I have often told friends, “There are only two things I’m never late for: Sunday worship and the theatre.” Afraid that people might think it sacrilegious, I usually pass it off as a joke, with a little chuckle.
It was never a joke.
I’m tremendously thankful to all of the contributors for their responses. They’ve sharpened my own thoughts and inspired new ones, as all good conversations should. They’ve caused me to refine my thesis—which may have been overstated at the first—and double-down on my conviction. First, a story.
Between suburban Connecticut, rural North Carolina, and small-town Idaho, I have lived the bulk of my life far from the bright lights of Broadway. But, thanks to the open hearts and empty couches of more than a few friends, I’ve made at least one yearly trip to the city since I was 17 years old. Into each trip, I packed a line-up of shows, carefully selected for their expected excellence. Time and again, I found that these half-dozen shows, despite having nothing to do with one another, would combine to reveal something about my life.
Most vivid is the year I saw the truly spectacular 2013 revival of Pippin alongside the aggressively mediocre If/Then and a few others that have fallen from my memory. The strange alchemy of the bait-and-switch coming-of-age tale and well, mostly just the eleven o’clock number and finale of If/Then literally changed my life. My existential angst about the time I felt I had wasted, the things I might never become, and the decisions I might have made melted away into the assurance of God’s providence. Life was not about becoming “Extraordinary,” but about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with the Lord. And I didn’t need to worry about the path not taken because my Heavenly Father had been ordering my steps. The experience had re-calibrated my vision of the world, resulting in a career change and a deeper, more regular engagement with the Word of God.
This is where I’m especially glad that Ray Dooley brought Gilcrest into the mix. It seems this engagement of the right brain via the passions also opens up a more expansive view of the human experience. Strictly speaking, the Aristotelian elements of these musicals have nothing to do with me, let alone one another. But at thirty-thousand feet, the right brain can stitch the disparate elements together to make an actionable whole.
But here also be dragons. Plato, Augustine, and John Ahern are correct: music (and musicals) can be dangerous. I would strongly disagree with Plato that the stirring of the passions is, in itself, an evil. Far better to go along with Augustine’s answer to his own question about music:
Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer. (Confessions 10.33)
Our fancy phrase for stories that are more moving than the truth they convey—or, worse, moving despite the lies they contain—is “emotional manipulation.” Don’t be emotionally manipulated.
Musicals can be dangerous in a second, even more insidious way, however. Susannah Black Roberts hints at this in her discussion of The Scarlet Pimpernel. And John specifically calls out some of Disney’s more egregious sins. The danger is this: some of the most compelling, seductive musical numbers most decidedly do not align our passions with the good. But I will shamelessly belt “Let It Go” and get carried away by Chauvelin’s “Marguerite” because, to pilfer from classical theology, it’s not about the meaning of the words but the sense in the song.
Divorced from its context, “Let It Go” is surely, as John would have it, “about one’s own well-being being a prerequisite for others’ well-being.” But remember how I spoke of Simba’s entire story backfilling his “I want” song? Elsa may live in isolation, but her biggest song does not. The full context of the movie reveals the song to be Elsa’s first, over-exuberant steps towards exercising her wrongfully-suppressed gifts with virtue. Yes, the final end of “Let It Go” is eudaimonia.
I need not hammer home the idea of attentive exegesis to a Theopolitan audience. The danger of musical theatre is the danger of all storytelling, seen most starkly in the Parables of Jesus. These compact, often baffling stories separated the wheat from the chaff, proving an aroma of life to some and the stench of death to others. The natural imagination might see in the musical retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hadestown, the inescapable tragedy of life that must end in death.
It’s an old song–
It’s an old tale
from way back when.
It’s an old song
And that is how it ends.
That’s how it goes,
Don’t ask why,
brother, don’t ask how
He could have come so close–
The song was written long ago.
And that is how it goes.
It’s a sad song,
It’s a sad tale,
It’s a tragedy.
It’s a sad song,
but we sing it anyway.
‘Cause here’s the thing:
To know how it ends
and still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time—
I learned that from a friend of mine.
But the baptized imagination can see that Ovid rings hollow after the Resurrection. Whatever her own faith, Anaïs Mitchell can’t escape the Christian cultural imaginary. I’ll spare you my 3000 words on the changes to Hades and Persephone, but rape and abduction are most decidedly out, and must be, in order for the brilliant weaving of these tales to work. And though Orpheus fails in the end, as he must, his very attempt brings some restoration, “bringing the world back into tune.” And the Christian is filled with the secret joy that the Greater Orpheus did not fail in the harrowing of Hell and will lead his bride, not only into the light of day, but to the beatific vision. Everyone else just gets Brian Drye’s sweet, sweet trombone.
Remy Wilkins and Christian Leithart’s contributions will help us bring this all together. The divine service, culminating in a meal, is the highest form of narrative art. The closer any other story hews to the rhythms and truths found therein, the more rich the experience—no matter the narrative medium. I still maintain that a good musical shapes the passions more effectively that a good book (the great cannot be compared), simply because it encompasses every sensual aspect but the eating.* If theatre feels like church to someone like John McWhorter or myself, it’s only because it’s a shining reflection of the more resplendent reality.
God was kind to take my eyesight from me in late 2020, after I had already gotten used to the absence of theatre. So while I can no longer enjoy musicals the way I once did, I look forward to joining the eschatological flash mob. Until then, if Susannah or anyone else feels the need to start a public “Confrontation,” I know both parts and would gladly join in.
Brittany Petruzzi is a former theater professional and the host of Canticlear.
*Two recent Broadway shows, 2019’s Oklahoma! and this season’s Birthday Candles (a straight play) have attempted this, to mixed degrees of success.
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