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Monday, February 23, 2009

Synthesis. Musicals in time for Lent

I'm only a cock-eyed optimist

Sorry to throw out lyrics from Dick and Oscar, but it certainly was a weekend that I can only describe as affirming. I didn't expressly select plays that somehow made me think of faith, but perhaps it was my subconscious at work. With Lent rapidly approaching, I had no idea that I was buying Broadway tickets that would certainly give me something to think about during this annual fast.

(And certainly I have a tendency to make comparisons where none ought ever be made, so forgive me if I make my contrast too oddly. Or gush. I am a theater queen I admit.)

I went to the Great White Way this weekend and saw "Billy Elliot", "Altar Boyz" and "In the Heights". Not as overwhelming as seeing 7 plays in 5 days with my nephews in London back in 2007, but still pretty intense.

It turns out that these three musicals will give me plenty to think about during this Lenten season. Now I had seen Billy Elliot during that 2007 trip, but had not seen the New York production. The other two plays were new to me, with "In the Heights" a particular concern, since I feared that it would be Rent-redux and far outside my musical tastes.

Thank heavens God intricates his love in the oddest of ways.

Let's go in sequence. I first saw Billy Elliot the movie in 2000 when it was released. I easily connected to the story because I lived in the UK during the 1980s miner strike. Maggie Thatcher was the most polarizing leader I had ever watched, well, until recent years.

This New York musical closely resembled the London offering. It inspired because, to me, it connected to us most strongly when it asserted that
a) God-given gifts must be nourished
b) we must be attentive to God's signs, even in the most unlikely of places
c) it is possible to rise above circumstances that even Job would think worse than his own

For Saturday's matinee, I saw Altar Boyz, which was an amusing satire on boys band. In this situation, we watched a Roman Catholic boy band work its Christian rock magic. It was a surprising delight. The music wasn't challenging, but it was a toe-tapping pleasure. With the talented dancing, you got a good show, good music and cute actors; hey off-Broadway knows how to sell seats.

Altar Boyz was amazingly respectful of religion. Atheists may have watched it as an entirely mocking work, but in no way at all did it actually ever insult faith. These characters sincerely believed and wanted, in their own way. to evangelicize. Matthew was a strong leader, Mark was a loving talent, Luke was the faulty everyman who tries and tries, Juan was a starry-eyed Lothario, and Abraham, well, he's the Jew who wrote great lyrics. How Broadway can you get?

I found the play encouraging because
a) it showed that God works the youth, even with fun-though-slightly-insipid boy-band music
b) I could relate to one of its story lines, that of the "closet Catholic"
c) we saw the bonding strength of Christian community and family.

Lastly on Saturday night, I saw "In the Heights". This was an amazing musical. Its tagline is "No pare, no pare, sigue, sigue", which roughly translates to "don't stop, go on, go on".

Now that's gotta be the most hopeful Broadway tagline I've ever seen.Perhaps that's because it started off-broadway. Or that it's very Mundial Latino. There has not, in my recollection, ever been as diverse a cast, save the United Nations scene in the 1960s campy Batman the Movie.

This play had a song called "Pacencia y Fe" (Patience and Faith). It heroicized family, courage in the face of adversity, community, faith, hope,... I don't know where to stop without this sounding like one of Father Ed's sermons. I was "Epiphing" for almost 3 hours straight.

And I cried. I cried because the sentimental book did not seem a weakness to me. No, it affirmed to me why I believe in the first place.

"In the Heights" asserted
a) bravery, quiet or otherwise, will arise BECAUSE we believe and hope
b) all people, great or small, still aspire and should aspire to the heavens
c) we cannot learn on our own, but depend on the dreams, mistakes and love of those who preceeded us

Perhaps I'm writing this as a part of my Lenten exercises. But I have to wonder what made this weekend so moving to me.

I think it's because I started with a play that said "Life sucks. Maybe if God gave you a gift, your family and community will stand behind you, and you can escape. And thank heavens, because every one will be out of work for hundreds of miles in the next two years."

I love Billy Elliot. But in context with this weekend, it's somehow profoundly inadequate. What Grace did God have for the miners? He gave them an example of love and community, so that their souls could rise about their circumstances. But their earthly toils were not only dangerous, but unneeded. Turn your attention to the miners' plight (which is easy given this country's current economic meltdown), and you realize this play works only when you focus on Billy himself.

Altar Boyz also emphasized a tight-knit family, in the form of a boy band. It wasn't deep by any means. Nevertheless, the sincerely loving faith was notable.

So was the desire to spread His word.And of all things, the closet-Catholic song closely resembled my own faith issues. I spurned the Roman Catholic church of my family because it did not welcome me. It loved me as a sinner, but could not countenance me living out the life that God had set for me.

So I went into the closet. Not as a gay young man. As a person of faith. I cry every time I think of this. I cry whenever I hear of others who were so hurt by their Christian communities that they find Christ and his message at fault. It was an amazing rebirth for me to discover that God did not plague me as a subset of Mankind unworthy of his Grace, God did not challenge me with an impossible test where the only way to succeed was through constant deception (self and otherwise). God made me in his image and challenged me to spread his word of unfailing love an Grace.

And those Altar Boyz, faulty and amusing to my generation as they are, well, they are sincere in their love of God. Who's to say that the classical and jazz Christian music I sing is better than theirs? They did magic on the soul! If the point is to touch, to nurture, to salve broken hearts, then good grief, the play made its point.

But the focus of Altar Boyz and Billy Elliot was very much about the ego. "In the Heights" was the last play I saw, and it filled the gaps that the other two plays left untouched.

It yells out "Ego schmego". It's not a bad thing to have, but a person's ego can only get them so far. You'll be a big shot in your world, though it's a world that only barely covers a subway map. But instead, by using your gifts, using God's gifts, using the love and strength of a family and a community, you'll be surprised at how much stronger, happier, and satisfying your life will be.

It's a point that far exceeds the first two plays. Perhaps because the author was the, in his words, "the only begotten son of a minister and a church organist". In terms of a satisfying arc of faith and hope, of what Lent teaches us as we approach Easter, it was pretty bitchin.

So, despite my naive, touristy and unsuspecting plans, I had a weekend of Epiphing in the Big Apple. May my Lenten fast and volunteerism at the homeless shelter add to my growth. And I pray that the Lord strengthen in me a little more of that toe-tapping, God-loving, can't-shake-my-faith cock-eyed optimism of life everlasting that all of us are Graced to deserve.

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