I really enjoy musicals. I love the amazing acting (skillfully synced with great singing), the stage effects, and yes, the sappy, often cheesy, show tunes. Yeah, this is probably weird for a college-age male to admit, but I’m hooked on Broadway. For example, if you come across me dusting shelves or sorting books at my job at the library, tasks that allow the use of headphones, I will more than likely be listening to the Les Mis or Show Tunes channels on Pandora. I am not ashamed!
But honestly, who can resist the catchiness of Wicked, the nostalgia of The Sound of Music, or the depth and complexities of Les Mis or Phantom of the Opera? Ok, maybe some can, but the point is that there is a quality about these productions which continues to grab audiences around the world, to the point that people are spending millions on tickets, soundtracks, and merchandise. Clearly, something is being done well to make people come and watch again and again. It’s unlikely that we can isolate the one thing that ensures the popularity of the musical. Some combination of catchy tunes, a colorful plot, and amazing stage design can be offered as an answer, but I want to focus on what I think to be the most important part of any successful musical, the resonance of the story with the deep questions in our own lives.
Take Wicked for example. Although I could hardly describe this production as “deep,” (It just seems more fun to me), it does challenge its audience in probably the most famous line of the show, “are people born wicked, or do they have wicked thrust upon them?” The whole production forces the viewers to reexamine what they thought they knew about the “Wicked Witch of the West” (the protagonist of the musical), who in reality, seems not to be very “wicked” at all, but really a victim of a corrupt, manipulative system. What is this if not the classic “nature vs. nurture” question? Are we born evil, or are we made evil by an evil society? Even more than that, what is “evil” or “good”? Do moral questions depend wholly on perspective, and are they therefore merely subjective? Behind the witty and catchy songs like “Popular” and “Defying Gravity,” there’s a worldview which audiences are forced to grapple with, whether they choose to or not.
My favorite at the moment is Les Mis, based on Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables (a brilliant and enjoyable novel for any serious connoisseur of literature). As the title suggests, this is in many ways a very dark story, grappling with issues like prostitution, excessive penal justice, and abject poverty. But there are also numerous sparks of hope, and if it can be described as a story of the failure and inadequacy of a society’s institutions, it is also a story of redemption. It centers on several complicated and vibrant characters, such as the ex-convict Jean Valjean, struggling to wipe away the stain and misery of his past, or Fantine, a young mother abandoned by her lover and forced into prostitution to pay for her daughter, Cosette. These deeply personal stories are masterfully woven into the larger context of the 1848 French Revolution, giving the overarching plot both macro- and micro- elements. While the captivating and deep humanitarian flavor of the story can be considered the most popular element in this production, the music is incredibly stunning.
Take this set of lyrics from the number, “At the End of the Day”:
“At the end of the day you’re another day older
And that’s all you can say for the life of the poor
It’s a struggle, it’s a war
And there’s nothing that anyone’s giving
One more day standing about, what is it for?
One day less to be living.”
This song tackles a deep question which affects everyone, what is it all for? What are we working towards? Or take song made more famous by Susan Boyle, “I Dreamed a Dream,” sung by a distraught and dejected Fantine as she looks back on the dreams she had for her life in earlier years, and compares them to her current state of poverty and prostitution:
“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
We hear in Fantine our own struggles and failures to find true joy in this life. We sympathize with her as she examines the wide gap between reality and the ideal. With the futility of life portrayed in songs like these, it’s almost like the songwriters plagiarized directly from the book of Ecclesiastes!
And this is just the point: Like many other mediums within American culture, including cinema, art music, etc., musicals force audiences to engage with questions and problems we all face as human beings.
- With Wicked, we ask: what is the root of evil?
- With Les Mis, we ask: what are we living for? What do we turn to and hope in when all our dreams are destroyed?
The Bible is incredibly relevant here! It is an honest, trustworthy book that shows the problems and solutions to the human condition. While musicals are better, I think, at raising the questions and powerfully displaying humanity, the Bible doesn’t just raise the questions, but also gives the solutions.
Yes, there are aspects of every culture that will diametrically oppose the truth of Scripture. This is definitely the case in musicals. For instance, we are led to the conclusion in Wicked, that the concept of “evil” is really just based on one perspective (ie., there is never a clear-cut good vs. bad dichotomy). In this sense, it is a very “postmodern” musical.
Even so, we must be willing to point out what important issues our media addresses, as we attempt to engage with this culture in a way that more and more people can understand.
So next time you sit down in your comfy theater seat in New York or Chicago (or even in your local high school auditorium!), ask the Lord to teach you something through this enjoyable production. Don’t let it pass as an opportunity to learn more about society, and as an opportunity to share the hope you have with those around you!