The Morality Of Musicals

Last night, I was lucky enough to have my very first experience as a season ticket holder at Eccles Theatre in Salt Lake City. The first show was Waitress, and not only that, but it was the amazing Christine Dwyer's third performance as Jenna! There's a lot of takes that I could use for this one, and indeed, I will write an almost unreasonable amount of stories around this in due time, but today I want to talk about something that, while Waitress was not the first musical to utilize or the last, I will talk about it pretty heavily, so if you don't want to read about the lonely pie maker, you have my permission to stop reading now.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love Waitress. This was actually the fourth time I had seen it, and the second time I had seen it with my mother. It's a fun mother/daughter show, though around us I noticed a lot of couples and thought to myself… why? Now, I've always seen a lot of couples so I'm aware it's a popular date night pick but I would have to disagree. If my significant other took me to go see Waitress without a prior understanding that it was to see a specific actor or because they had never seen it before and didn't want to go alone, I would come away worried that there was a conversation that I really wasn't ready for to be had.

After all, Waitress has it's main love story and two secondary ones, and of these stories, four of the six people involved are all married to other people. There are affairs happening left and right, and there are no consequences for anyone involved, as none of them are ever brought to the light of the partner. Now, Ogie and Dawn's love story has it's own issues (Never Ever Getting Rid Of Me is very stalkerish and Ogie's blatant disregard for Dawn's boundaries is problematic, to put it lightly.) but at least they honor each other.

I've said it before and I am sure I will say again that there needs to be more shows where lying is actively portrayed as a bad thing. Now, when I say that, the obvious thought there is Dear Evan Hansen and while I agree that the fact that there are no real consequences besides a five minute solo that you have to nail while crying is a problem, there are other shows that also have people who lie by cheating on their spouse. Bridges of Madison County immediately comes to mind, but there are many other shows that also utilize this, only a handful with repercussions for such an action.

I don't consider myself a staunch and old fashioned person when it comes to relationships. In fact, I'm actually a huge advocate of open relationships - but in order for them to work, everyone involved needs to know it's open. You should respect yourself, your partner, and other people enough to not sleep with married people besides your spouse unless everyone involved knows and is okay with it. Musicals are isolated places and Francine Pomatter doesn't get a beautiful She Used To Be Mine-esque solo about how she feels about her husband's infidelity which does leave us feeling disconnected from her, a flaw that is also shared by the movie, but she's still a person and still deserves to not be cheated on.

This is called out in the show by Old Joe, the owner of the diner, who tells Jenna that she should leave her miserable snake husband fair and square because having an affair is beneath her, but this advice is ultimately unheeded. While she does eventually leave the affair at the end of the show, it's not shown to be because of that advice, which is disappointing. It's hard to have a protagonist that you really do care about and want to succeed but have what you're supposed to be rooting for something that is abhorrent.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is a wonderful show to put on a pedestal here because it nails it. It does have an affair in the form of Natasha and Anatole, but there are consequences for it. Andrey does not accept Natasha back, and after being absent for much of the show does finally show up and have a number that shows how he's feeling. Natasha is shown to have to live with the knowledge that she wronged him, but is portrayed as an ultimately human character, still worthy of love and forgiveness, which I really appreciate because I'm not trying to say here that men and women who have affairs are just straight up bad people who are not worthy of the same compassion as others.

What I am trying to say, however, is that it's a serious offense that can ruin lives and the tendency that many musicals have to romanticize affairs and lying is a bitter pill to swallow. I never want to be put in a position where I'm asked to root for something that is, at it's heart, an action that I truly believe to be motivated by selfishness and a lack of empathy. 

This is a complicated take to have when, as I said, I love Waitress. I've seen it multiple times and would definitely go again (I have to admit, I'm curious about Al Roker.) if the opportunity arose. The schism between genuinely loving a show and also believing that it has the wrong take on, well, just about everything is a strange place to build your home. Don't ask me to explain that paradox because I have no answers for you.

All I ask is that in the future, we see shows with more accountability. Shows like Comet prove that you can show all sides of a story and still see all of the characters as beautiful, flawed, imperfect humans while having a fun night out, and I hope to see more shows like that in the future. Consequences aren't something we should be afraid of! Musicals are a way to see new ideas, to have a taste of what it's like to live lives as different from your own as you can possibly imagine, and for a lot of young people, to send messages about life lessons and the choices that we have to make.

Is the message we're sending the right one?

(Photo credit Joan Marcus)