The title of this production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, portrays a strange juxtaposition. Yet, these two concepts have been linked for a very long time.
The essence of the connection is that humans have responded to overwhelming catastrophe, or pending doom through the ages, by engaging in a variety of defense mechanisms: diverting attention; denial; ignoring; and in some cases–song and dance. This reaction is familiar when you consider it. When nothing seems to be able to be done, rather than slopping into paralysis, or depression, or running away while screaming, it may seem better to just become cavalier. Something about “thumbing one’s nose at it.” Whistling past the graveyard. Pretending to be brave. Reminds me of the movie in which Gene
Wilder and Richard Prior portray characters forced to spend some time in a jail filled with the worst of the worst criminals. They walk through the bad guys portraying themselves to be “bad” –“we bad, we bad” they chant, announcing that they are “street wise” thugs, in hopes that they will not be attacked.
This is the basis of the musical performed at the A.R.T.
The theater is intimate. The staging is minimal. The music is provided by a solo pianist who remains hidden to the audience. Not Broadway…Off Broadway… Avant-garde.
The audience learns from the Playbill that the performance is based on the aftermath of the powerful and damaging storm that struck the east coast of the US, hurricane Sandy. It portends the coming era of climate change with the potential for even more devastation. This topic of climate change has been featured at the A.R.T. through a partnership with the Harvard Center for the Environment.
The musical begins. Flashing lights, loud claps of thunder. The sound of high winds and things breaking.
The curtain opens to a ragamuffin individual who is dragging/rowing a life raft to a small bit of dry land. He is dressed in the traditional vaudevillian outfit of baggy pants and bowler hat. Just as he begins to settle into this respite by spreading a colorful picnic blanket on the ground, he is surprised by the appearance of yet another, older, more ragged individual who has taken shelter in a large box. The action is pantomime, but it is clear that the older guy is some sort of miscreant, grumpy old man, depressed, forlorn, and wishing to be alone.
They are the last two people on earth.
There is a halting, tentative interaction between them. The older one looks and acts depressed. The younger is more playful, engaging, outgoing, as he attempts to coax the older one into a song and dance.
Perhaps these are the two options for all in these circumstances: depression and hopelessness or playfulness and spunk.
The younger picks up two canes from the life raft. He gives one to his scowling companion and they break into song. There are some thirty songs, interspersed with dance in this production.
The songs lead to funny moments, poignant moments, and sad moments.
Some are familiar and modern. Others are taken from a different era, reminiscent of the roaring twenties of vaudeville. Others are from Broadway or popular music.
They all seem to have the theme of responding to troubled times with a “devil may care” attitude.
The first song is an old one from Irving Berlin: “The weather is frightening, The thunder and lightning. Seem to be having their way. But as far as I am concerned, It’s a lovely day. Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?”
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen): “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide. No escape from reality…Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me.”
(Kingston Trio): “They’re rioting in Africa—da da da da da da. There’s strife in Iran. The whole world is festering with unhappy souls…”
(Eddie Lawrence) Questions are posed of ridiculous mishaps followed by “Is that what’s bothering you brother? Then lift your head up high and take a walk in the sun. Never give up, Never give up…that ship!”
And so it goes for 90 minutes without a break.
I think of other connections in which history is filled with references to song and catastrophe. Nero playing while Rome burns. Musicians aboard the Titanic. Jazz at funerals in New Orleans.
Do all musicians struggle with this?
I am left wondering if I have gotten the real meaning of the performance. It is not depressing, though it would seem to be. Perhaps it is a tribute to the unsinkable Molly Brown in all of us. Or perhaps it points out clearly that we can’t agree upon the consequences of human activity on global warming and the potential disaster that awaits. So we sing and dance about what is real and what is fantasy.
The final song is sung as the last two humans paddle through the stormy seas in their life boat, to an uncertain destination, and inevitable death:
“Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.”
It was Voltaire, the 17th Century French philosopher who summed it all up: “Life is a shipwreck…. Those in the lifeboats must not forget to sing.”