Today, Emily and I got to go on a date, which was a miracle. We got to go see one of the Broadway touring shows in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, which was also a miracle—we’ve had season tickets for the past two years, but with all the craziness in our lives, this is only the third show we’ve been able to see together.
The show we went to see was Chicago, and that has provoked a bit of discussion among friends and family. Was this an appropriate show to go see? After all, it has some skimpily dressed actors depicting some pretty heinous things.
Well, for various reason, I’m not going to recommend anyone dash out to get tickets (though maybe not for the reasons you would think), but I do think it is a show worth at least thinking about.
This is what I see when I see Chicago:
Chicago is of a genre called “naturalism,” a movement that began in France during the 1880s and was a kind of accelerated version of realism. This was more than just trying to recreate reality on stage—although they did their best, using real hanging slabs of meat for a play set in a butcher shop, for example. But there were also two key philosophical aspects to naturalism that are relevant here.
First was the idea that the stage should function like a surgical theater. One of naturalism’s key players, Émile Zola, talked about his plays as being like a surgeon exposing a tumor for his peers to examine. He is not proposing a solution, but is revealing the cancer so that others will know what it looks like and how to treat it.
Second was the idea that (in the words of that great philosopher, Wikipedia) “social conditions, heredity, and environment had inescapable force in shaping human character.” In other words, we, the people in the audience, are both culpable for creating the “sickness” we see portrayed on the stage, but are also capable of making things right.
These plays often presented the worst of the human experience—poverty, sickness, corruption, violence—without candy coating. Rather than having a noble hero to balance it all, the moral center of these plays was expected to be in the audience. It is our job to examine, to analyze, and to remedy.
Seen through that lens, Chicago is a very enlightening—and ultimately very moral—piece of theater. It presents a world of low-lifes seeking to become celebrities through deceit, adultery and murder, their attorneys exploiting them for money, and the innocent being executed, all driven by the public’s insatiable hunger for sensational news. Does that sound like anything you recognize from the real world?
In the end, as two murderesses are throwing roses to the crowd, thanking them for their adoring attention, the authors are literally pointing to the audience and saying, “You did this. You made this possible.”
What choices are you making in your media and Internet consumption that help to support a pervasive culture of immorality by rewarding the immoral with your attention?
But. Here’s where it gets tricky.
What about all of those who attend a naturalistic show without analytical tools, who don’t understand that it is their job to think about what they’re seeing and to change their own behavior? At what point does the play itself add to the problem through sensationalism and titillation?
Take, for example, a story once told to me regarding a contemporary naturalist playwright named Neil LaBute. One of his early successes was a play called In the Company of Men, which was then turned into a movie. In his script, a pair of men decide to both court a lonely, insecure woman, make her fall in love with them, and then dump her on the same day, just to see if they can destroy her. Supposedly, LaBute wrote this in response to having a teenager daughter whom he wanted to protect from such manipulation. He wrote it as a kind of cautionary tale. And yet, as this anecdote goes, he was in the lobby after a screening of the movie when he overheard two teenage boys say, “That was awesome! We totally have to try that!”
It seems to me a dangerous thing to put a piece of darkness out into the world without labeling it as such. Or to assume the moral center of your script is in the audience, without alerting them to what role they are meant to play.
So, why did I personally choose to go see Chicago?
For one thing, musical theater is my industry. This is a classic show in my medium by some iconic writers, and there is value for me as a writer in learning what does and doesn’t work well in it.
Secondly, as a Mormon, “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Chicago certainly isn’t virtuous or lovely, but it’s a candidate for the other two qualities.
But in the end, the main reason that I would not recommend this touring production to even the most analytical playgoer is simply that it wasn’t very good.
There were some good performers in the cast. Very talented dancing by the ensemble. There’s a role for counter tenor that was gloriously sung. And John O’Hurley has an enjoyable stage presence.
But overall, the show felt completely flat. There was no drama on stage, and characters didn’t seem to have any motivation for what they did. It was just saying the lines and going through the motions.
However, there was one strength that the production had over the film version of the show.
In the movie, the final dance sequence where the murderesses finally get to take the stage together is an adrenaline rush, with sweeping camera movements, exploding light bulbs, and a kind of flickering strobe effect that heightens the intensity. You think, “Wow, those girls have finally hit the big time!” In other words, they win. They have killed and lied their way to success. And it completely subverts the point of the show by thrilling the audience rather than allowing them an analytical distance.
But in this production, the final number is just two ladies alone on stage, hoofing it in front of a sparkly curtain. And you think, “Wow. All of that conniving was just to get them this?” It’s a hollow victory for two women who are not necessarily very talented (their only real claim to fame, after all, is being accused of murder).
But also, in the end, that’s how I perceive the show because of how it filters through my own moral center.
Alma 41:10 “Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.”