How much is that `Book of Mormon’ in the window?

“The narrative of the American musical critiques the very capitalism that it relies on to make a profit to survive. Therefore, this is a hypocritical industry that smugly challenges the power that comes with success, while enjoying the financial rewards and fame associated with Broadway”. Discuss this statement in view of one of the musicals studied in this course.

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When the Sydney season of The Book of Mormon’ went on sale back in September 2017, the show set a record for the highest grossing on-sale of any musical theatre production in Sydney’s history. By the end of the first day of ‘The Book of Mormon’ had sold more than 45,000 tickets with a value of over $5,000,000 (source: my housemate who works for Ticketmaster!).  The week we saw the Broadway production, it had grossed over $1.2 million dollars and played at 101.3% capacity!  Not bad for a show that’s been running for almost 7 years.

The lead character Elder Price (!) dreams of going to Orlando, the home of Disney. The theatrical division of Disney has two of the biggest hits on Broadway- `The Lion King’ (hilariously lampooned in BOM) and `Aladdin’.  The audience laughs at the show and at the characters beliefs while clutching onto their`Book of Mormon’ drink cups that they bought from the bar.  You can also buy the `Fuck Frogs’ as told by Elder Cunningham in the foyer as you exit the theatre.  Merchandise for all major musicals is produced such t-shirts and caps as are books, cast recordings and so on. Most musicals cost between $10 million to $16 million to produce and according to the Broadway League, only one in five Broadway shows breaks even. Those that do take an average of two years to show a profit. Twenty-five years ago, it took an average of six months for a hit show to recoup its cost. So while the industry may be hypocritical when it comes to capitalism, it can’t afford to.

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Later as I left the theatre, I walked past the Starbucks at the end of the street and had a little giggle to myself and started to hum `Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’.  I wonder if the people inside clutching their soy almond lattes know, according to the show, they are going to hell.  Do they even care? Probably not.

I just want to say that I love this show. At its core, it really is a big, old-fashioned musical, one with the same basic structure that served Rodgers and Hammerstein so well!  As The Washington Post’s Peter Marks said in his review: “Don’t believe what they say. Money can buy happiness. It’s yours for the price of a ticket to The Book of Mormon.”

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What’s that I smell in the air? The American Dream!

Definition: the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.

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In both, the film and the musical version of A Bronx Tale’, the character of Lorenzo teach the audience the right way to achieve the American Dream- by working hard and working honestly.  Lorenzo leads a modest and humble life as opposed to Sonny, the gangster.  When Sonny offers to give $150 a week paycheck, Lorenzo turns him down. He is a workingman, proud that he supports his family by driving a bus. He doesn’t like the Mafia and doesn’t want the money. The bus is a symbol of moral and legal correctness. Lorenzo tries to instil a sense of responsibility in his son- that he is in control of his choices and behaviour. Lorenzo tells his son C: “You want to see a real hero? Look at a guy who gets up in the morning and goes off to work and supports his family”.  But Sonny gives good advice too. One of the things he tells C is that you cannot live your life on the basis of what other people think you should do. At the end of the play though, Lorenzo is alive and Sonny is not. C sees that his father should have been his role model all along and through Sonny’s death, C sees how far off the track he has strayed.  In comparison, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s `Death of a Salesman’ show the pursuit of the American dream, material success and freedom by working hard can be your ultimate downfall. Throughout the play, Loman wants evidence of his worth and success, which distracts him from recognising what’s important in his life, especially the love of his family members. Loman believes that his self-worth is measured by material success. Keeping up with the Jones’! By measuring his self-worth to the achievement of the American Dream, Loman sees his professional failure as a personal failure. This is his ultimate downfall.

 

 

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58 West 120th Street, Harlem

As I walk through the cold towards the subway on this Sunday,  wrapped up in my heavy coat and woollen scarf, I am filled with apprehension. I am on my way to Harlem to attend a contemporary African American church service at the First Corinthian Baptist Church.  In my naivety, I envision a Harlem of the 1970s- one of urban decay.  As a bunch of white folks, will we be welcome? Are we a moving target for harassment?   As we all settle into the hot, stifled carriages of the subway, I grow more nervous.  I undo my coat to stop from sweating.  When we reach our stop and walk up the stairs to 116th Street, we are greeted by the sun’s warmth.  It is as if God is saying ‘You are welcome here in Harlem. Come.’  I relax immediately and take in the beauty of my surroundings. As we make our way to the Church, we are greeted by the ushers, big friendly smiles on their faces, as if we full-time members of the congregation.

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First Corinthian Baptist Church

As we take our seats, I am reminded of the Revivalist service that Maya Angelou recalls in her book ‘I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings’.  Filled with wonder, I take in the scenery and sit in the dress circle, eager for the ‘show’ to begin.  I am not disappointed.  A service full of encouragement, celebration and tools to live your best life possible.  The key message I took away was- be free. The only person watching you is God.

After the service, we are taken on a street tour covering the locations of the authors we have studied for this trip.  Cedric and Marissa were our guides, who shared their wisdom, knowledge and their passion for literature as we walked the sun-kissed streets.

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While we walked along West 120th Street, Cedric suddenly stopped and stood on the steps of number 58.  This, he proudly announced, was the New York residence of the great Maya Angelou.  He then gave us a wonderful reading of her poem ‘Still I Rise’.

 

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Like the poem itself, Cedric delivered a performance that varied from playful and defiant, comical and angry, self-assured and bitter. And like Maya herself, the last lines: `I rise I rise. I rise’, were triumphant.  I think we were all taken by surprise of Cedric’s execution of the poem and we all burst into applause at the end.

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Cedric and Merissa then chatted about the connection between Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Maya started writing her autobiography simply because Baldwin dared her too!  I found this great video of Maya and James together.

Harlem is the birthplace of so much poetry and music and beauty, but in the eyes of many who have never set foot there, myself included, it has long been a swamp of pain and suffering.  During the tour, we heard about how much Harlem has changed over the last 50 years. What was once a home for people fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity, now due to the gentrification of the neighbourhood, Harlem is being remade and transformed for wealthy white people.  Is this the end of Black Harlem? Walking around, I could still feel her soul. She still has her heartbeat.  As we walk, we see someone preaching in the middle of the street. A man is working out at the traffic lights. Boys in their bikes ride past shouting `Welcome to Harlem!’.

 

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`Girls with Barbies, East Harlem’ (1970) by Camilo Jose Vergara

 

 

(not just a) Waitress

The musical `Waitress’ centres on the character of Jenna, a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, who puts her pie baking skills in the diner she works to good use. Allowing her to escape the reality of her life, Jenna invents new recipes that serve as a metaphor of her life (Deep Shit Blueberry Pie and Berry the Bullshit Pie are just two Jenna make during the show).  Jenna is also pregnant. Hoping to use her baking skills to win prize money, Jenna aims to enter a pie baking contest and leave her life behind. Jenna in her own words is ‘messy, kind, lonely, reckless, scared, and strong’.

 

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even the safety curtain is a pie!

 

While there are many themes brought forward in this production from American middle-class apathy to its critique of American capitalism, for me the theme of motherhood, funnily enough, struck a chord. As explored in the song “What Baking Can Do” baking is something Jenna learned from her mother as a small child. Now pregnant herself, Jenna fears to have a baby not only because of her abusive husband but because she doesn’t trust she would be the kind of mother she was lucky enough to have had.  It can be seen that Jenna has a lack of excitement and disinterest during her pregnancy that indicates that she does not want the baby. When Jenna finally gives birth, she is immediately transformed by motherhood.  In a musical that quickly changes scenes before moving on to the next, this turnaround after giving birth may seem inauthentic. For me, this moment presented a woman finding the strength she forgot she had, who now has a reason to use it. Watching the film version, I thought it was a nice little scene. During the stage production, when Sara Bareilles, the actress playing Jenna states ‘Give me my baby’, she took a sharp inward breath when the baby is in her arms. I’m not ashamed to say I had a tear in my eye. The power of the musical! While the show itself has many flaws (I can only recall a handful of melodies), it does provide a positive female representation. Jenna and her co-workers support each other through good and bad decisions. They are allowed to make these choices. With such strong women leading the show, ‘Waitress’ tends to push the men almost to the background. The male characters are not fully rounded, almost caricatures in their development. During the curtain call, I did have one final thought on the show. The audience was filled with `fan girls’ (for the unaware, a group who obsesses over a fictional character or actor) all screaming and hooting throughout the performance.  I couldn’t help but wonder if they were cheering for Jenna or for the actress playing her?

 

 

 

 

The Ghosts of Washington Square and Greenwich Village.

Henry James’ novella `Washington Square’ tells the story of a shy, but highly intelligent, sensitive and deeply feeling young woman who has the misfortune to discover the truth about the people around her. Catherine Sloper has to deal with harsh treatment from her father, Dr Sloper who resents Catherine for her mother’s death. He sees her as plain, clumsy and dull- while constantly comparing her to her beautiful, bright mother. By denying Catherine any happiness is her punishment for his own loss of happiness.

If I close my eyes and ask myself what impression this book has left on me, the thought that immediately comes to mind is stillness. The stillness that radiates from Catherine. I see her as marble statue; immobile but solid to the core. So then it feels quite fitting to visit Washington Square on a cold winter’s day.  What I find interesting about James’ novel is that while it is set in New York, James was living in London at the time, and wrote the book while in Paris. In that context, this American story was written from a distance.

 

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Catherine? Is that you?

The park was pretty much empty the day we visited.  There were a scattering of people about, but we were outnumbered by the pigeons.  Walking around the Square, it is easy to see why James held a sense of sentimentality for the area. I can only imagine what it would be like during Summer, filled with chess players, children, artists and dogs enjoying the sunshine, hoping for a slight breeze to help cool down in the late afternoon. Looking at the rows of houses across the street from the Arch, it is easy to imagine what life would be like living in this area.

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While walking around the Square, and later on, Greenwich Village, I was overcome by a feeling of profound melancholy and nostalgia.  I could feel the ghosts of the past walking with us. Greenwich Village has hosted so many literary greats from Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was very intrigued to learn St. Vincent Millay, as I had never heard of her, which lead me to do more research on her and her work. I found her poem called `What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why’.  I shall attempt to write my own using these words as inspiration.

 

What my lips have kissed, and where, and why,

this broken perfectionist is ready to confess.

I am sorry for the things I have done.

Can you forgive a foolish one?

There are secrets still to be found in these laughter lines.

Still, I do not know why you left that day.

The day I lost you is as clear as the day we met.

So now I find I am tired of standing still as I walk the streets

alone in the dark.

I can’t see New York, the moon is cold and the sky is grey.

 And I do not know where you are.

 

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The Met, Holden, Madonna and Me.

After sleeping around 5 hours, I woke up early and hit the gym, preparing for the day. With the sky still dark, I went for a walk to get some coffee from the Starbucks around the corner from the hotel. While cradling the warm cup in my hands, I sat on the bench and watched the New Yorkers rush by, all rugged up against the chill of winter, making their way to work. I began to wonder what their lives were like. Did they work in an office? Were they happy? How do New Yorkers survive the long bitterly cold winter without going crazy? As much as I love visiting New York, living here would be a different story. I do not think I could do it. The mad rush of traffic, both human and mechanical would eventually drive me mad. New York is indeed the city that never sleeps.

Sufficiently fueled by food and caffeine, we made our way through the freezing morning, careful not to slip on the black ice, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I arrived on the steps of the Met I thought of Holden in `Catcher in the Rye’. Holden loved the museum. Because nothing changes. He stresses over the ducks in Central Park because they leave during the winter. He loves the ducks in the museum because they are always there. This reveals his desire for routine and stability.

 

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No ducks at The Pond

 

Lauren was our guide from the Museum and she took us on a tour of some of the best American art that connects with the texts that we have been studying. We started with early 18th Century paintings of George Washington, which included a huge painting of `Washington crossing the Delaware’ (which funny enough was recreated in a hilarious scene later that night in `Waitress’).

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While looking at these paintings, a group of school children entered the room and I couldn’t help but imagine Phoebe Caulfield among the group.  We then looked at the 19th Century works, in particular, John Singer Sargent and his portraits. I was very much taken by his `Madame X’ portrait.

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When the painting first appeared at the Paris Salon in 1884, people were shocked and scandalized. Sargent kept the work for 30 years and in 1916, sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stating. “I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done”.

We were then introduced to the amazing `America Today’ by Thomas Benton.

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Offering a view of American life throughout the 1920s, America Today is a room-sized mural comprising ten canvas panels. It starts in New York City and moves South and West, through farms and forests and oil fields. The progression is delightfully theatrical. The New York City scenes, especially, seem like a Broadway show: A minister preaches as burlesque dancers shimmy; prizefighters slug it out; men eye up a woman on the subway, and a couple makes out frantically by the Coney Island roller coaster.

After our tour, I continued to explore the Museum for a while before exiting back onto 5th Ave. I realised that I was near East 81St so decided to head down to number 152. Madonna’s house. She wasn’t home.

 

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Madonna’s Upper East Side home

With the Museum visit still fresh in my mind, I thought about the woman who lived in this house and the impact she has had on my life. As a child of the 80s, I was first introduced to Madonna when I was 10 years old. Through her love of art, I was able to discover many artists such as Frida Kahlo and New York artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Madonna’s art collection is said to be worth more than $100 million dollars and includes works by Kahlo, Picasso and Warhol.

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I made my way back to midtown via Central Park, ate a hot dog while enjoying the snow covered hills. I walked past the Central Park Zoo and again was reminded of Holden. I sat on a bench and thought about the second last chapter of the book when Holden watches Phoebe go around on the carousel:

I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.

It dawned on me that this is the only time in the entire novel that Holden actually states that he is happy. Watching Phoebe on the carousel he seems to come to the realisation that life is about trying to maintain a sense of innocence, a sense of wonder of the world, even when everything seems to be bad and falling apart. Life is about moments shared.

As I came out of my thoughts, I realised I was smiling. I took a moment to stand and take in my surroundings, before pulling my coat collar around my ears in an effort to keep warm. I continued on my way.

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Arrival: SYD- JFK

After a long flight from Sydney to New York via L.A, we finally arrived in the Big Apple.  After the drama of checking in to the hotel, I was looking forward to a long hot shower.  While exhausted from the flight, the excitement of being in the greatest city of the world gave us all a second wind, so a small group went for a walk and stood under the bright lights of Times Square, taking it all in.  Memories of previous visits came flooding back and I took a minute to close my eyes to listen to sounds of the city around me. New York is the place to find your dreams and make them come true. Everything is up for grabs. It is yours for the taking. As I walked back to the hotel with a belly full of food, I felt the energy of the city rushing through me. Tired but content, I prepared for bed and thought about what the next ten days held  in store.

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