Theatre With an “Re”

A friend of mine told me that whenever someone says that they’re not into musical theater, but they like some of it, what they’re really saying is, “I like Sondheim.” He told me this after I’d said just that, and he’d correctly assumed that I was a Sweeney Todd fan. What can I say? I like fucked-up shit. Sweeney Todd is twisted, melodramatic, and deliriously entertaining. I had the privilege of seeing the Broadway revival in which the actors doubled as the orchestra. It was phenomenal. Michael Cerveris was a killer Sweeney, and I’ll watch Patti LuPone do just about anything. Nonetheless, I’m pretty indifferent to the medium, although  I’m writing in defense of it right now. It used to be that showtunes occasionally found air time on the radio. I don’t listen to the radio, but I don’t think that happens much anymore, if at all. It’s sad, because some of them, like this hit from the ‘80s musical Chess, are quite radio-friendly.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a quite a polarizing figure. There are people who consider him the spawn of Satan, and those who consider him the savior of Broadway. In a way, they’re both right. You may not be a fan of his work (I’m not, at least, not especially), but you have to admit that the man can write a catchy pop song better than just about any living songwriter. On the off chance that you haven’t heard these songs before, give them a listen and see if you don’t spend the rest of your life humming them. It takes talent to produce an earworm that unshakable. The only show of Webber’s I’ve ever really liked was Jesus Christ Superstar. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing, perhaps I’m just not a good critic, but I think it’s a fun, breezy show that has a lot to say about Judas’ relationship with Jesus. And of course, there’s the title song, which is an earworm to end all earworms.

Part of Webber’s secret is repetition: his songs rarely clock in at less than four minutes, and even then, they’re reprised again and again over the course of his shows. Maybe that’s why I like Superstar. Sure, it’s repetitive, but it’s also short, which gives Webber’s tried-and-true tactic of getting louder and changing keys until the song is seared into one’s brain with a hot iron less time to become irritating. What’s most intriguing about the show is how controversial it was at the time of its release. My father recalls sitting through lengthy sermons from his extremely conservative pastor about the evils of the show and the liberties it takes with Biblical text. Of course, saying that to a teenager is like saying, “Don’t do drugs.” The whole time, all my father could think about was how much he desperately needed to see this show. These days, it seems pretty tame, so tame that my Catholic high school had, by the time I got there, not only performed it, but performed it on two separate seasons.

I’m glad that I grew up in a relatively progressive religious community rather than a fire-and-brimstone community. For one thing, it was easier on me, and for another, it was easier on the people who had to be around me. I don’t believe that everyone I encountered was a good person deep down. Some were misguided, some had integrity, and some were bigots for whom faith was a cudgel with which to alienate and exclude those who did not conform to their narrow interpretation of Scripture. But thankfully, most were willing to listen, even if they didn’t understand. I’ve said this before, but you can’t ask for much more. When I tell people that I was raised Catholic, I get mixed responses. Some people look at me as if I just said I was beaten by my parents. Others look on with curiosity. What did I learn from growing up Catholic? Mainly, I learned that faith is not, as some would have you believe, inherently evil. It can be a force for good or bad, and we should not let the rampant misuse of it throughout human history mislead us into thinking that the only answer is to eliminate it completely. There are people who could not live without it. I won’t take it away from them. What about you?

I’ve been taught Shakespeare by quite a few teachers. The best one I ever had gave us a homework assignment early on that asked us to find a line in the play we were reading (The Taming of the Shrew) that we liked saying out loud and say it to the person who sat next to us at the next lecture. Her favorite line came after Katherina’s monologue explaining that women should be subservient to their husbands, to which her husband replies, “Why, there’s a wench! Come on and kiss me, Kate.” Try to say that without smiling. It’s impossible. Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read, and it’s time for more teachers to get that into their heads. If theater really wants to find a larger audience, it needs to do so not by watering itself down, but by being exactly what it is: a unique medium that allows for a more intimate connection between the performers and the audience than any film or literature can accomplish. Books and movies have their place as well, but that is not the realm of Shakespeare. The man was, first and foremost, a crowd-pleaser.

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