Life imitates art. But art also imitates life. It’s certainly true that artists of any genre are commonly out on the fringe of society, pushing it forward in ways that often aren’t understood until the artist is long dead. However, it is equally true that the art that is accepted by a society either critically or financially is a marker of that society’s current values, trends, and beliefs. What people support with their dollars indicates what they support in their hearts.
It’s an election year, and, as they do every four years, politicians are again fighting over the issue of marriage equality. The fight of the GLBTQ community to secure equal rights in all 50 states never went away after the 2008 election. Opponents of California’s Prop 8, for example, have successfully fought the measure through the appeals process. But between election bombast and one fast food chain’s proud acknowledgement of their support for bigotry, the issue has resurfaced in the popular mindset.
Sometimes the religious right is so vocal and so well-funded that it can seem like all Christians hate gays and spend their entire lives downing sandwiches and sodas at Chick-Fil-A. Sometimes it can seem like the hateful views of Pat Robertson and those like him represent those who share his religion. I’m not sure that’s true. I think a better indication of what people believe in can be found in the actions of the many rather than the loud words of a few.
That brings me back to art. As a theater person, I believe that the most popular plays and musicals represent to some degree what people agree with or at least are not offended by. There was a time when it was difficult to have a gay character onstage, now it is quite common. We used to like our musicals light and fluffy, but they have evolved into very powerful works of art with insightful, sometimes radical themes. And some of the most popular musicals of the past 25 years either question rabid religious dogma or openly support the full equality of all races, religions, and sexual orientations. Let’s look at just a few of them.
Into the Woods made its Broadway premiere in the Reagan era (1987). I have written about this one a few times, so I won’t belabor it. It’s a about fairy tales who find what they are looking for in the first act and live happily ever after…until their lives are destroyed in act two. One of its most poignant scenes involves Jack (of the Beanstalk) and Little Red Riding Hood suffering after the loss of deaths of his mother and her grandmother. The Baker and Cinderella, their new parent figures, break the disturbing but important lesson to them you must rely on yourself, not others, to find what is right:
Witches can be right
Giants can be good
You decide what’s right
You decide what’s good.
The classic evil fairy tale witch may in fact be right and good. Sometimes what is right is not what you have always been taught to fear or hate.
Around the same time that Into the Woods was popular, Les Miserables was playing to packed crowds. Les Miz is a powerful, epic production based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. The center of the story is the policeman Javert’s search for the parole-breaking ex-con Jean Valjean. However, Valjean has turned his life around and become wealthy, kind, pious, and extremely philanthropic. One character even says to him, “You come from God, you are a saint.” Still, this new saint must constantly run from Javert.
In a television crime drama, Javert would be the good guy. He is the law; Valjean has knowingly broken the law. Thus, Les Miz is the battle of good vs. good. Unfortunately, Javert’s style of good is rigid and unyielding, blind to different definitions and subtleties of what is right. He sees only black and white in a world full of vibrant color. His rigidity is so extreme that when he finally bends, he shatters. Les Miz presents us once again with the dangers of thinking in rigid dogma, presenting us with a sympathetic character who begins his life of good by breaking the law. It forces us to think outside the pretty little box society has painted for us while encouraging peace and independence of thought, even as its lyrics work within a Christian context:
They will live again in freedom in the Garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare; they will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward…
Rent was once a breakthrough musical, but it has become dated rather quickly. The story is a modern rock adaptation of La Boheme, set against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic. Amidst the death and drug addiction, however, is a sweet and honest love story between two men. Tom and Angel are perhaps the most positive and loving couple in the musical. They are completely devoted to each other and as such fight the unfair stereotypes of promiscuity and licentiousness within the gay community, a stereotype often believed by those who argue against marriage equality.
I’ve longed to discover
Something as true as this is
So with a thousand sweet kisses,
I’ll cover you
If you want to dispel stereotypes, anything by Mel Brooks is probably not the type of work you want to see. Still, Brooks’ smash hit musical The Producers does what Brooks does best: exaggerate cultural norms to a place where they are so absurd we laugh at ourselves. In the song “Keep it Gay,” Brooks ridicules all of society’s gay stereotypes to a place where even the most conservative viewers laugh – and when you laugh, you become more comfortable. Just this one number from the movie breaks through a lot of taboos with humor:
Besides, there’s something disarming about watching a flamboyant Adolf Hitler singing about being “The German Ethel Merman.”
Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998. I have to admit, I don’t know how it did as well as it did in that time period. It was at its peak and beginning to tour right around 2001, a time when you couldn’t have had more pro-American audiences. Yet Ragtime blends historical American characters with fictional ones to tell a story that essentially presents as the hero a terrorist who blows up firehouses around New York City. Further, it skewers American capitalism and questions the very idea of America as the melting pot of full of unlimited opportunity.
Ragtime exposes all our prejudices. It unflinchingly tackles anti-immigrant sentiment, American greed, the shallowness of the rich, and endemic racism. And when Coalhouse Walker Jr., a victim of that racism, fights back, we cheer for him despite his violent tactics. The fact that Ragtime was successful at a time when “U.S.A Love it or Leave it” flags were all over the country points toward a recognition that most of us are actually willing to question the status quo, despite how the media portrays us.
And when you’re trapped and failure seems imminent
Think of Houdini, that fabulous immigrant
Break those chains with all you possess…
Wicked is another musical that has been discussed at length on The Juggler. The important theme with this huge hit is the questioning of what is good and what is evil. Like Les Miz and Ragtime, Wicked blurs the lines and makes a traditional villain the protagonist. Not only is the heroine a witch, and a traditional green-skinned-black-pointy-hat-witch at that, she is a well-known pop culture bad guy. The entire message of Wicked can be summed up on one line, said by the Wizard (who, in case you somehow don’t know, is from Kansas). Trying to win the witch to his side, he says: “Where I come from we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.”
2009’s Avenue Q is another question-the-American-Dream type musical, this time a comedy done with a healthy dose of television nostalgia and puppet porn. It has its sentimental moments, though. One of the sad portions of the story is Rod the puppet/Republican/investment banker who can’t admit he’s gay. Act one ends with Rod throwing out his best friend roommate, and love interest, Nicky, for outing him. Rob spends the second act sad and alone because he simply can’t admit who he is, despite the fact that his friends completely support him. Although it’s a comedy, Avenue Q shows the devastating effects that being forced to stay in the closet can have, and its popularity again demonstrates that America is warming up to the LGBTQ community.
Finally, there’s Spring Awakening. Not much to say here. The popular musical completely eviscerates conservative Christian morality and exposes the damage to mind, body, and soul that dogmatic thought can inflict.
These are some of the most popular musicals of the last 30 years. Sure, they don’t all tackle the marriage equality question head on. In fact, none of them do. If they did, only those in agreement would listen. The rest would still be hanging out at Chick-Fil-A. Instead, they blur the lines between right and wrong, and cause people to think about their own definitions of those concepts. They question rigidity of thought.
Like all good art, they present their somewhat subversive themes in packaging that is palpable to mainstream America and then allow those ideas to ferment. It’s a slow process, but very fact that these musicals have been financially successful is evidence that there is a strong taste in the American market for ideas that move us toward a more equal society. There is fertile ground for today’s equality activism.
In Ragtime, Coalhouse pleads “Make them hear you!”
The success of these musicals shows that they are listening.