The Book of Mormon and The Morality of Broadway

“The narrative of the American musical critiques the very capitalism that it relies on to make a profit to survive. Therefore, this is a hypocritical industry that smugly challenges the power that comes with success, while enjoying the financial rewards and fame associated with Broadway”

Broadway is a cut-throat capitalist enterprise. The art form of the Broadway musical is driven by commercial success. If you don’t bring in the money, you disappear. The majority of productions flop, with only a limited number of productions enjoying a ‘success’ and the profits that come with this notion. According to Michael Paulson in his New York Times article ‘New Yorkers Making Up Bigger Portion of Broadway Audience’, over the last 12 months, 81 productions played at some point during the season with half of all the box-office revenue going to just 10 of those shows.

Musicals evolved to capture every idiom of American expression in style, spirit and format, moving away from the tedious European institution of the ‘theatre’. American Musicals provided a form of escapism and entertainment for a wider demographic. However, the objective of the American musical has changed, revealing a hypocritical industry. Tickets for the production of The Book of Mormon started at $99.00USD for seats in the mezzanine, at the show I attended the house was full, in fact, the same could be said for every ‘successful’ Broadway show I saw, regardless of time or day every seat was sold. At this price, Broadway excludes an audience it once relied on for success. According to Paulson through audience demographics report, which is based on surveys distributed in theaters: The Broadway audience remains predominantly white (77 percent) and female (66 percent), as well as affluent (average annual household income of $194,940) and educated (80 percent of those over 25 were college graduates and 39 percent had a graduate degree).

It is interesting that Musicals such as The Book of Mormon explicitly critique the format of the musical and the capitalism it relies on. If you take away the libretto and evaluate The Book of Mormon from the perspective of its production, from lighting and staging to characterisation and song, it has all the typical elements of a traditional Broadway Musical. However, beneath the dazzle of the production, the musical appears to be milking for laughs the Mormon beliefs, however, it is essentially laying jabs into the stigma of Broadway. Through their song “Hasa Diga Eebowai” they satirise “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King and state supposedly “Africa is nothing like the Lion King”. Elder Price’s proud announcement of blind faith in “I believe” is a direct homage to “I Have Confidence” from The Sound Of Music. In ridiculing these classic American musicals they critique dumbing down of entertainment, the capitalist values of Broadway and its power and influence over the American cultural psyche. These are hypocritical values though, as just like every other powerhouse Musical on Broadway the curtains go up and audiences eyes turn to the stage of a sellout show.  “South Park’s” Matt Stone and Trey Parker are selling a brand name that existed even before Broadway, critiquing the values which similarly supports them. As I sat in my seat and laughed and relished in the entertainment I forgot about the tickets, I forgot that Broadway was a business and I allowed myself to be taken on this journey.

 

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Performing “Turn it Off” from The Book Of Mormon

 

 

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Walt Whitman Poetry


Today in our Journey to Brooklyn we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I could sense the historic atmosphere of the bridge, and I trailed idly away from the group, indulging in quiet reflection as I stood to look out over the East River. Our guide had pointed out the original location of the Brooklyn Ferry where Walt Whitman would have crossed to the island of Manhattan. In his poetry of the city, Whitman constantly makes references to the waterways and as I took in the layout of the area I imagined what it would have looked like, bustling with tall masts and steamships:

“Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with tall and wonderful

spires,

Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships—an island sixteen miles

long, solid-founded,

Numberless crowded streets—high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly

uprising toward clear skies;

Tide swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown”

This section from Whitman’s 1900 poem Manahatta illustrates this connection to the waterways, describing the East River as the centre of maritime activities in the city. Today, however, it is no longer the bustling port and the murky grey-green estuary flows unadorned. Flanked on either side lie decrepit warehouses and structures which were once necessary for the burgeoning sea trade. Now, the ‘high growths of iron…uprising toward clear skies’ push closer to the edge of the River, skyscrapers clambering for space, building up the edges so much that the river no longer carves its natural course. I think Whitman would have been unsettled by this modern vista, he wrote so passionate and excitedly about the natural elements of New York City, when he addresses the construction of the city the “Numberless crowded streets” his tone feels darkened as he tries to turn manmade structures into a living organism describing them as “growths of iron” appears almost grotesque.

As I touched upon in my first blog post, I feel a sense of disconnection in cities and often seek out the natural world to stir my creativity. However, I was inspired by Whitman’s ability to celebrate the presence of nature in every creation and in homage to this sentiment I have written about my own experiences of the city and in particular central park;

The sunlight moves quickly across manicured scrubland- sprouting upwards between pillars of human co-existence,
Splashing over stones worn smooth- touched by a thousand hands and scraped by a thousand boots,
It trickles down over sniffling faces who take the brisk scenic route between air-conditioned spaces,
It illuminates the grey and brown overdose of the city, leafless lifeless trees and scavengers scurrying with their loots.
The fatigued light goes out and from the sky falls a delicate crystal – rapidly blanketing everything in sight.
From a fissure in the clouds, the sun bursts out in a final display of blinding glory, dancing across the snow,
The park standing in dazzling beauty as the light twinkles across the covering like glittering stars.

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myself enjoying the remnants of snow in Central Park

 

 

 

The American dream- A Bronx Tale and Death of a Salesman

The American dream is an obscure and elusive guideline, shepherding those who pursue this dream towards the promise of fulfilment. The concept of the American dream is interesting as it is never completely explicit in its goals, it can’t be contained, changing from generation to generation and from person to person. It suggests the dream is achieved when an individual secures a better, richer and happier life. What changes, however, is an individuals measurement of what “better” is and how it can be gained. The concept of the American dream and its different meanings are addressed in the musical ‘A Bronx Tale’ and the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.

Striving for the American dream is a central theme in A Bronx Tale, however, it is the diversity of dreams between individual which drives the narrative, creating dramatic tension between the characters. In the centre of this conflict is Calogero, who is pushed and pulled between two father figures with different values. For his father Lorenzo, the core essence of his American dream consists of making sure the next generation had a better life than himself. He strives to achieve this dream through persistence, hard work, determination and solidarity. Sonny, on the other hand, a local mafia boss, strives for loyalty and wealth, achieved quickly through corrupt deeds believing that “fear keeps them loyal”. This division of attitude similarly drives the narrative in Death of a Salesman, with the characters suggesting the American dream is an individuals pursuit- much like A Bronx Tale. The play’s protagonist Willy Loman is concerned with fame and popularity, believing that charisma and not hard work will bring him closer to achieving this dream. His brother Ben strives for the classic ‘rags to riches’ dream stating “William, when I walked into the jungle, I was seventeen. When I walked out I was twenty-one. And, by God, I was rich!”. Ben’s behaviour with Biff suggests he is willing to put aside his morals to achieve his dreams, much like Sonny. Biff exists, like Cologero, on the precipice of a dream, caught between the resolution of his father, capitalist pursuits and his developing love of nature. At the end of the play, seeing the fruitless efforts of his father Biff turns away from his father’s values and redefines his own dreams. Willy’s dream proved futile, selling nameless and unidentified products. Through these symbolically undefined products, the audience is able to project their own assumptions, turning the mirror onto the audience and prompting us to question the orientation of our dreams. Is our own American dream as hopeless as Willy Lomans’?

Throughout A Bronx Tale and Death of a Salesman the struggle of each character’s pursuit of the ‘American Dream,’ is one of the central themes of the story. Both suggest that the only common goal is the fulfilment of a greater goal. Through the freedom of aspiration comes a moral fork in the road and it is up to the individual to choose their direction.

 

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Source

 

The METs ‘America Today’ and Gatsby

In the 1920’s and 30’s, American psyche and society unified in its ideological projection of a social vision; the American dream, which often suggests that wellbeing and worth are proportionally attached to the value of personal commodities. In this transitional period, the values of society and the trajectory of the American dream warped and changed. In exploring the MET today, we looked at Thomas Hart Benton’s 10 panelled murals ‘America Today’, painted in 1930–31 which theatrically presents this momentous progression in American History. This artwork channelled the complexities of the era in a spontaneous flow, which particularly resonated with my understanding of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, which, despite its portrayal of the dazzling New York party scene, presents the allure and contradiction of the American Dream and the journey from prosperity to loss.

Benton created ‘America Today’ in a dynamic, restlessly figurative style, depicting advancements in technology, architecture and mechanical strength as well as a wild display of risqué social exploits; from prohibition to jazz, capturing the ethos of a transitional era. Heroic depictions of labourers contrast with raunchy scenes of urban life, with the colours and shapes of these exaggerated portrayals guiding these transitions. In the urban scenes, the colours are bright and sporadic, a concoction of diverse energies. The mural begins to transition into hazy pink and purple landscapes to deeper smoky greys and rusty browns of the steel plant and coal mine. The figures become more dynamic, the distinctly fluid shapes of urban life turn stiffly rectilinear in the characterisation of labourers and strength in Industry, the mural then turns angular and geometric in its representation of architecture and technology. America today is a wide-angle look at 1920s America, from opulence to desperate grasping hands; tying together optimism and despondency contributing to the prosperity of the nation to the aspirational pursuit of progress.

In Benton’s mural, we can gain a sense cultural transition; where the America Jazz age of the 1920’s gave way to the Depression. The glitzy characters yielded to a stronger dustier, grittier nation hungering for truth and opportunity. We have a sense of this transition in The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald contrasts West Egg and New York City with the Valley of Ashes situated on along the road between these two grande locations. The valley of Ashes is a dumping ground, the repercussion of unsustainable industry. The valley represents the failure of a self-serving American dream and the moral and social decay of the delusional society.

Both Benton’s ‘America Today’ and Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ give an extraordinary rendering of the American vernacular, capturing the aspirational, even, delusional nature of the American psyche during this time. The works of Benton and Fitzgerald continue to cross expanses of time and cultural difference, begging their audience to question the meaning of prosperity and the trajectory of our aspirations.

 

 

https://players.brightcove.net/911432378001/SkBUku4V_default/index.html?videoId=3765573031001

 

Maya Angelou- Harlem- Womens March

I arrived in Harlem today feeling apprehensive about my presence in this neighbourhood. Guided by the insights of Maya Angelou’s autobiography ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, I understood that this area and in particular, the Baptist church service we were about to enter was not a space created in my interests, but nourishes the social and cultural history of its African-American residents, establishing this function through the persistence of racial oppression and exclusion in the United States. Throughout our time in New York, my classmates and I have had many stimulating discussions on the impact of race on cultural identity, social inequality and prejudice, and through this discussion, I became very sensitive to the implications my presence in this community might have. I was troubled at the idea of coming in as a tourist, patronising those that call Harlem home by being entertained by token elements of local culture.

As we entered the gospel service, I was reminded of Angelou’s unpacking of the disconnection between black and white in her conversation with Uncle Wille, asking him “‘why do they hate us so much?”  Uncle Willie replies “They don’t really hate us. They don’t know us. How can they hate us? They mostly scared.” This resonated with me after a member of the church openly welcomed us, noting the importance for visitors to experience Harlem; the respect in just getting to know them. I realised at that moment how easy it is to make comments on a place and people from a distance, however, making genuine personal connections shines a truth on this perceived cultural narrative. The gospel service had a profound impact on my understanding of Angelou’s autobiography, and the identity of the Harlem community. Just like the religious scenes described by Angelou, the Minister invited the congregation to “speak in tongues” “dance wildly” and “sing praise” I understood that this community was a sanctuary. This community enabled people who are so often discriminated against to find a moment of release from a world where they spend so much energy considering every step. The identity of the community was not the place, but the people, their connections and relationships. I deeply felt this sense of community in attending the Women’s March on NYC the day before, finding solidarity with the people around me as we protested against inequality. Here is a short exert about my experience:

I pushed to the edge of the fence, my knuckles turning white as I gripped the railing. An endless procession of people passed slowly but determinedly, weaving between one another. Their voices rose up inside of me until the need to join them sat like a heavy knot in my throat. The crowd grew louder and rowdier, chanting and stabbing hundreds of middle fingers towards the heavens. Hand-made signs changed the skyline of New York City, meticulous maps guiding the soul across symbols of self-expression. I needed to join them. Somehow I managed to manoeuvre my awkward body into a less than graceful leap, flinging myself over the barrier and into the oncoming wave of bodies. I stood for a moment, waiting to be reprimanded for my actions until the inherent command to march onwards took over, and I felt the communal song beckon me. You don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking. Among me were people of all generations, genders and origins, representing diverse causes but reflecting a fatigue in the necessity of protest. As we continued, we were able to find strength and fortitude in the strength and fortitude of others. Our cries became unified, and every howl and every step cleansed our spirit and re-energised the essential being. Feelings of solidarity aren’t inconsequential or fruitless. It inspires and validates our cause, it centres us, it grabs your hand and pulls you back out of the dark abyss you’ve been hurtling into. I started the march in despair and ended it feeling tougher, more present, more unified.

 

Viola Davis Speaks about Diversity at The Women’s march
Halseys moving poem at the New York Women’s March

 

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My image from the Women’s March

 

Waitress v Feminism

It is 2018, we’re living through an era of incredible feminist reckoning. The Fourth Wave Feminism, which accelerated in 2016 after the U.S. election has motivated women around the world to take to the streets to vocalise their frustration. Now the #MeToo movement, the Times Up campaign and widespread revelations of inequality and harassment by powerful men in media, entertainment, government and finance has rallied women and their allies together to stand up against systemic injustice. When Adrienne Shelly’s film ‘Waitress’ came out in 2007, America was dwindling at the end of Third Wave Feminism; a wave starting in the 90’s and focusing on the social equality of the sexes through typically vague and undefined modes of activism. The film tackled issues of domestic violence and passivity openly, establishing a contemporary approach on how to address serious issues with humour. For its time it was a successful cult film, giving the current musical adaptation much to build upon. While the musical version of ‘Waitress’; with its heartwarming Broadway glossiness, appears to have some limited examples of feminist themes, it just doesn’t seem to be thoroughly explored. This would have passed during Third Wave Feminism, but in considering the strength of recent feminist movements ‘Waitress’ the musical appears to be very weak by 2018 standards.

The tone of the musical is bubbly and sweet, filled with the scent of freshly baked pies being wafted into the lobby of the theatre. Hazy pinks and greens of the set represent everyday life while violet neon lights signify dreamlike sequences. The musical has an overall Disney-like quality designed to lure the audience in and make them feel at home. Even the format of a musical seems to be destructive to the overall message; the statements of female empowerment feeling fatigued as the show is cheapened by the brush of Broadway, essentially making light of a serious topic. The production is a meant to be a crowd pleaser, with audience members giving standing ovations, cheering after every dependable performance of the shows pop-song filled score and applauding when famous actors and actresses enter the stage. However, it’s these famous names which seem to be the biggest draw here, not the message or morality. No-one in the audience seems to notice the lyrics of Jenna’s climactic ballad about trying to become someone who will “[learn] how to toughen up when she’s bruised” alluding to the idea that she should just ‘toughen up’ after being the victim of domestic violence; revealing a confounding double standard. Instead, she receives cheers of delight and applause at the success of her tonal range. Equally as advertised as the production itself was the fact that the musical was boasted as being the first Broadway Musical with an all-female creative team. However, just because Waitress is female-centric and feminine, doesn’t make it feminist. The director Diane Paulus gave a curiously deprecative description of Waitresses message stating “This is a show about sisterhood and friendship and the journey to finding the courage to acknowledge your own self.” Please, girl, we’ve already seen ‘Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants’ in 2005; moderate feminism is no longer passable and this quote confirms that Waitress wants to keep thing light and happy at the expense of feminism and the realities of domestic violence.

“If Waitress is a fairy tale, it’s not a feminist one – or if it is, it’s a version of feminism that is willfully naive, the very opposite of an empowered feminism.”– Aja Romano

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Scene from the Waitress film

 

 

New York, the Beginning

“Why New York?” my partner asked, “This isn’t YOUR typical holiday”. He was right, I’ve never been inclined to travel to cold destinations, or cities. Whenever I’m asked where I most want to go, the answer is always located in a tropical climate. But here I am, ready to face my biggest fear; the cold! In my nervous build up to this trip, I feverishly interrogated any American that crossed my path or travellers to the city with the same questions; “What should I expect?” and “How cold IS it?”. To the latter, I always got the same response; “colder than you’ve ever been before” (I don’t want to believe them). As to what I should expect, the answers were boundless and excited. What could be in store for me in this colossal city? I can’t wait to find out.

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19TH Century Literature, Summative Entry

The human and artistic concerns of both the Romantic and Victorian Ages are similar to our own concerns; the response to those concerns- given by poets, novelists, dramatists and artists- can help us live fuller, more meaningful and creative lives in our own times.


During my studies this semester, what has fascinated me the most about the art and literature of the Romantic and Victorian Ages, is its enduring popularity. It is this popularity, that I believe reveals a similarity between the concerns of the 19th Century and the concerns of the 21st Century. Artists such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy began to explore the facets of the human experience and the deep inner working of the individual. This introspective obsession characterised the 19th Century, posing the questions we continue to question and define ourselves by today; what is the purpose of my life on earth?

In an eruption to the fabric of 18th Century society, Romanticism became the antithesis of Classicism and the Enlightenment Period, challenging the dominant values and ideology which had preceded it. The Romantic Period questioned 18th-century rationalism, with its emphasis on reason and intellect, instead focusing on the inner-self; believing that emotion and imagination, were the most powerful elements in human nature.

In some ways, this personal reflection has never left us. Today more than ever, human nature is guided by emotion and the fulfillment of the inner-self. Adam Gopnik, in his article ‘Finding the Self in the Selfie’, discusses our modern obsession with taking ‘selfies’. While Gopnik agrees there is a narcissistic element in our selfie fixation, he goes on to analyse the selfie as being an expression of the passing ecstatic moment, a moment in which we are glad to find ourselves where we are and wanting to see how we looked while we were, briefly, pleased with ourselves (Gopnik, 2015). The ‘selfie’ is a self-exploration, of what and who you are. This concept is similar to the works of Jane Austen, who explores the deep inner workings of the heart through the contextual framework of her own experiences. Through her characters Austen reflects the inner-self and presents a heightened examination of human personality and our moods and mental potentialities. (You can read more on Jane Austen in my Best Critical blog post)

The 19th Century was also characterised by a return to nature, whereby artists such as William Wordsworth and Charles dickens reject the indurstrialisation and urbanisation of the era. Similarly, our instagram feeds are filled with travel ‘inspo’ as we seek out the aesthetically perfect shot, finding the best light in a room, and looking at a view with a new perspective. Romantic and Victorian artists inspire our creativity, teaching us to exalt in the beauty of nature and offering a new perspective. Early on, Wordsworth’s poetry, which contains so much vivid nature imagery, became associated with the Lake District; as a result, mass tourism in the Lake District has been sparked by his writing for hundreds of years (Rothman, 2015)

We live in a culture in which self-presentation and social nuance are topics of keen interest. Our idolisation of celebrities, our obsession with the wealthy and the hysteria of keeping ‘upgraded’ grows as the economic status of the majority of the population remains flat. In critical defiance of this social mania George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, offer a different perspective, sharing a common exaltation of the working class. rejecting aristocracy and understanding the value of resilience, imagination and an honest living (An example of this can be seen in my Best Creative blog post). While close to the heart of the Romantic and Victorian ethos was the concept of the ‘hero’, this hero often attained freedom in defiance of society. Although it is difficult to remove ourselves form the perpetual social machine, the response of 19th Century artists in questioning high society allows us to understand our frivolous 21st century obsession for what it truly is, empowering us to live fuller more meaningful lives.

The 19th Century redefined the way in which we view ourselves and the world around us. Although artists created within the framework of their contextual experiences, their questions and values continue to find relevance in to the concerns of the 21st Century. Defying social construct, exploring the inner-self and rejecting materialism are movements which continue to influences the human experience. The response of Romantic and Victorian to the concerns of their era continue to influence the human experience, leading us to explore the inner-self, defy social construct and find meaning and value in our lives.

 

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Eliot, Tolstoy, Dickens, Wordsworth, Austen

 
Citations

Gopnik, A. Finding the Self in a Selfie. The New Yorker, 2015

Lake District National Park.  http://www.lakedistrict.gov.uk/visiting/localspecialities/famouswriters/wordsworth

Rothman, J. The Bizarre Complicated Formula for literary Fame. The New Yorker, 2015

 

Tolstoy and the Working Class

Leo Tolstoy’s popular celebrity at his death in 1910 owed more to his political and ethical campaigning and his status as a visionary, reformer, moralist, and philosophical guru than to his talents as a writer of fiction. Vegetarian, pacifist, and enemy of private property, he was, over the last decades of his long life, a persistent critic of the Russian imperial regime and of the Russian Orthodox Church. He came to favour a primitive version of Christianity, rejecting the dogma of Orthodoxy (hence his excommunication by church authorities in 1901). Tolstoy was a vigorous supporter of the Russian poor and working class. He had launched welfare programs, including soup kitchens, and funded schools. In a gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, he renounced his aristocratic title (“Count” Leo Tolstoy) and took to wearing the characteristic dress of the peasants.

Tolstoy rejected the institutions of society; the church, marriage, militarism, law and aristocracy. Criticising the flaws of the ruling class, believing them to be an irrational, inefficient and unjust autocracy, out of touch with a deeply divided society. This small group of the wealthy elite discriminated against an overwhelming mass of impoverished agricultural peasants and an increasing industrial working class. Tolstoy saw value in the working class, finding a quiet power in their resilience, the simplicity of values and a purity of heart. In Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, it is only a young servant, who, imbued with the virtues Tolstoy celebrates in the peasantry, can look the processes of dying in the eye and care for his master with true humanity; he deals unashamedly with excrement and allows the dying man to lie in the one position in which he can find some comfort; with his legs raised, resting on Gerasim’s shoulders.

 

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Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, 1908