This is the second weekend of my son’s high school musical. He’s a sophomore, this is his first theatrical experience, and he’s Nibs, one of the Lost Boys in the production of Peter Pan. While I didn’t know the show* (my high school never did it, to my knowledge), the entire experience—rehearsals and performances (of which I’ve seen two) is somewhat nostalgic for me. I was in Technical theater in high school, doing sound and props and building sets and stuff, so I understand the pressure, the excitement, the climactic last night, etc. Debbie, of course, sang and danced in her high school productions, and both she and Ben are of the opinion that I don’t remember well enough what it was like. Possibly true. I, grumpily enough, think I do, and I’m the Dad.
The music didn’t strike me as particularly interesting (Mary Poppins, say, is much more memorable), but the show itself is a model of its kind: something for every stereotypical childhood fantasy: laughable and clueless parents, a big loving dog, flying, fairy dust, fairies, fleeing reality and having fun and never growing old, a slightly older girl who wants to be a mother and have a husband and have rambunctious boys to look after and scold and mend for and so on, pirates, Indians (correct spelling, here, should probably be Injuns), a pack of boys running around and getting into innocent mischief (shades of Leo Edwards’s Jerry Todd and Poppy Ott books, on which my father was raised and to the charms of which he introduced us). I don’t know how much of this was in the original Barrie story (play?), but it all seemed to me to be prodigiously well-conceived in order to excite virtually any youthful imagination. This is with Disneyesque slickness: no stone of a child’s psyche is left unturned. The actors had, and are having, a great time, including having Q & A and photo shoots afterwards with kids from the audience. What’s not to admire?
What struck me most forcefully, though, is the idea that high schools all over the country devote huge amounts of time, effort, planning (and, very occasionally, financial resources, though we all know how that goes) to doing these musicals—and the musicals themselves are not in any way current or relevant. The views of society found in these works reflect the idealized popular culture of decades ago—before Vietnam, the 1960s, Watergate, Reaganomics, the two Gulf Wars, the ongoing crisis in the Balkans, the Sudanese genocide…and the same kids who listen to new bands and download music and so on happily and unwittingly flip an inner switch and give themselves over, body and soul, to something that was essentially nostalgic when it first appeared in (perhaps) their grandparents’ youth. Is this not an odd thing? Why is this entire sector of musical activity—among youth, no less, who might be expected to be the most cynical and resistant and inclined to question and challenge received entertainment product—given a pass from cultural resistant reading?
A note, before I continue: I am not advocating a harshly critical reexamination, even one justified with the fatuous claim that it would “reinvigorate” these familiar works, and that we should all interrogate and so on. Obviously these musical fill some deep cultural need of parents and kids alike, and the value of the roar-of-the-greasepaint-and-smell-of-the-crowd aspects of a shared project, a project in which parents are marginalized to the point of bringing food, writing checks, and skeddadling, cannot be minimized. Nor can the deep and probably universal human need to strut the boards, somehow, in formative years: to discover who you are by making believe you’re someone else. Still, these theatrical works are often not immortal masterpieces, dramatically or musically, yet their currency is prolonged, seemingly in defiance of cultural pressures and market dictates. So my reaction is really wonderment; I am not calling for wholesale change, but rather am just somewhat awed that something so counterintuitively popular continues to maintain a not-unimportant cultural niche.
There is a largely finite repertoire of these things, and as I say they are not all masterpieces by a long shot. I remember some of the spring and summer musicals from my high school, in the late 1960s and 1970s, and if I’m not mistaken they are still in the High School Musical Theater Canon: South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Mame, Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Annie Get Your Gun, and of course Fiddler on the Roof. Think of the cultural phenomena these are playing off: sailors in the Pacific, emigration from the miseries of Eastern European shtetlakh, 1950s middle-class cultural anxieties about Rock and Roll (esp. Elvis), and so on. And kids in the 1970s, and the 2000s also, line up to act, and to act out, and to dress up, and to get into all of this.
On some level these must be works that transcend their time, at least for a substantial segment of the public (but not everyone; for me, a lot of these musicals are utterly unmemorable, but never mind). That, actually, makes for an odd parallel with our cherished classical repertoire, with its putative artistic universals and ability to speak beyond its time and place. For that matter, Classic Rock—the stuff my parents screamed at my brother and myself for liking (mostly him; he’s older)—shares that status too: young people now listen to it in addition to their own stuff, and the more discerning/snootier among them feel it is better than current stuff and are prepared to make the arguments, at great pseudo-intellectual length. (How relevant to contemporary views are the lyrics to the opening verse of I’d Love to Change the World by Ten Years After, after all?) By the way: a condescending assertion of “well, it IS better, so there” by anyone about classical music, or by my parents about musicals, or by me about Classic Rock, may or may not be true but is really beside the point. The point here is that there is something at work here beyond cultural relevance, beyond contemporary taste, and even beyond (frankly) actual artistic quality that grants artworks of whatever length a place in their appropriate Canon. After watching a gleeful group of young people put up with a great deal of indignity and directorial pressure and logistical upheaval and so on to put on the likes of Peter Pan, and to hear them theorize about what the next musicals might/ought to be, I confess that quite a few of my customary musings about canons and cultural relevance and so on are being quietly put out with the trash.
That always makes me very, very happy. I really like it when my habitual modes of thought have large holes blown in them.
Off for several days to California on what may be a very sobering family visit. Will catch you, as they said in the Days of Vinyl, on the flip side. Remember, to quote Ray Davies’s final song from the Kinks’s Soap Opera album, “They can’t stop the music playin’on.”
*Debbie points out that this is not a typical musical for high schools, because of the resources need to get the actors to “fly”; we brought in a company from Kentucky to set up all the pulleys and train people to do it properly and safely. This is true, but in all other ways (subject matter, values, worldview) it fits squarely within the musical theater canon.