complexities we have in this version of the show, the book has to put its foot on the gas of the plot details to keep the show from bloating to four hours in length. The audience is not given time to relate to the characters, and therefore cannot connect to the show.

Back to the proposition of classic updates and jukebox musicals, let’s take a stroll down correlation lane. This season at the Muny also brought us songs from a classic show accompanied by a contemporary updated book in “Cinderella,” as well as a categorical jukebox musical in “Footloose.”

In the original production of “Paint Your Wagon,” the lyricist also wrote the book. In “Footloose,” the lyricist co-wrote the book. I don’t know the critical reception of 1951’s “PYW,” but it’s endurance and film adaptation seem to suggest success. “Footloose” has a strong book, and overall tells the story it presents in a clear and unified manner.

Both “Cinderella” and the current iteration of “Paint Your Wagon” have bookwriters far removed from the lyricists, and as far as my nominal research goes, I am unaware of any contemporary contributions to those lyrics for these updated versions. Both of these shows, regardless of how you feel about the content of the story, suffer from a lack of unity in how the book and songs come together to connect that story to the audience.

Okay, So Am I Supposed To Not Like This Show?

Eh. The story that is being attempted is not without value. And the songs are not without value. But as it stands, the elements of the show are irreconcilable. The saccharine, gilded nature of the songs clash with the gritty, social drama of the book. Both are presented in earnest on separate tonal planes, leading to dramatic cognitive dissonance.

Speaking Out When Friends Are In Pain

Over the past couple weeks, there has been a lot of heated discussion and even personal attacks on the Internet within the local St. Louis Theatre community. Even if you’re not involved in the particular discussion, the aftermath has broad consequences. I’m not always the most emotionally sensitive, but seeing my friends hurting compelled me to give words to my thoughts.

It feels like we as a society are addicted to being right. And that’s something I plan to expand on, but for now I wanted to put these recent thoughts all in one spot, so first, here’s June 18, 2018:

I typically don’t engage hot topics on Facebook, because so often attempts at conversation devolve into pure vitriol. But in an attempt to not be silent, here are some thoughts I’ve had recently:

Racism and any type of discrimination is not defined by intent; it is defined by impact.

We say be kind to one another, and that’s nice, but maybe we need some tools to help us. I can swear up and down that I’m empathetic and I listen to others but I always can and should do better.

Try this: next time you make an assumption about someone (which if you’re paying attention will happen about every 30 secs, even if on a micro level), stop and ask where that came from. What was the bias, stereotype, or lie that fed that thought? What are the facts of the situation? And usually the answer to that last question is, “I don’t know.” So okay, relinquish judgement, it’s not yours to take.

And just to be clear, I’m talking to white people. Yes, society at large and all people need to exercise more empathy, but you know who needs to hear this most? White people. Because we are by and large the consistent, systemic, silent offenders who literally cannot comprehend what discrimination feels like because we have not experienced it.

And if you are white – especially a straight, white, cis, male like me – and your first reaction to that statement is, “Well, I have experienced discrimination…” STOP. I don’t know how to make you hear this.

The more I listen to friends who have different backgrounds and experiences than me, the more I realize that I don’t know their pain and struggle. Listen. Listen. Seek understanding.

People are people – that’s so easy to forget online.

Stop yourself. Listen. Stop.

And I also had the opportunity to publish a column in response with local theatre magazine STL Limelight: My Friends Are Hurting, and Some Don’t Understand Why