We've heard it all before. The show must go on! Not feeling great? Push it down, the show must go on. Broke your foot during a show? The doctor will still be there after the show, the show much go on! The stage manager died during a show? Well, we'll call the coronor later, the show must go on!
But the question we ask less is a question answered long before we even get to our seats- where does it end? What's the moment when the show doesn't go on anymore? When is our window into the characters' lives closed? And of course, how is it closed? It's okay if you don't leave a theatre with your stomach hurting from laughing so hard, you can even leave with tears in your eyes, but I think if, in that case, you don't also leave with a renewed feeling of purpose, a sense of the rain being gone and stepping out into the sun, rebirthed... then you're not going to run very long. No one wants to come back or send their friends to see shows that made them feel like mayonnaise tastes.
And indeed, it's Broadway's classics that tend to lean more heavily towards the second category. You don't leave Les Misérables dry-eyed (well, I don't know. Maybe you do, in which case, send us an email! We would love to have a guest contributor tell us why they don't cry at Les Misérables.), I mean, sure everyone died, but that last Do You Hear The People Sing reprise? We never get tired of it, at least not when it's done well. (For the curious, a gift to see the tour was my 12th birthday present, I had already read the unabridged book, and it was my first theatrical moment. I don't know if you knew this but your editor-in-chief is a queer one, Molly Norman.) Phantom of the Opera is much of the same- I mean, sure, your titular character ends up disappearing into a chair- thin air, I meant thin air, excuse me, at the end, but you still want to just keep going back. Carousel is considered by many to be theatre's G.O.A.T., but it's not a family-friendly, feel-good comedy.
In fact, I find the shows that try to solve everything neatly to be more problematic. This is something that I've been trying to grapple with for years but couldn't quite put into words until I went to see Bandstand. Despite the fact that they're trying to tell a very difficult story, about what it means to come home, leaving others behind, to bear a silent grief because it's a burden no one else can carry for you, the Donny Nova Band featuring Julia Trojan have become wildly succesfully, they're on tour, and we're supposed to believe this is the happy ending?
Let's talk specifically about Davy, in Welcome Home he's described as "Davy cracks a joke, claims to be alright, drinks a fifth of whisky in his kitchen every night." and throughout the show, they don't skirt around his alcoholism. He liberated Dachau, and as he tells Julia, he knows that no amount of alcohol will make it go away... but that doesn't mean he doesn't owe it to himself to try. And we're supposed to think that this sudden influx of fame and attention is good for him? Name me one celebrity who when suddenly thrust into the spotlight, immediately got their act together. If family dinners don't cure PTSD (which, I'm sorry to say, all reports indicate that they do not) then how can you throw an alcoholic who is actively trying to drink away something he knows can't be drowned by alcohol into fortune and fame and lots of easy access to alcohol, and expect us to accept that happy ending for him? I was too busy worrying about him drinking himself to death to actually appreciate the story once they got to New York City, and they let me down by never circulating back around to really any of their issues. Johnny's still in pain. Nick still doesn't trust others. Wayne's wife still left him and took the kids. Jimmy's still got his guard up all the time. Michael is still dead and Donny still accidentally killed him.
What's the good in showing the reality of PTSD and reaching out to all the men and women who served and say we see you if you don't then show that you deserve help, and that help is available? Instead of just turning around, throwing them off on tour, and then pretending their coping tactics aren't going to self-implode on them. If ever there was a show for that kind of complicated happy ending that we get in our classics (or even some newer shows, such as Dear Evan Hansen) it would be Bandstand, and yet for some reason, they pull back, giving us a simpler ending- and you know why it's so simple? Because it's a lie.
(Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel)