Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song

“Will you go to Memphis with me?”

“Sure!” Why not? Dad has asked me to go various places with him, and to date, other than an occasional day trip on the road none of the events materialized. He has, however, traveled on his own and with some of my siblings in recent years. Memphis was not among the places he had mentioned previously, but I’d always thought it would be fun to visit and tour the music scene. A bit unexpected, but really, why not?

“When are you thinking?” I asked.

“Not this weekend, but either the following weekend or the week after that.”

“Oh. Let me check my calendar,” I said a little startled. Dad has been known to up and do things rather unexpectedly, but usually only after talking about them for months on end.

“I think I heard it is Marvin Hamlisch‘s last work. I want to see his last work.”

The light turned on. Dad had been talking for months about buying season tickets to the musicals at the Portland Opera Company this year. A trip into downtown for a show was a much smaller commitment than a trip across the country. It would be much easier to clear my schedule for an afternoon than for an entire weekend or more.

“What’s it about?”

“They said it is about the birth of rock and roll.”

“Sounds fun.” I’m not the biggest fan of Rogers and Hammerstein-type musicals where characters spontaneously break out in sappy song for no apparent reason. I always have a good time, however, even if I would not feel compelled to go out of my way or buy a ticket myself. A musical about a particular genre of music makes a lot of sense and, even if poorly scripted or orchestrated could be a lot of fun, though there was no reason to believe it might be poorly done. It seems like the poorly done musicals are the ones that make the most news, and I’d never even heard of Memphis.

The following weekend while lying in bed listening to early morning radio an interview with George Takei aired. I’ve only known Takei as Mr. Sulu so it was fascinating to hear his mature perspective on theatre and performance. He had a perfect voice for radio that sucked me in, even at 6:00 in the morning. The interview was largely about a musical Takei had written that would debut in San Diego. Allegiance was about the experience of internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. Takei had been interred with his family as a child. A musical, Takei remarked in his deep soothing voice, was the most powerful way to tell the story.

I was perplexed. What on earth could he mean by that? Forcibly rounded up, family heirlooms and property stolen or destroyed by government officials, and living in cramped inadequate shelter amidst barbed wire and machine gun wielding guards is not exactly Bali Ha’i. I contemplated Takei’s words in anticipation of attending a live stage performance of a contemporary musical. I hoped that experiencing a musical would help me understand what he meant.

Dad arrived to pick me up for the Saturday afternoon matinee. He looked sharp in his white summer hat and navy blue blazer. Inside the red carpeted theatre lobby we had 30 minutes before the show started so I bought us each a cup of coffee in the increasingly busy lobby. Most patrons were drinking wine from little clear plastic cups with clear plastic drink lids and tiny straws, sold at the kiosk in front of the main window. Drip coffee was $3.50 for a self-serve, 12-ounce paper cup. I filled Dad’s cup. Handing it to him I suggested, “I hope you want at least six cups of coffee. Hang on to your cup.”

“No. This is fine, thank you.” I told him how much I had paid for each of our two cups.

“Maybe I do want more. I think I will need more later.” We found a place to sit and sip our steaming black liquid gold and waited for the auditorium to open. When we finished our coffee I stuffed paper napkins in each cup and tucked them into my handbag for later use. I wondered how much the other guests had paid for wine if our self-serve, drip coffee cost as much as a Starbucks specialty drink.

We found our seats and waited for the show to start. We thumbed through our programs, and passed back and forth the publicity magazine that Dad bought when we first arrived. I could not find a credit to Marvin Hamlisch anywhere. The music was scored by David Bryan, the keyboardist for Bon Jovi. He had not updated his hairstyle in 25 years.

Finally, at 10 minutes past the hour the orchestra began to play and the curtain lifted. By the intermission Dad and I both concluded the synopsis in the publicity materials was not especially accurate. Billed as a story about the “birth” of rock and roll, I was surprised that it set was in the late 1950s, long after its genesis out of the jazz era. I would have described the story as the proliferation of rock among a white audience and the role of music in racial integration. Later Dad remarked, “I wonder why they advertised it that way? It really had a lot to do with civil rights.” We both agreed the story we saw was better than the story we had anticipated. To be fair, I did not spend much time looking over the publicity materials and there may have been more after the initial statement.

Takei’s comment that a musical was the best medium to tell the story of the hostile treatment of Americans of Japanese heritage during wartime made sense in the context of Memphis. Racial oppression is a really yucky and uncomfortable subject, for the oppressed and the oppressors. Social conditions have changed a great deal since World War II and since the Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, but oppression persists to this day. It is ugly. The history is a part of US identity. We need to own it, collectively and individually or we will never be able to move beyond it to a respect-based, peaceful society. Who wants to own and identify with something so shameful it is difficult to talk about openly? Listening to a song performed live is more approachable and easier to digest than participating directly in an uncomfortable conversation. Song can be angry, happy, sad, confused, lustful, ill, or ignorant.

Stage theatre of any sort requires a certain amount of imagination, buy-in, and belief on the part of the audience. It does not replicate real life in the way silver screen productions often attempt to do. The performers have to engage the audience very directly and personally. The audience needs to meet the performers halfway. Like the best monsters and sex scenes that are never shown on screen, the mind fills in any gaps more vividly than could be construed by even the best storyteller or special effects artists. The audience buy-in required to engage in musical theatre can open the mind to challenging and complex stories and messages. The more comprehensive approach of a musical story does not dampen or belittle the message, but can soften the heart to hear it.

Interactions such as physical violence are choreographed, not re-enacted. Careful scoring and choreography can evoke strong emotions that communicates the same anger, happiness, sadness, confusion, passion, sickness or ignorance even without words. Because there are so many ways to communicate a message the message can be so much more in-depth, nuanced, and clear than television or film.

I am reminded of one of the most well-done performances I have ever seen. A friend took me on an outing to see the musical stage production Billy Elliot. Set in a coal-mining community in England during the Thatcher administration’s termination of support for the domestic coal industry, Billy was a young student who wanted to become a dancer and not a coal miner. In the context of worker strikes and violent police exchanges Billy’s dreams forced the family to grapple with class identity and values, while their community dealt with class conflict as their lives were impacted by a changing economy tainted by politics and global trade. In one scene the orchestra played ferociously while Billy danced with the most powerful rage throughout the moving set of police and miners on the brink of riot. The audience was as hurt, and angry and confused as Billy.

The production was so well done we got home and rented the film. It was not the same. The political and class controversies were more background than Billy’s personal story. In the film Billy’s untamable emotions were just an angry teenager running through the streets. The riots were depicted with police marching in a wall of shields up and clubs flailing, but the confluence and nuance of the different perspectives and emotions was flat, like the medium we were watching it on.

There was a big difference, however between Billy Elliot, and Memphis or Allegiance. I was Billy when I was a kid. I grew up in a working class family, in a working class town, as the timber industry was pulling out of our community for both political and economic reasons during the Reagan administation. And I was a dancer. By no means did I encounter issues as complex and hostile as Billy did, but I could identify with him in many ways. His musical story explained what I sometimes have difficulty explaining about my observations of class conflict, working class values, educated and working class culture, and the tenuous relationship our working class state has with education. I will never be a black singer under Jim Crow, or a prisoner of a U.S. concentration camp. I can find ways to relate to the story in a musical that presents multiple, complex messages in many ways.

When the house lights came up at the end of Memphis I noticed that most of the audience had white or greying hair. There were few noticable people of color in the audience. Portland is a fairly white town, so I suppose a fairly white audience would be expected. It made me wonder who the primary demographic is who attends musicals. I have not attended many, and I had never paid attention before. People who go to musicals have disposable income and a certain degree of wealth just to buy the tickets, let alone the lobby coffee. The best medium to tell any story about racial oppression could be a musical simply because the audience that is reached is largely white, with a level of economic privilege as well. In 1965 or even 1975 there may not have been much of an audience for a theatrical production about changing race relations.

There are a number of ways to tell difficult and complex stories, especially those that grow from the pain and shame of oppression. The stories need to be told in many ways through many media, both the simple and the complex. A stage production will not change the institutionalized racial bias of the criminal justice system, or the impact of health care disparities, or barriers to educational achievement and their consequences. Revisioning the touchstone moments of conflict and change may help to build and preserve critical history necessary to sustain a movement and mark continued forward progress. For some in the audience a musical may even foster the work of King by helping to change a few hearts and minds.

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