How do musicals deal with the end of life?
by Loren A. Roberts (guru of multi-hyphenate media)
I have no interest in making light of last week’s events. But I’m going to talk about death without directly addressing Colorado.
Even before the mass shooting that unfolded in Aurora, CO, early Friday morning, I was surrounded by death, or, at least kids’ theatrical interpretations of death. Take, for instance, this photo (taken by Bob Simpson's wife Emily) of my daughter on break in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, “playing dead” after being killed by a bunch of other 9- to 11-year-old gangsters (I have no idea how she decided that a sitting on a stool while leaning against the wall would equal “dead”):
And then this past week we got to see some student-written short plays, developed through workshops at The Pasadena Musical Theatre Program this summer. We had a parody of The Shining (entitled The Glimmering) (comedic death!), dolls hoping their owners don't kill themselves (not comedic), and elephants being chased by hungry lions (comedic almost-death). Every break during rehearsal, the students would revert to singing Ryan’s fantastic music from last summer’s Jasper in Deadland, in which best friends attempt to save each other from death’s grips in the underworld:
All that death got me to thinking: how much death can kids handle? And is this generation better prepared to deal with death than my generation? And how have musicals changed in their depiction of death from when I was younger?
GOING BACK IN TIME, WHEN LIFE WAS GOING TO END
Okay, let’s back up. I was in elementary school throughout the 70s (egad! that’s a long time ago), and death was not a joking matter. All us kids believed that we wouldn’t make it to adulthood, because of this:
That’s right, we were going to be annihilated by the big atomic bomb that either the U.S. or Russia was going to drop. It didn’t matter who dropped one first, because we were taught that the whole world was going to end in a big atomic/nuclear conflagration. The understanding that life was going to end -- and soon -- informed much of my generation’s decisions going into the 80’s.
Sweeney Todd checked into the public consciousness in 1979. Its depiction of death is at the same time comedic and bleak.
Mostly, popular musical theater has simply left death as a simple plot point until the past decade or two. An elderly cat dies at the end of Cats (1983). Lots of people die in Les Misérables (1987). But then Larson confronts death head-on in Rent (1996)...kinda. Finally, you’ve got Spring Awakening (2007), which deals with issues of both death and suicide. Next to Normal (2009) explored what death could do to a family under stress and in the throes of mental illness.
How has popular culture been influenced by depictions of death in musical theater? And, maybe more importantly, how has musical theater reflected the changing attitudes toward death in popular culture? How would musical theater deal with the senseless violence that happened in Colorado last week?
Obviously, this is a topic that whole books could be written on, and I’m just starting to explore it. Feel free to share your experiences with “death in musical theater” in the comments below.
LOREN A. ROBERTS produces films, videos and music, designs magazines and logos, plays and sings in a rock-and-roll tribute band, and is a student of what happens when science and technology and the arts and culture collide. www.hearkencreative.com
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