Children Will Listen

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Children Will Listen


Jackie Burns in Wicked

Published in The Hopkins Review, New Series 11.2, Spring 2018

In recent Broadway forays, I have observed lobbies well-populated with excited children, mostly but not exclusively girls, typically dressed up a little, under the charge of parents and grandparents. It is interesting to consider the kind of show that draws this demographic.

Not Children’s Theater

Let me distinguish what I’m not speaking of here. Somewhat older children, tourists in the world of more adult theater, may come in self-organized packs or be brought by teachers, and might worry about being thought immature if they came to the shows under consideration.

Nor is this kind of show which goes under the label “children’s theater,” a repertoire filled with bowdlerized versions of adult shows, and/or shows written or adapted for juvenile performers as well as audiences. (Most grownups attend these only because their children require supervision or an audience.)

The shows I’m addressing now, however, are ones that adults might well attend without their kids, but which they enjoy experiencing en famille. In terms of what’s playing on Broadway as I write, this would certainly include the Disney musicals The Lion King and Aladdin, and Wicked and Anastasia.

Powerful Information

Until I read Changed for Good, Stacy Wood’s interesting feminist take on Broadway musicals and in particular Wicked, I had not seriously considered what it means to take a child to a show and share the experience—let alone what it means in today’s connected world where young people can then ruminate on the experience among one another. After reading that book, I realized there was a lot to think about.

When you walk into a theater with a child, whatever else occurs, you are telling the child that the world depicted in the play or musical encompasses possibilities, if not in literal reality, then at least in someone’s imagination. Continuing with Wicked for a moment, no child is going to be confused about whether Oz exists or ever did—but the child will know, without anyone explicitly saying it, that the human transactions depicted there (ostracism of unusual children, racism, hypocrisy, caste systems in the schoolyard, but also countervailing forces like the love between friends, the transcending of social barriers, and rebellion) are potentially real. Children will inevitably realize in consequence, if they had not done so before, that these things are up for discussion.

This can be powerful information for a child. My own parents, who threw me in the deep end of the theatrical pool before I was 10, made me aware that there were such things as madness and straitjackets (Strindberg’s The Father), alcoholism and self-defeating tendencies (Odets’s The Country Girl), and countries where priests were shot (Greene’s The Power and the Glory)—not to mention all the myriad things that one could witness in Shakespeare or could infer of the Victorian world by reverse-engineering the parody in Gilbert and Sullivan. It wasn’t that I understood all the context or depth of these works at eight or nine, but whatever I could make out of their contents was open for consideration and discussion. And I certainly did consider and often discussed.

As Stephen Sondheim emphasized in his key song in Into the Woods, “Children will listen.”

Mythoi of Spring and Summer

So what are we usually welcoming them to listen to? The key element, I think, is what Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism called mythos, the reduction to story form of socially agreed insights into the processes of life. Mythos is seldom presented pure in any art form, but these days the shows to which children are taken tend to mash together several of them to what I would consider an unprecedented extent, precisely because we are increasingly torn about what we impart to our children.

Frye supplies the nomenclature for two of them prevalent in these shows, what he called “the mythos of spring” and “the mythos of summer.” The spring mythos, as Frye describes it, runs like this:

What normally happens is that a young man wants a young woman, that his desire is resisted by some opposition, usually paternal, and that near the end of the play some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his will. . . . At the beginning of the play the obstructing characters are in charge of the play’s society, and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers. At the end of the play the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero. . . . The appearance of this new society is frequently signalized by some kind of party or festive ritual. . . . Weddings are most common.

The summer mythos, also known as the romance, Northrop sums up this way:

The complete form of the romance is clearly the successful quest, and such a completed form has three main stages: the stage of the perilous journey and the preliminary minor adventures; the crucial struggle, usually some kind of battle in which either the hero or his foe, or both, must die; and the exaltation of the hero.

Traditionally, either male or female characters could be the heroes of spring stories, but only males could be the heroes of summer ones. This is no longer a socially-approved division of labor, and today’s musicals consequently struggle over what gender message to embody when touching on this sort of material.

The taxonomy of another pair of mythoi, intertwined with the spring and summer ones but distinct from them, owes more to psychology than to literary theory.

Mythoi of Separation and Maturity

One mythos, I would contend, is separation anxiety, too important to be considered a mere plot element. The encounter with that fear, and the process of calibrating the closeness but also the distance one should maintain with parents and community, tends to spark the extremely fraught encounters with parents, step-parents, and substitute parents through which the heroes of these shows must often go. Bruno Bettelheim’s influential if now somewhat discredited book, The Uses of Enchantment, brought Freudian concepts to bear on the world of fairy tales. (Fairy tale being such a predominant component of so much of the theater under consideration, it is hardly surprising that mythoi from fairy tale literature loom large there.) I would resist some of the hoary Freudian categories in which Bettelheim frames his analysis of these stories, but his attention to separation anxiety is spot on. And I have no hesitation in pronouncing the process of encountering it a mythos.

It is of course quite common in drama for a character to develop knowledge, skills, and insight, but such development is not usually the heart of adult drama; rather, the knowledge, skills, and insight that come to the hero in such shows do so as incidents or consequences of the heroes’ participation in deeper and more elemental transactions. In the specialized kind of show under consideration, on the other hand, the growth of insight may be the fundamental activity, to which everything else is secondary. Call this mythos Bildungsroman.

When you recognize spring, summer, separation anxiety, and Bildungsroman, you have, I would contend, the keys to what is being imparted to children in these shows.

Aladdin: Discomfort on the Other Foot

Aladdin’s plot places it within the mythoi of spring and summer. But at the outset it should be acknowledged there is much to its appeal that has little to do with a plot. A major reason to attend is the sheer verbal dexterity of the script, and in particular the delivery of the same by the Genie, James Monroe Iglehart being a worthy, Cab Calloway-esque successor to Robin Williams in the movie on which the show is based. The Genie provides what amounts to a running standup act full of topical humor, terrible puns, and shameless musical quotes from earlier Disney musicals. This is topped off with copious quantities of slapstick and spectacle from the Genie and everyone else in the large cast. Because neither that dexterity, that slapstick, nor that spectacle is my subject here, I shall simply acknowledge them, and say further that one could be unmoved by the mythos and have a wonderful time at this show nonetheless—and pass on. But we are on the quest for mythos.

It might be argued that Aladdin is a spring story, since it certainly centers on the courtship of a young man and a woman, and their union at the end reconstitutes the society of the mythical Arabian land of Agrabah where the show is set.

But if Aladdin is a love-and-marriage story, it is also a romance as Frye uses the term, since the marriage is, from the perspective of the hero, the only possible route to the object of his quest, status and respectability. Of course the eventual marriage is also based on love, but there is no denying the self-aggrandizing nature of Aladdin’s quest. He is introduced to us as a street rat, surviving by shoplifting, his amorality qualified by his stealing only what he “can’t afford,” a qualification itself immediately qualified by the admission “and that’s everything!” He is an orphan, without parents (though he recalls his mother), and he yearns to make these imagined parents “proud of your boy,” a yearning eventually transmogrified into a yearning for the regard of his inamorata, Princess Jasmine, as well as that of his companion the Genie, when the reprise of the song Proud of Your Boy becomes about them. Up to that point, however, Aladdin has been using the Genie’s powers to achieve a faux royalty, parading immense, Genie-conjured wealth and the imposture of a Prince Ali as a way to impress her and her father the Sultan. And indeed he does not deal with the truth of the matter until after he is involuntarily exposed. Then and only then does Aladdin address the flaws in his integrity. And even then, his objective largely remains marriage, which by no coincidence will lead to his becoming the sultan in due course.

This is likely to be problematical for all those adults sitting in the theater, whose own aspirations for their offspring in the adjacent seats will doubtless include some status, but will probably be weighted a lot more toward integrity. To the parents, given the reluctance in the hero’s embrace of character and its lack of depth, Aladdin will therefore probably remain a lovable scoundrel. What he may be to the kids is not so clear.

Might the female lead, Jasmine, ameliorate that problem? Alas, she comes equipped with one of her own, the problem Stacy Wood points to: what achievements are the female characters modeling? In traditional musicals of the time of Rodgers and Hammerstein, as the world knows and as Wood documents, younger female characters’ quests were heterosexual love and marriage; that is, in Frye’s terminology, spring and summer fused. Where happy union with a man was not the objective, it bespoke, at least potentially, something seriously wrong with the woman’s personality. (Think Mama Rose in Gypsy.) Men, meanwhile, got to have their own non-marital quests.

But feminism has altered the perspectives of the generation who are now the parents and grandparents in the audience. Now the discomfort is, so to speak, on the other foot. The generation that buys today’s tickets is, by and large, not opposed to love and marriage. But at the same time it is not desirous of seeing its daughters subsumed into and consumed by those institutions, and wishes young women to have their quests parallel to its sons’. The Disney Company understands this; the movies Mulan, Frozen, and Brave certainly cater to this perspective. But while a Frozen musical is headed for Broadway at this writing, it is not there yet. And in Aladdin the princess’s quest fundamentally remains marriage. Her independence and spunk are organized around this quest; she demonstrates her independence by refusing to be dictated to by her father in the choice of a spouse, not by, say, becoming the mistress of her own lamp and genie. And Aladdin wins her heart with razzle-dazzle, fraudulently presented at that, when he takes her on a magic carpet ride as if it were his own magic carpet rather than the Genie’s.

Anastasia and Parental Esteem

Anya, the heroine of Anastasia, has a newer-style female quest: to be recognized as the long-lost and supposedly deceased tsarina Anastasia Romanova. The musical in which she appears is stated in the program to be “inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox motion pictures,” to wit, the 1956 live-action film with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, and the 1997 animated Disney-style film musical with some songs that made it into the musical. One can easily take this attribution of influence too far. The plot-points and the characterizations differ quite a lot between either movie and the stage musical, yet on one crucial point all three works agree: Anya actually is Anastasia. We in the audience may well know that the remains of the historical Anastasia have been found under circumstances that conclusively negate her survival much past the date of the assassination of the rest of her family. But within the realm of the musical, she is what she purports to be. That means that, diametrically opposite to Aladdin, she is pressing a bona fide claim to status.

Despite this difference, the mythical materials in the two shows converge a bit.

Some background for this claim. In all three renderings of the Anastasia story, the pretender (albeit one who is actually the real item, as pretenders sometimes are) is on the verge of acceptance into the status that was the object of her quest—and turns aside from that long-sought acceptance to pursue a private life as the lover and presumably wife of a con man who had assisted her under the mistaken belief she was a fraud.

There are two ways of taking this. One could view it as a self-blunting of a woman’s quest for status and wealth, turning towards the conventional happy ending for a female character: marriage and domesticity—a betrayal of feminist hopes for portrayals of a heroine willing to seize the kind of brass ring formerly reserved for male heroes. Alternatively, one could view it as a morally sensible rejection of worldly things for more important ones. And significantly, in each case the former con man she wanders into the sunset with has also rejected these vain things first, before Anya does. I suspect that the creators of the musical (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, direction by Darko Tresnjak) hope we view it in the second light.

And maybe we should. The impediment is, the musical positively drips with glamorization of the life Anya ends up rejecting. It is hard to overstate the effect of the lavish staging which stunningly conveys the dreamlike glitter of the ancien regime in St. Petersburg as seen through a child’s eyes, and then goes even further with the glamor of 1920s Paris. For instance, there is the moment Anya comes over a rise and sees Paris, projected on the rear scrim with near-photographic realism with lights ablaze, a visual quote from the animated film that just about takes the spectator’s breath away. And while Anya’s social target, the circle of White Russian aristocrats huddling together in Paris, is clearly shown as being a little pretentious and a little too unwilling to accept the reality that Russia is permanently outside their grasp, even they are given an opportunity to shine, in a scene punctuated by energetic folk dancing and more glittery clothes.

The things that might serve as dramatic justification for Anya’s rejection of the world of moneyed aristocratic exile—the blindness that six centuries of privilege enabled within the Romanovs and the Russian aristocracy, or the well-documented shortcomings in the Tsar himself, like virulent anti-Semitism and a dotty adherence to the doctrine of rule by divine right—are not presented. Instead, we have the magnificent, ballroom-centered vanities. Even the interesting character of Gleb, the Red Army’s assassin who seems to be a true believer in the Revolution and makes it attractive, to a point, fails to make much of a dent in the overall picture in which the Revolution is bad and the world of the aristocracy is good.

So there is no denying that the dramatic arc of Anya’s story, which seems to be taking her to princess-dom, instead settles at the last moment for making her a happy wife, the mythos of spring charging up from behind to edge out the mythos of summer. This would be the contrapositive of Aladdin’s story, which does end with him (a true fraud) becoming a prince, though that arrivisme is tempered with a dollop of true love.

There is another mythos at work here, however. Anastasia is a separation anxiety story par excellence. In both the animated movie and the musical, we see not one but two difficult separations from parental figures: the first and surprisingly more consequential being from the grandmother, the Dowager Empress, who promises a reunion in Paris, and the second the assassination of the family, though that event is more suggested than shown. With the parents gone, the Dowager Empress is the only parent left—and her acceptance and protection means everything to memory-impaired Anya, raised in an orphanage and working as a street sweeper. It means an identity, and memories, and love—and money too. And the entire action, up until nearly the final scene, is structured around a scheme to win that acceptance against the staunch resistance of the Dowager Empress herself. Winning a parent’s esteem can sometimes be terribly hard, a juvenile struggle Anastasia plays excruciatingly well. And, by no accident at all, the exact dramatic climax of the show is the moment the Empress’s icy demeanor melts after Anya sings a song whose significance only Anastasia would know, and the Empress responds, simply: “Anastasia.” Their embrace seals that moment.

The reunion with her grandmother is the real object of Anya’s quest. And, speaking in terms of the Bildungsroman, Anya has integrated her psyche, reclaimed her memories, and firmed up her moral world-view, as have her partners in would-be crime, the con men Dmitry and Vlad. And there is more: she faces down Gleb and his pistol; her sheer moral force (and Gleb’s waning self-assurance, somewhat like Javert’s at the end) saves her. Given all these achievements, Anya’s rejection of royal status and wealth cannot reasonably be seen as such a capitulation to theatrical conventionality, after all. They are the reasonable choices of a mature and fulfilled woman.

Outgrowing One’s Teenage Friends: The Lion King

Bildungsroman is the heart of The Lion King, the tale of yet another monarchical pretender on a quest to reclaim a throne that is rightfully his. The rightfulness—and much else—is established by perhaps the greatest opening number in the history of musicals, The Circle of Life, simultaneously a dazzling display of animal puppetry, a stirring blend of South African choral music and Western balladry, a philosophical statement, and an iconic enactment of the young hero’s consecration to leadership and of the community’s commitment to nurturing him. Simba, the princeling lion cub, the stand-in for every child in the audience, is told that, though he is still small, great things await, that there are adults standing around who acknowledge those things, and that it is right, naturally ordained, that the child will attain them, eventually replacing his or her parents in the process—because that is the way of the Circle. In fact, not just the parents but all the deceased ancestors, are extended parts of that community (They Live In You).

Of course, the development of every child is bound to be rocky at times, and every child will have his or her jejeune moments; that is the point of the Michael Jackson-style number, Simba’s first musical outing, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King. He views the prospect of kingship as a delightful exercise of ego assertion, without any understanding yet of the more difficult demands monarchy will make.

I’m gonna be the mane event

Like no king was before

I’m brushing up on looking down

I’m working on my ROAR!

This is delivered in counterpoint with steady interpolations of censorious commentary by Simba’s father’s hornbill servant Zasu.

If this is where the monarchy is headed

Count me out!

Out of service, out of Africa

I wouldn’t hang about

This child is getting wildly out of wing

Naturally, Simba’s lack of judgment lands him in serious trouble. First, his penchant for exploring takes him into the territory of hyenas, and his tactlessness provokes a potentially deadly situation with them, from which his father must rescue him. Then he makes the mistake of trusting his evil uncle Scar. To Simba’s shame his father this time dies defending him. Then, Simba takes Scar’s advice to flee his ignominy, leaving the throne open for Scar to usurp.

The second act traces Simba’s process of maturing and readying himself for true kingship. A way station is his coming under the unlikely protection of Timon, a meerkat, and Pumbaa, a warthog, roughly analogous to a youngster’s teenaged friends, who teach him the philosophy of Hakuna Matata (no worries), a kind of anesthetization which helps Simba cope for a time with the traumas we have seen him undergo, but which will not properly prepare him for the things he must face to reach full development or succeed in his quest.

This of course is also a separation anxiety story, so Simba must also deal with the loss of his father, accomplished in a reprise of They Live in You focused now on his father in particular. There is a tradeoff in Simba’s recognizing that he is now, in effect, his father; on the one hand, it forces him to face an irredeemable diminution, but on the other it connects him to the power in his heritage. Then Nala, Simba’s childhood friend and love interest, confronts him on the limits of Hakuna Matata, forcing him to accept the pain from which he has been running.

This sets up an ending in which Simba returns and rescues the land from Scar, becomes the rightful king, and marries Nala, a trifecta of accomplishments that shows us that he has grown and developed. He has become what the children in the audience will hopefully want to be.

The Potency of Wicked

One more show, Wicked, remains to discuss, and it is the outlier in this group, in many ways. Let me start with the quality that most intrigues Stacy Wood: what she takes to be its “queerness.” I take issue with the terminology, because the show is not about homosexuality nor about non-gender-conforming characters, unless one views strong friendships and alliances between female characters as themselves non-gender-conforming (I do not). Wood is correct that the corpus of musicals in which the central story concerns a strong affinity between two women is indeed thin. Wood is also correct that the presentation of the development of the relationship, and the sequencing of the songs surrounding it, echo the way heterosexual romances have traditionally been presented in musicals. But all this nonconformity has to do with the conventions of musicals, not those of gender or sexuality. And in the world of this musical, the character of Fiero, a heterosexual love interest for both leads, comes between them for a time. His character may be secondary, but his role is neither perfunctory nor pro forma.

Moreover, the twin heroines, Elphaba (who will become the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda, are engaged in quests which resemble those of the heroes we have been considering. Both, starting out as schoolgirls, are striving for positions of power in Oz—not perhaps the paramount power which comes from the title of monarch, the Wizard being the closest thing to a ruler—but great power. For Elphaba, the quest is multiple. She wants to “be with the Wizard,” which is incidentally also a quest to be reunited with her actual father (though she has no idea he is her father, and he does not learn of it until late in the action). She seeks the ability to work magic. And she seeks simple acceptance, since her green skin sets her apart from her peers. She will attain wizardry, but the acceptance she seeks will elude her, though it does come for her disabled and wheelchair-bound younger sister, initially marginalized. Glinda at first pursues a softer form of power, the power that popular and good-looking girls have in their peer group. But with time she seeks, and achieves, the Wizard’s power, with the explicit aim of doing good with it. At the end she is the ruler of Oz, though secretly broken-hearted by the loss of Elphaba’s company.

From these summaries, it is clear that they are on different trajectories. One of the great lessons of the show is that though this is sad, because it will ultimately drive their life courses so far apart they will not be able to maintain contact, the survival of their unity remains the deeper reality for them both. And they will have achieved something concrete: the uprooting of the Wizard’s regime, under whose auspices genocide against speaking animals turns out to have been conducted. And Glinda, who started out as mostly a pretty face, ends up a woman of substance, not unacquainted with grief, vested with political powers, while Elphaba continues a wild original course that the young audience-member who witnesses the exuberant and high-flying spectacle of her flight in the first-act closer “Defying Gravity” can only imagine.

This turns out to be quite potent stuff for the young women who flock to the show year after year. Wood’s study includes a chapter largely concerned with the fan websites devoted to the show in its earlier years (it came to Broadway in 2003). The sites she cites are now apparently shuttered, but in her description it seems that the essence of the show’s appeal to the website-posting audience was what she speaks of as the performance of diva-dom, the assertion by young women of the right to an audience’s attention and admiration, deemed revolutionary and revelatory. That assertion, enacted and sung, partakes of each of the mythoi considered here except that of spring.

Whatever the name for it, when parents take their youngsters to shows such as these on today’s Broadway, the mix of images and messages the children will be exposed to will be different from what might have prevailed in earlier times. As always, children are learning about what it takes to grow and become fully developed, and as is frequently the case, that struggle will be framed in terms of succession to a monarchy of some sort. But today, there is a definite movement, for female characters especially, away from the mythos of spring and onward, in a greater spirit of gender egalitarianism, to quests, Bildungsromans, and assumptions of adult distance vis-a-vis one’s elders. It does not hurt, either, that these tales are embodied in some unusually splendid shows which tend to stick around long enough that they can entertain more than one generation for at least a generation.

This, in sum, is what I take to be much of the explanation for those excited young people in Broadway theater lobbies, lucky enough to have grownups with the means to take them there. Whether these youngsters have come for the laughs, the spectacle, or the myths, by the time they are finished, they will have been exposed to all of them.

And, as we know, children will listen.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Joan Marcus. Source:

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