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Having Faith on the Great White Way

By December 1, 2009 No Comments
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If you doubt Broadway’s cultural capitol,
just spend some time in Times
Square swimming in it. Broadway is
the center of America’s cultural center.
(For many, the pinnacle of the American
theatre sits on roughly ten blocks
in the middle of a crowded island named
Manhattan. As a loyal Midwesterner
and devotee of the wonderful work of
America’s non-profit, regional theatre,
I might gently debate this premise. I do
recognize, however, the alluring pull of
Broadway.) Millions of audience members
annually spend billions of dollars
to see these shows. Tens of thousands
of uprooted young men and women endlessly
brave financial ruin and constant
rejection for the statistical improbability
of performing in these shows. Standing
in line at Times Square’s half-price ticket
booth, you can feel the magnetism and
the desperation. The shiny, ostentatious
glow of the Great White Way reflects and
imposes itself onto the aesthetic life and
impossible dreams of a nation.

As Christians and consumers,
Broadway may appear a bit garish. Like
the neon deluge of Times Square’s gaudy
billboards, the most popular shows frequently
champion a frothy spectacle that can ring empty and shallow, although
admittedly a lot of fun. Glitz without edification.
That a family of four can easily
lay down $800 partaking in one evening
of a decades-old re-mix of a Disney cartoon
may be even more troubling. Not my
idea of good stewardship.

Although a recent six-day visit to
New York City with my family confirmed
fears of Broadway’s endemic frivolity
and financial distress, the trip thankfully
left me with something more: faith
in the Broadway theatre’s ability to take
faith seriously.

In this essay/review, I highlight this
good news in two recent and wildly contrasting
Broadway productions. Through
a challenging script and inspired performances,
Frederick Schiller’s Mary
overtly and conventionally places
Christian faith center-stage. Working
with a contemporary text, the acclaimed
new musical Next to Normal
treats questions of faith more covertly
but no less poignantly.

I caught Mary Stuart near the end
of its critically acclaimed Broadway life.
Sadly, this wonderfully acted, minimalistic
transplant from London’s Donmar
Warehouse closed its award winning
run near the end of August. Even if the
readers of this essay cannot themselves
witness it, Mary Stuart‘s complex treatment
of faith warrants a fitting eulogy.

Religious testimonies come early
and often in this sprawling new translation
of Schiller’s political drama. The
conflict centers on Mar y Stuart’s imprisonment
for treason and on her battles
with her powerful cousin, Queen
Early in Act One, we meet
Wilbur, a Catholic spy plotting a jailhouse rescue of his captive Catholic
heroine. From Mary’s Spartan cell,
Wilbur, passionately played by Chandler
Williams, professes his faith to his
chosen queen. His stunningly moving
monologue chronicles his conversion
from a spiritually lifeless Puritanism
to a fervent Catholicism. ” The childhood
of my soul ended, and my delusions
were dissolved, and I believed,”
he beams with the sweet and innocent
conviction of a new convert.

Christians of all flavors, especially
those new to the faith, cannot help
but reverberate Wilbur’s surprise and
joy over his spiritual awakening. In Act
Two, the audience must face the difficult
task of reconciling Wilbur’s religious
zest with his shocking acts of terrorism.
Far from a cheap shot at Christianity,
this jolting transformation unsettlingly
blurs the fine line between orthodox y
and extremism, between faith and fanaticism–timely juxtapositions for our
current days to say the least.

As the plot of Mary Stuart intensifies,
the powerhouse performances of
its two leading ladies illustrate a disparity
between expedient posturing
and authentic belief. Elizabeth, coyly
played by Harriet Walter, at first appears
every bit the righteous ruler. When her
public sphere turns private, however, a
different portrait emerges. Public tears
for her shamed cousin precede
a clandestine plot to
assassinate Mary. Hypocrisy
is too simple a term
to characterize Elizabeth’s
unflattering descent into
backstabbing and subterfuge.
The awesome weight
of a kingdom rests upon
her slender shoulders. She
makes choices; she understandably,
albeit lamentably,
chooses survival.

In contrast, Mary, played
with syllable chewing zest
by Tony winner Janet McTeer,
shows less restraint.
Bitterly wronged, at least in
her mind, she unleashes an
ocean of gasconade upon
her mismatched keepers,
especially Elizabeth. This
stubborn refusal to politic
ironically grants Elizabeth
the license to literally
sign Mary’s death warrant.
Elizabeth’s bleak sentence
leads Mary to a remarkable
and triumphant display of
Christian belief.

Shortly before her execution,
a disguised priest slips
into Mary’s cell. In this gentle
and dimly lit scene, the
Queen of Scotland confesses
her many sins, especially
her sins of pride; Mar y
even prays that Elizabeth, her executioner, will succeed as queen.
In the traditions of her Christian faith,
Mar y then seals her purity and eternity
through the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Without a hint of irony, the body
and blood of Jesus Christ serves as the
climax of political thriller. Wow.
Tim Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s celebrated
new musical, Next to Normal,
may not climax with Holy Communion.
This unlikely Broadway hit about a
mother’s struggle with bi-polar disorder
does, however, sympathetically and
intelligently wrestle with complex questions
of faith. Heart-wrenching yet affirming,
Next to Normal subtly suggests
that mental illness may have spiritual
as well as chemical foundations.

Tony winner Alice Ripley plays Diane,
a wife and mother desperately clinging to
her sanity. As a byproduct of her bi-polar
disorder, Diane sometimes sees people
who are not there. Dramatic tensions explode
when one of her visions, a young
man named Gabe, refuses to admit that
he is merely a figment of her imagination.
“I’m alive,” he defiantly sings in one of the
musical’s most memorable and raucous
numbers. As Gabe persuasively guides
Diane deeper and deeper into mental illness,
the audience comes to wonder if
he may be right. Unseen but all-too-real
forces influence Diane’s choices. A palpable
sense of powers and principalities
floods the stage.

Against this belief in things unseen,
Next to Normal reminds us that difficult
problems often don’t have identifiable solutions.
Here is a family that loves each
other. The mother constantly begs and
prays for healing; the father remains devoted
despite impossible circumstances;
the teenage daughter wants nothing
more than to see her mother well; earnest
and devoted psychiatrists ply all of their
medications and training toward healing
their afflicted patient. None of it works.
Next to Normal portrays mental illness as
a nearly impossible cross to bear; an outcome
of the Fall beyond a caring community’s
ability to restore.

This is all the more remarkable in
that, in the end, hope and not despair
emerges from the wreckage of this shattered
family. The journey initially takes
an existential turn. Contemplating the
failure of her treatment and her marriage,
Diane sings:

And you find some way to survive.

And you find out you don’t

Have to be happy at all

To be happy you’re alive.

Bleak? Yes… but helpful advice for a
suffering soul.

As Next to Normal swells into its
moving conclusion, the audience collects
deeper insights into Diane’s “keep
on keeping on” mantra. From the darkness
of their respective material-worlds,
every member of the cast assembles on
stage to collectively belt-out a final, joyous
number. Appropriately titled “Light,”
this inspiring litany promises:

Day after day…

We’ll find the will to find our way,

Knowing that the darkest sky

Will someday see the sun–

When our long night is done

There will be light…

Without resorting to overtly religious
language, Next to Normal elegantly
fuses Lamentations with the gospel.
In doing so, it delivers its secular audience
a message of hope and assurance.
A ll Christian preachers worth their
salt (and light) should pray that they
may as effectively deliver this message
to their congregations. The present and
future kingdoms reveal themselves on
the Broadway stage.

Such intelligent and inspired portrayals
of faith witnessed in Mary Stuart
and Next to Normal may or may not appear
in the dozens of other shows playing
on Broadway at any given time. But
Christians who mistakenly discount the
theater for its sinful proclivity or its marginal
importance should take note. More
so than any film forever frozen on celluloid,
theatre takes place in the now. Audiences
share the air with Mary Stuart
and Diane alike–participants, not passive
observers, in a living feast. Through
great writing, wonderful music, and fantastic
acting, faith is alive and well on
our nation’s biggest stage.

Robert Hubbard is associate
professor of theater and speech
at Northwestern College in
Orange City, Iowa.
Robert Hubbard

Robert Hubbard

Robert Hubbard teaches theater and is director of the Northwestern Core at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.