We've all heard the complaints that New York theatre is becoming a Disneyfied theme park of PG-rated spectacles; one look at the new Times Square and the roster of longest-running musical epics could corroborate that assessment.
But it's only fair to point out the other side: a concurrent strain of serious plays and musicals, with political and/or sociological dilemmas at their heart. Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's dark new musical, Parade, is an obvious example, but even some of the less earnest shows this season have dipped into deeper waters, from Sandra Bernhard's rants that both celebrate and send up the cult of celebrity, to Getting And Spending 's weighing of varying levels of guilt.
Easily the season's most prominent theme has been the misunderstood outsider, desperate either to fit into his milieu or, at the very least, be left alone to live his life without persecution. Stretching back to late `97, we already see that theme take hold in Ragtime, wherein the immigrant Tateh braves both anti-Semitism and America's disdain for the poor in his rise from laborer to street artist to, ultimately, Hollywood film director. In his first dialogues with Mother, it's almost as if he's breaking the law by communicating with her, not so much because she's married, but because she's a well-off member of the dominant white culture, and he's a ragged Jew scrabbling to make ends meet.
Another example: When Sarah tries to get the President's ear to complain about Coalhouse Walker's ruined automobile, all the President's advisors and bodyguards see is a potentially dangerous face in the crowd -- a black face, at that -- and they beat her to death.
Fast forward twelve months and we're back to Parade, with Leo Frank accused of raping and brutally murdering a teenage girl from his factory. That he's a nervous Jew with an odd face and a habit of rubbing his hands together has a lot more bearing than it should on the prosecutors, the jury and the media covering the trial. The outsider theme is even treated with irony in a song that has black factory workers joking about Frank and noting that if a black girl had been murdered instead of a white one, the headlines wouldn't be so bloodthirsty. The workers also exult in the news that a black man's testimony, however questionable, is treated with more reverence than that of the accused. Though not in peril for her life, Frank's wife feels her ostracism even more acutely than her husband. She's a born-and-bred Southerner but also an observant Jew. Once her husband stands accused, she may as well be a visitor from another planet, judging by the way society treats her. During the trial, she stands out from the rest of the spectators by her outmoded dress, a visual motif made stronger by lighting designer Howell Binkley beaming a spotlight right down on her. After the verdict, Mrs. Frank has to crash a fancy ball and raise her voice before the governor will bother to deal with her. (A similar ploy was treated more comically in Getting and Spending, when Victoria -- the Linda Purl character -- stripped to her underwear and threatened to run around the monastery until the lawyer she sought would emerge.)
Nearly every musical this season has taken the point of view of an outsider trying to crash or widen the narrow society into which he's thrust. Clifford arrives in the Weimar Germany of Cabaret, where he's able to be somewhat more open about his sexuality, but he's also shocked and dismayed by the thought-sickness sweeping the Rhineland. By the time he leaves the country (just in time), a train conductor's question "Did you enjoy your stay in our country?" might as well have the words "or else" tacked on to them. Of course, Clifford is an outsider who can exit at will; Herr Schultz is not so lucky, as the brick that crashes through his shop window (a mini-kristallnacht) makes clear.
The Jew-as-alien theme was also covered in Mandy Patinkin's solo concert, Mamaloshen. Song after song showed impoverished immigrants begging, working for slave wages, or enduring violence (often in situations pitting socialism vs. capitalism). Throughout, classic Yiddish ditties were woven together with Paul Simon's "American Tune," making implicit the need for all these downtrodden new citizens to be part of the mainstream.
Off-Broadway's long-running Sakina's Restaurant took its cue from an Indian man arriving in New York in hopes of grasping the American dream (which turns out to be nothing more than the kitchen of a nondescript Indian restaurant on Sixth Street). Less fortunate, and far less honorable, The Capeman 's Salvador Agron feels so disconnected from American society, he sees his murder trial and imprisonment not as punishment, but as the "system" trying to lynch a lowly Puerto Rican.
Perhaps the most overt look at an outsider wanting in comes via Footloose, Dean Pitchford, Walter Bobbie and Tom Snow's adaptation of the hit movie. The new kid in town, Ren uses his good looks and high spirits to fit in with his new high school classmates. He wins most of them over easily enough, but he's not so lucky with the town elders, notably the preacher, who has used his political muscle to ban dancing. By musical's end, Ren has not only become part of the "in-crowd" (well, not the greasers, since he's earlier stolen a biker's girlfriend), he's their leader, pleading with the local government to rescind the Reverend's ordinance.
Numerous critics have pointed out the show's lapses in logic, such as why do the town elders see Ren's lighthearted cheekiness as such a threat, while biker-thugs who zoom through town at all hours of the night are just kids being kids? And why would clean-cut Ren have so much trouble fitting in in Bomont, a town where clothes and hairstyles are 1990s-hip and interracial dating is as common as meatloaf? But those oddities only further the idea that Ren's great "crime" is being new and from another place, rather than specifically threatening (like, say, Jud in Oklahoma!).
At least in Off-Broadway's Corpus Christi, the lead character, Joshua, was truly out of his element, a self-doubting homosexual in a small, 1950s Texas town bred on men-are-men bravado and so-called family values. The ridiculous controversy surrounding Terrence McNally's drama centered on the depiction of Jesus as gay, but the show was really about drawing parallels between Christ and Joshua, two persecuted "others." Joshua's momentous revelation at the finale (much like Jesus' epiphany at the end of "The Last Temptation of Christ") is that God has chosen him to be an outsider, suffering the tortures of all the people who feel threatened by his teachings and growing influence.
Nineteen hundred and fifty-odd years later, Dinah Washington at least had enough clout to stand in the lobby of a whites-only hotel and demand a room. Oliver Goldstick's Off-Broadway hit, Dinah Was , captures the irony facing well-known black entertainers: they're inside enough to perform at the fanciest clubs and concert halls, but still too outside to sleep, eat and live with white America.
Some outsiders do quite nicely. Maria in The Sound Of Music is a "problem" to the other nuns, but she fits in to the Von Trapp household so easily, she squeezes Elsa out. In The Scarlet Pimpernel , Sir Percy gladly allows himself to be perceived as a snivelling idiot -- all the better to gather inside information on Robespierre's beheadings. In Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake , the Black Swan character crashes a party and, despite (or because of?) his sneering attitude and sleek leather garb, seduces all the women and roughly half the men. In Collected Stories , the student guilelessly works her way into her mentor's life -- and ends up not only surpassing her teacher but appropriating her teacher's autobiography to do so. In Electra, currently revived on Broadway with Zoe Wanamaker in the title role, Orestes has been away so long, he can walk around the castle grounds without even being recognized. Once he's murdered the king and queen, he and his sister (an outcast by choice) will rule the roost.
Then we also have people who were once in the in crowd and now find themselves pushed out. The jazz musicians in Side Man had pretty good careers when Dixieland and Swing defined popular music in the 40s and early 50s. But once rock and roll literally electrified the country, these talented eccentrics saw themselves marginalized. Their choice: quit altogether or take what they can get and spend increasing amounts of time reminiscing about the good old days and their fallen comrades.
And what of the happiest outsider of all? Peter Pan, flying into the Darling home and absconding with Wendy, Michael and John. The little boy who defiantly won't grow up mocks the ways of maturity and the conformities of home and hearth. The tragedy, of course, is that when Peter returns for spring cleaning many years hence, he and Wendy are both so far removed from each other's worlds, she can view adolescence only through the eyes of a sadder, wiser adult. She's actually become an outsider to a part of herself.
At least she can take comfort -- and pain -- in seeing her own daughter embark on similar adventures. As J.M. Barrie wrote in his novel "Peter and Wendy" (penned seven years after his smash play, though long before the musical), "...as Wendy waved farewell, Jane has waved farewell, and it's Jane's child, now, who waves from the window, in thrall to the breath of the night sky, where her child is flying, gay and innocent, and heartless."
And outside -- at least for a little while.
-- By David Lefkowitz