Oppositional Musicals

Thanks to generous gifts we received as a family for Christmas, Nathan and I were able to go see Into the Woods and take our older four kids to see Annie this weekend.

Spoiler alerts!

Nathan is a huge Sondheim fan, and writes his musicals in that style as far as being a lyricist who writes dramatic narrative lyrics rather than hokey verse-chorus sing-along songs popular these days. However, he was somewhat concerned about how a film might mess up an old favorite. We were also curious about what a Disney adaption would do to such a dark story.

We were excited for Annie in a whole different way. As we prepare for adoption, we are actively seeking good and real and healing adoption narratives. Having two girls with creamy brown skin and long dark curls, any female heroine is pointed out and encouraged as part of identity formation. But we heard the new version changed the setting of the story from orphanage to foster home, so we were somewhat nervous taking half of our foster kids without knowing how we ourselves would be portrayed.

The mean foster mom was extreme and over-exaggerated, enough not to feel real. Maybe they get $157 a week in New York to be foster parents, but we don’t get half that and spend about $800 more a month than what we get for the kids on their clothes, food, and school things. Fostering is not an income source, and I don’t see how you could make money at it without severely neglecting them. But that was part of the premise, we knew, and so just let that piece go. What did feel real was the very end, where the foster mom starts to worry about what will happen to Annie. We have been there several times, with kids who did not particularly like us or want to be here, and were really hard to deal with while they were here, and yet we were concerned about them when they left and we knew they were returning to less than ideal situations.

The girl was cute, though, and the songs updated, and the movie sweet and fun. The opening scene was genius, paying homage to the original version of Annie. It was interesting that part of the effort to update the songs included an aside of having to actually define “hard knock life” due to cultural and linguistic changes since the original. It was fun and entertaining, though the soundtrack sounds more pop-produced than it does like a musical.

Similarly, the content lacked substance as the premise was becoming rich is the definition of success. It opens with Annie’s story of the New Deal, explaining in kid language why it was needed. But the she ends her presentation with how it made everyone rich – which was not true at all. The new deal was about survival, and about working hard to provide for those who couldn’t provide for themselves, and creating jobs just to feed people. It was not about capitalism or getting rich. Annie’s character development goes on to strive to join the rich guy, and bring her friends into his world, rather than him entering their world – though he does, in the end, drop out of politics. The implications of that are not developed at all, though maybe it is enough that Annie holds her ground to ensure her love couldn’t be bought for a few photographs.

Into the Woods was exactly what was promised: actors you didn’t know could sing, one who couldn’t, and songs missing from the story but not so disruptive to the narrative if you don’t know the stage version. They did a good job de-sexualizing the red riding hood bit, took out all but one drop of blood, the affair was “only” a kiss, and they alluded to the deaths without showing them. In fact, sometimes the deaths were so glossed over, you didn’t know they had really happened until the characters informed each other of them. Like the musical, it feels long because the first half tells the fairy tales and the second half shows the consequences of all those wishes coming true.

Except it kind of didn’t. Things just happened, and people just did things. Instead of only filtering the violent gore and sexuality, they filtered the whole theme of consequence. Ancient fairytales were very real and gory before they were Christianized, and Disney has done the same thing with this adaptation: taken out the shadow. Instead of showing conflict, and portraying how to respond to conflict, and how to wrestle with the consequences of our own choices, they cleaned it up too much as if this is just what we are doing without connecting why.

I think the why’s are important, and that learning how to choose by consequence is as important as learning to recognize what choices are available. Our children need to see the connection between what they choose, and what happens because of those choices, including the impact of their choices on those around them. The second half of Into the Woods is all about that, and I felt it was left out entirely.

This is a trend, it seems, in American television and movies lately. There is this identification with the anti-hero, and it troubles me. Writing the anti-hero story can be challenging, and so makes a good story when it is pulled off well, but it concerns me that this is how we are seeing the world. To tell the story of the anti-hero, you have to explain away all the bad so that the audience is engaged enough to care (think Malificient). That’s not so bad, because seeing the whole side of things is part of what the atonement can do for us, and without that ability, I would not really have a job. We want to believe we can meet people where they are, and help them change. The danger lies in meeting people where they are, and then staying there with them. When we have an entire society identifying with the anti-hero, thinking bad behavior can be tolerated, and the over-identifying until bad itself is explained away, then not only have we justified the anti-hero, but we have removed the need for heroes all together. You don’t need a hero once the anti-hero has been normalized.

That’s our doctrine, too, that there needs to be opposites to understand both. It is suffering that teaches us joy, and struggling that teaches us peace, and hurt that teaches us comfort. It is the constant attack of the adversary that teaches us the consistent love of a faithful Father, and it takes one to condemn for us to understand our need for redemption.

Consider this BYU talk on 2 Nephi 2:

When we stand back and observe these sets of opposites as a group, we notice that they form the purposive structure of human existence, and its total negation, which underlie the gospel in all its aspects. Within this structure all humankind collectively and individually face the grand possibilities of their existence, that is, they face life and death, happiness and misery, as the caretakers of their own lives. This is their fundamental position in the world. In the present world, because of the fall of Adam and Eve, this position is marked by mortal and spiritual death. The purpose of human existence, which this structure reveals, is for persons to move out of mortality into immortality and away from death and misery toward life and happiness. In opposition to the purposive structure of human existence stands its overall negation, i.e., existence that is a compound in one (without things in opposition) and dead.

Now that I have identified the six sets of opposites in 2 Nephi 2:11, I will describe the relations between them as Lehi sets them forth. The first level sets of opposites—an opposition in all things, all ethical opposites, and opposites that characterize human existence—are related to each other by their negative possibilities. These relations compose the logical form that Lehi’s reasoning takes in 2 Nephi 2:11. He reasons that there must be an opposition in all things, for if there were not, then ethical opposites—good and bad, righteousness and wickedness and so on–would not be possible. If ethical opposites were not possible, then all things would be a compound in one. And if everything were one body, then it would be dead and must remain so. In other words, there would be no higher living existence–no existence having the possibilities of life and death, corruption and incorruption, happiness and misery, sense and insensibility.

The author goes on to say:

What kind of relations exist between ethical opposites connected to God’s law and life and death? At first sight they might appear to be causal. Obeying God’s law—being righteous and good—causes life; disobeying his law—being wicked and evil—causes death. But a closer look shows that they are not causal. Rather, ethical opposites constitute life and death. In other words, “life” consists in being good and righteous; “death” consists in being wicked and evil. According to scripture, “death” means perishing “from that which is good” (2 Nephi 2:5), dying “as to things pertaining unto righteousness” (Alma 12:16; 5:42). Likewise, “life” signifies the human flourishing that righteousness and goodness comprise, as they enlarge the soul and expand the mind (Alma 32:27–43). So they are not different things, as they would have to be if they were causally related, but they are the same thing.

I like that these are the same thing. Opposition is a part of the plan of happiness, not against it. Challenges and struggles and pain and grief do not condemn us, but challenge us to become. Encountering the adversary physically, emotionally, or in some form of temptation is not a sign of failure but an opportunity to encounter God.

I have been reading that book about the story of Job, the one Nathan got me for our anniversary. You know your life has been hard lately when you get a book about Job for your anniversary! But it points out that in that particular text, “Satan” in Hebrew is really hasatan, which is the satan, as in a role of a particular kind of angel or messenger, as opposed to the one we call Lucifer or now refer to as the devil. Rather than attacking Job with evil, this was a messenger who had been out on errand from Father-in-Heaven, and reported back on Job’s progress. He was not one against Father, necessarily, but definitely one who was stating Job’s strengths and pointing out areas that could be challenged to improve him.

While some may not agree with those ideas, it does point out a similar concept as what I was thinking about after seeing those musicals. No part in the plan of happiness says that spiritual success is only defined by wealth. No part in the plan of happiness says we can just be content by explaining away the bad things, or even remaining neutral. The whole plan of happiness is a plan of experience, by which we progress only through experience. Some of those experiences are joyful and positive, and some are challenging and painful. We need the whole lot of it to become something more than a static character, much less progress into something more than we were yesterday.

For three days, I have been in the most severe pain I have felt since June. I could hardly stand or walk, and could not scoop up my babies or play Christmas adventures with them. We finally discovered the source to be clogged up lymph nodes working over time due to simple sinus infection, and having to work harder to clear out that infection because some of my lymph nodes were removed during that last surgery. So my lymph nodes all over were swollen and hard, some of them big as my fist instead of the size of a dime, and even trying to break through my skin. It was so painful I could not breathe, and my teeth chattered, and hot tears poured down my cheeks, and it felt like my whole body was on fire. The pain was hot and searing and burning and stinging, like a sunburn on the inside except a million times worse.

My team of doctors and some friends helped me so much. They cared for my children. They cared for me. Nathan massaged my skin, and brushed my skin, and ran me hot baths. I got blessings, and we prayed, and I cried. We listened to warnings and lectures about how I can die from infections, and how infections in the lymphatic system can go anywhere, and how this might be a simple thing or a serious thing. It was scary.

And then, in the night, one of them exploded. I will spare you the details, but it was terrible. Also, nasty. What I thought was excruciating pain before was nothing compared to those hours of my lymph node being drained and cut out and my leg being put back together.

But as soon as it was done, the pain was gone.

Just like that.

I could not be more grateful.

I did not know your lymph nodes could swell so bad to push through the skin and the self-destruct, nor have I felt pain like that in a long time.

But I am better. I have a limp, and walk slowly, but I am better.

And I have the same lesson of endurance, that some things are only better after you get through them, but getting through them is better than quitting.

And what I know, is that no matter how ugly cancer gets, or how many jobs I have to work to pay it off, or what other hard awful things happen in life, that it all does matter, and does have a point, and is for me and not against me. There is purpose because I have purpose, and that purpose is His.

I know it is true.

I am not shocked anymore, when hard things happen or pain comes in some form. I am sometimes tired, and weak, but it no longer takes me by surprise. I don’t waste time being offended by it, or confused, or insulted.

Because I know where it’s coming from, and why, and what the goal is: endure to the end, and become.

And that is happiness, regardless of circumstance.


A. D. Sorensen, “Lehi on God’s Law and an Opposition in All Things,” in Second Nephi, The Doctrinal Structure, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 107–32.

About Emily

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009. I serve as a Chaplain, and work as a counselor. I got bilateral cochlear implants in 2010, but will always love sign language. I choose books over television, and organics over processed. Nothing is as close to flying as ballroom dancing - except maybe running, when in the solo mood. I would rather be outside than anywhere else, especially at the river riding my bike or kayaking. PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, and currently doing a post-doc in Jewish Studies and an MDiv in Pastoral Counseling. The best thing about Emily World is that it's always an adventure, even if (not so) grammatically precise. The only thing better than writing is being married to a writer. Nathan Christensen and I were married in the Oklahoma City temple on 13 October 2012, and have since fostered more than eighty-five children. We have adopted the six who stayed, and are totally and completely and helplessly in love with our family. Nathan writes musical theater, including "Broadcast" (a musical history of the radio) and an adaption of Lois Lowry's "The Giver". He served his mission in South Korea, has taught song-writing in New York City public schools, and worked as a theater critic for a Tucson newspaper. This is not an official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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