On September 14th, a handful of Broadway’s longest-running hits had a chance to re-open their doors. Desperate for the balm of musical theatre, I was among the first audiences for Wicked‘s return. It’s always been a favorite of mine and the past few years have made me eager for easy comfort. The show was exactly what I needed, and the production still holds up. After 18 years, Wicked still resonates, as story, as craft, and as social engagement. While its politics are shallow, the show washes down easy with glitzy special effects and a palpably dramatic story.
Seeing Wicked again, I was reminded of just how affecting musicals can be. Its creators concocted a musical theatre event powerful enough to connect with audiences the globe over. Terry Teachout was underselling it when he called it “more than good enough to run for a decade or two”. There are plenty of flaws if you know where to look, but that September 14th performance provided the kind of overwhelming joy that guarantees the audience will know the great truth of the American theatre: musicals are wonderful.
Seeing the Broadway production of Wicked also had the uncanny effect of transporting me to 2003, when the production first opened. All of a sudden, the world was more innocent, more hopeful. Political causes are just as selfish, but perhaps less blindingly stupid. Exiting the Gershwin theatre provided a twofold wound in the form of two hideous billboards in Times Square for the movies of Dear Evan Hansen and Cinderella. It’s not 2003 anymore. It’s eighteen years worse.
Maybe I romanticize the past too much. To be fair, I was five in 2003 and had basically no knowledge of politics or culture — doubtless plenty felt apocalyptic back then, too. Here’s for certain: I’ve seen the films advertised by those hideous billboards, and I’m ready to declare that now is the time of monsters. Flabby, unfunny, joyless soulless vehicles for corrupt moralism, both films approach genuine artistic worthlessness. I have to believe the culture hasn’t always been this lifeless. Even in the few years I’ve run this blog I’ve noticed we’ve started to run out of gas. But we’re running on fumes now, and I have to wonder: how are these movies possible? How did we get here from there?
Dear Evan Hansen is a 2015 musical aimed at the audience that flocked to see Rent and Next to Normal in droves. The rock musical, once typified by gloriously fun shows like Hair or The Who’s Tommy, reached a new nadir. That couldn’t stop the show, buoyed by a thrillingly intense performance by Ben Platt and a smart staging by Michael Greif, from hitting big at the box office and awards shows. But the hype train stopped cold on the big screen, where the show’s flaws are glaringly obvious with every agonizing minute.
In being a sympathetic ode the misunderstood outsider, Dear Evan Hansen fundamentally misreads dynamics of oppression, treating minority voices and suicide victims as a greek chorus for the heroic plight of the lonely white boy. I was a nerdy white boy in high school and let met tell you: it’s neither interesting nor sympathetic. Dear Evan Hansen is deeply morally corrupt story and, thanks to Ben Platt’s father, is one that will be preserved on video. Future civilizations can forever scoff at how morally backwards we once were.
On Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen has not reopened yet. When it does, it will prove to be the same kind of time capsule that Wicked still is, albeit one to a very different world. 2015 was when Hillary Clinton still seemed like the obvious future president of the United States. 2015 was when American liberalism still seemed like kind of a good idea. Is it possible that this deranged story came across as morally coherent in a more innocent time?
For the record, in early 2017 I reviewed the Broadway production as “one of the most ideologically backwards shows I’ve ever seen”, so take that as you will.
This musical, whether it moved you in 2015 or not, represents a waning of the form of the rock musical. The perspective here has slowly been narrowing, from the social portrait of Rent to the domestic drama in Next to Normal, finally collapsing into the interior mind of one nerdy white boy. Rent and Next to Normal are frequently morally confused works, but their concern is generally humanistic rather than moralistic, so one is not as repulsed by the story presented. Not so Evan Hansen, which, in treating its main character as a kind of messianic paragon of innate goodness, teases at a moral knowledge that, ironically, any smart audience member can easily see through. While our cultural output is moving toward moral analysis, Dear Evan Hansen pokes the hornets’ nest by claiming its own twisted sense of morality as somehow inspiring to the confused, huddled masses. Ben Platt is a pathetic Christ, preaching a foul message in a foul movie, and the people are justly crucifying him for blasphemy.
Abysmal as it is, the film of Dear Evan Hansen can be blamed on its source material. The musical is preserved almost entirely in-tact, with a few embarrassing performances from our best character actresses and some hacky filmmaking techniques. It is not the most flattering version of the show, but generally preserves the stage material for video. The same can not be said for the new Cinderella film. Like it or not, it’s brand new. Many feel too lazily indifferent to the film to offer effortful criticism, so allow me to use this space to say that the new Cinderella movie might be in the running for worst of all-time: a particularly nefarious example of corporate fascism posing as liberal feminism.
This Cinderella seems desperate to capture the warm feelings direct toward 1997’s Cinderella, more popular than ever these days thanks to the winning personalities of Brandy and Whitney Houston. It offers the familiar fairy-tale reset to a multiracial, politically stagnant, mildly liberal dreamland. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ooey-gooey Americana meets Clinton-era liberal optimism, and the result is a toothless but entertaining movie perfect for a rainy afternoon. Doubtless the studio executives at Sony had something similar in mind when they commissioned this film. But Kay Cannon’s film is far too morally rotten to even stir the most noncommittal of goodwill.
2015’s Lily James-starring Cinderella nearly collapsed by its adherence to a neatly printable slogan: “have courage, be kind”. Who would have thought that six years later that kind of ready-made slogan would be degraded even further? If Cannon’s Cinderella had a motto it would sound something like “Be a girlboss. Your dream is to labor.” Design products that people want to purchase, engage in capitalism, produce endless content while our eyes glaze over and our words start to slur. Obama’s false idealism has been replaced with an even more degraded and dystopian liberalism in the presence of Joe Biden. We have been deeply wounded by Trumpian fascism, and earnestness might never come back. If 2015’s Dear Evan Hansen and Cinderella represented a world in which capitalism was beginning to decay, 2021’s counterparts represent a world in which capitalism is in free-fall. How else are we to explain a starving peasant from the Middle Ages who is fictionalized to dream of producing marketable content for the masses?
Dear Evan Hansen and Cinderella 2021 are both unique in that they are musicals that specifically dabble in morality, especially in the deification of their main characters. This is an attempt to match our society, which has grown increasingly moralistic in analyzing art. The embarrassing moral failure of both these works is a spectacular example of slipping on your own banana peel: by endlessly preaching garbage morality, you infuriate the same audience that you hoped to capture. Nobody is affirming these movies because during the time that it took to make both, the kind of people who might have been interested in girlboss woke capitalism have woken up to the nightmare that is corporate liberalism.
That’s not to say nobody is buying what they’re selling: there’s a sucker born every minute, and doubtless thousands will swallow these films’ messaging, blissfully unaware of their sinister hearts. But I think it’s far more significant that large numbers of people are rejecting this garbage. There is a limit to how far corporate liberalism can go, and it remains to be seen if next year’s crop of musicals and musical movies will stoop as low in their attempts to relate to/control young people. For my money, something like Wicked, socially flimsy but deliriously entertaining, ages much better. We can hope that movie producers will again be reminded of what they have a tendency to forget: people want to see good art above all else. Corporations will never produce morally good work (it’s against their nature) so they should just stop trying. Please just let us fucking enjoy something. I’m begging you. We can read Angela Davis and fight for class liberation all by ourselves, thank you very much. Movies, and especially movie musicals, should stay far away from the preachy and corrupt moralism of Biden-era liberalism. I can’t think of anything less entertaining.
Both of these movie musicals have been critically panned and look to flop hard at the box office. Even as products of cultural decay, we can hope that their failure will inspire studios to program more robust material. But is there a way out of this? Can things get better, or is this descent into artistic darkness a foregone conclusion?
In the short-term, I think it’s safe to say the upcoming West Side Story and Tick…Tick…BOOM! will both be sturdier works of filmmaking than recent offerings. And there’s always hope the Wicked movie will succeed… if they can ever cast it. But in many ways, the damage has been done: Hollywood has rarely considered the quality of the film as relevant to its success. Commodity musicals are all that goes. The only hope we have is that the commodities will be less actively offensive next year.
If movie musicals aren’t getting better, people will stop seeing them. In the Heights has already flopped, and one can’t forget the fiasco with Cats. I am a musical theatre fan — I should want more movie musicals — but if this is the quality of work we should become accustomed to expect, the culture could pass musicals by as easily as they did in the 1970s after the colossal failure of Hello, Dolly! and others of its bloated ilk. I’m not so sure I’ll mourn the loss.
But there’s still a glimmer of hope: I’m seeing Wicked again in a few days. That will keep me going for at least another week. The wretched road of existence may be endless, but there are diversions along the way. That’s why we make art…theoretically.