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Strong and Wrong

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When novice, fourteen-year-old ballet dancers at the high school where I used to teach struck a pose both confidently and incorrectly, the dance department head used to praise them in faculty meetings for being “strong and wrong!”

That’s the phrase that came to mind when I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday night, about a wealthy music lover whose passion for singing and classical music was so strong that it blinded her to her own comically imperfect technique.

In contrast, her husband, played by Hugh Grant, has come to terms with the mediocrity of his acting career, but seems to find redemption in perpetuating Jenkin’s dream of herself, literally trashing bad reviews, screening Jenkin’s concert goers and bribing potential critics to ensure that Jenkins sees herself as a true member of the 1940s New York City music elite.

Streep’s performance was predictably on point, and Hugh Grant played the dapper gentleman convincingly, but the real stars of this movie, in my opinion, are Mr. McMoon, Ms. Jenkin’s diminutive, timid accompanist, played by Simon Helberg, and the costume designer, Consolata Boyle. Both McMoon, with his quivering, fluctuating facial expressions, and Boyle, with her quivering star tiaras that jostle in time to Jenkin’s operatic “hah ah has” and nude mesh stomach overlays that display Jenkin’s sizeable midrift, play up the physical comedy that makes this movie so enjoyable.

And yet, as I laughed through it, it struck a deeper chord: how refreshing it is, when some of the most technically astute dancers starve themselves, and many of the writers the public admires end their lives in suicide, when the phrase “tortured artist” is a cliché we take for granted, and when some of my most talented creative writing students warn me at the beginning of the semester that they are perfectionists, that we sometimes need a laugh-out-loud display of really bad art, delivered with great joy, to remind us that good art, while fundamentally challenging, finicky, and demanding, is about joy, too.

When I think about my own singing journey, it amuses me to observe that the work of most of my voice lessons was learning how to relax my throat. Thinking down when you ascend the scale, yawning exercises, and the like — when I practiced them regularly enough, my range went from 2nd suprano to 1st. A pleasant surprise, the notes I could hit, by simply keeping my throat open.

I suppose that this effort — relaxing into the moment, staying open, to joy, among other things — as much as refining technique, is the challenging work of a singer, or any artist. In that sense, Florence Jenkins truly hit a high note. No joke.

Into the Woods

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.27.05 AMOver the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.

Mother/Daughter Angst

How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”

It Only Takes a Moment

Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.

Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.

Mark Twain, Mark 8:35

United Nations Photo Operation Lifeline Helps Displaced People in Southern Sudan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My friend Heidi, who worked as a nurse in South Sudan and kept a blog about her time there, once wrote about how the Sudanese are a refreshing people to be around — they take it as a matter of fact that life is full of hardships, rather than reacting with a sense of personal insult, as is the norm in America. In a culture seemingly obsessed with cultivating the most convenient, hassle free lifestyle, we Americans seem to only wake up to the natural order of things when the real s#%* hits the fan.

This past weekend I saw The Good Lie, a true story featuring actors from South Sudan, Reese Witherspoon, and Corey Stoll. The contrast between American privilege and the Sudanese values of gratitude and compassion, as well as the struggle to make meaning from suffering, are two themes that resonate throughout. Despite a few convenient, even pat plot twists, the story of the lost boys is truly profound, and profoundly Christian. To the extent that their stories are resolved, each member of the group must come to terms with what they have suffered, what their suffering has cost them, and what they can take forward. Here is a brief summary of the boys’ story, as it is captured in the film:

Ethnic/religious conflict suddenly orphans five young boys and one girl, forcing them to walk hundreds of miles across the desert. Four of the original seven find refuge in Kenya only after being turned away in Ethiopia. The violence they are running from casts a long shadow — there is a harrowing scene in which, after joining up with a long line of fellow refugees, the group’s “chief” finds a bullet near a river. He makes the split decision to cross the river rather than follow its path, even though the children are parched and can’t swim. As one boy panics, running toward the sound of gunfire, the rest tread bravely along a makeshift rope, past floating corpses. The chief finally allows the group to take a rest, but of course the soldiers are close behind. This is when the chief tells “the good lie,” a pivotal point at the center of the unfolding drama.

The boys and their sister grow into young adults in the refugee camp, waiting over ten years to get out. You get the sense of what a miserable, stagnant, and depressing place a refugee camp is, despite being a safe haven. At last, the group finds their names on the list of the American-bound, greeted by Reese Witherspoon’s blunt, brash character, Carrie at the Kansas City Missouri airport. As she works her local connections to find the men jobs and a chirpy Midwestern mom helps them set up house, they prove to be comically mismatched to America’s tech-heavy, commerce-driven society. The men are charming with their formal, chivalrous, meticulous ways — reminding their American counterparts that the rest of the world is large and far less insular.

For example, Jeremiah’s own experience of hunger has trained him to live by his convictions, and the Bible — he quits his job at a grocery store when caught giving old food away rather than throwing it in the dumpster. Mamere works two jobs while studying to be a doctor, exuding earnestness and thankfulness — it’s during his literature class on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that he demonstrates his intimate understanding of “good lies,” in which a lie is produced to provide protection for others, and is therefore justified. The youngest brother, Paul, is the only one who openly grapples with being a guest of the United States, admitting to feeling belittled by a people unacquainted with the suffering he narrowly escaped. He gets depressed and smokes pot, until a confrontation with his brothers provides a catharsis of sorts, and things presumably get better. The film ends with one more “good lie,” connected to the first.

I felt very privileged watching The Good Lie. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and the casting directors — USA Today states that the Sudanese were played by actors “with ties to Sudan, a couple having been child soldiers” — that the refugees were not sentimentalized or aggrandized because of the suffering they endured. Viewing their work is a humbling and moving experience that can’t help but leave you wondering…would I tell “a good lie”? And then, close behind, the Gospel of Mark, affirming that the “lost boys of Sudan” are indeed, found:

“For who whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

 

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