Category Archives: Pop Culture

I Know Things Now

At age six, I saw the local high school production of West Side Story.  While I didn’t file away many memories of the show, I remember how it felt, the sensation of magic, of witnessing something that transcended every experience I’d ever had.  During the tragic ending, I cried, and I remember my mother leaning over, her breath too hot in my ear: “It’s all pretend. Everybody’s okay.” And though I didn’t dare say it to her, I thought, You’re wrong. It’s pretend-but-not-pretend.  Leave me alone.  I’m trying to crawl inside it!

Sondheim wrote lyrics for West Side Story, his first highly successful, highly visible musical.  He was irked to share a music-and-lyrics credit with Leonard Bernstein because he knew even then: “I don’t just do lyrics.” He longed to live into the fulness of his gifts.  He’d have the opportunity, eventually.

In high school, a friend introduced me to Into the Woods, and that show can take a lifetime to understand.  Much of it went right over my head despite being a narrative of children’s fairy tales.  I could not figure out, as a teen, why we needed the second act when the first act ended as fairy tales are meant to: granting of wishes, marriages, children. I had neither the perspective nor the experience to understand why Sondheim let things fall apart afterward, not knowing that things do fall apart, that many times what we wish for is not what we need and that marriage and children–even coming of age–are neither endings nor fulfillment but a piece of a growing story, and if we’re lucky, we grow until we die.  

But even not understanding all this, I fell in love with “I Know Things Now,” Little Red’s commentary post-wolf-consumption.  My life was still at the beginning of the song–“Mother said, ‘Straight ahead,’ not to delay or be misled,’ but I sensed a kinship with what happened next…”I had been so careful, I never had cared…down a dark slimy path where lie secrets that I never wished to know…everything familiar seemed to disappear forever…I know things now, many valuable things that I hadn’t known before…though scary is exciting, nice is different than good…now I know: don’t be scared, Granny is right, just be prepared; isn’t it nice to know a lot! And a little bit not.”  How many times I’ve lived this since first I heard it!

Around the time I left home for college, I came upon the soundtrack of Merrily We Roll Along, which many people know as Sondheim’s famous flop.  Deeply flawed in every way, from casting to narrative structure to costume design to set, it lasted just a few performances on Broadway.  Even Stephen Sondheim could fail.  But what is failure, anyway?  If the end-all goal is making money, then on Merrily, Stephen Sondheim failed.  But if it’s about inspiration and art, then Sondheim succeeded triumphantly.  Between ages seventeen and twenty-seven, I must have listened to “Opening Doors” three or four times every week. That song is the story of three young people struggling to make it in New York City, and it fed my courage to try it myself.  And this, of course, is the theme of Merrily.  When your work becomes about money, power, or fame–when you lose your passion for what you love–then that’s the point when you’ve lost the thread.  Every other failure will pass.

“Hey,” said a friend of mine, halfway through my sophomore year of college, “want to come with me and a couple of friends to see a production of Sweeney Todd?  They do it at midnight on Halloween night outside on the grounds of the state mental hospital.”  And it was a full moon, no less.  I wore about six layers of clothing and shivered, mouth agape, through two and a half hours of a comedic epic tragedy about cannibalism.  This is a musical?  It pushed the limits of acceptable art, and going to see it in the nighttime with a mixed-gender group pushed the boundaries of allowable behavior at Brigham Young University.  I felt daring and rebellious, two things I rarely experienced, and I gathered groups to go with me Halloween night both junior and senior years.

I moved to New York City in 2007, and Broadway was right there, as I’d always known it would be.  I saw Gypsy with Patti LuPone, and she came up right behind me in the house to bark that famous first line: “Sing out, Louise!”  And A Little Night Music, for which Catherine Zeta-Jones received top billing, but what I remember is Angela Lansbury.  She sang “Liaisons,” never moving from her wheelchair, eighty-four years old, and the woman can’t even sing, really–but she kept a house of a thousand people motionless, silent, perfectly still, and I thought, “I want to be her when I grow up.”

“Take Me to the World,” Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration, streamed on YouTube April 26, 2020.  We’d been in lockdown for more than a month, but it still felt new and deeply traumatic.  I distinctly remember still running on high, adrenaline streaming unceasingly, not sleeping much, working ten or twelve hours every day and then pacing in circles for 20,000 steps because I simply could not stop moving.  Every great Broadway performer filmed a tribute.  Neil Patrick Harris brought his kids.  Laura Benanti sang from her bathroom–“the acoustics are better”–and Chip Zien wore the original baker’s hat.  Donna Murphy was, as always, quiet perfection.  And there was this, which I still go back and watch when my spirits are dragging.

But the moment I’m revisiting this morning?  Mandy Patinkin did a tribute a cappella in the middle of a grassy field, and he introduced it with the words we all long for today: “Sondheim says everything I wish I could say.”

There’s a production of Company on Broadway right now, and in it is Claybourne Elder, who I worked with a few times and who is still a Facebook friend.  I want to share what he had to say Friday evening:

After the matinee our producers gathered us on stage, which is never good news. We were all still in our costumes, getting ready to have our dinner break before the evening show. We gathered in a circle, many of us holding hands or with our arms around each other. Our director Marianne Elliot told us that Steve had passed, that it had been easy and that his loved ones were with him. Today was our 10th performance of the show, before the pandemic we had 9 performances then the theatres closed because of covid. We were celebrating that we had crossed that barrier and then this news came.

Steve spent his whole life championing young artists. At 25 he gave me my first job starring in his last new musical Road Show at the Public Theatre. I had gone to the open chorus call and the director John Doyle and Steve Sondheim took a big chance on me, an unknown actor without an agent.

He loved authenticity and new ideas. His shows have been reinvented and revived with his blessing; he loved having his words reimagined. So many writers are precious with their material, but Steve was always open to new ideas.

On our first preview of Company, the director had the cast come out on stage right before the show. The audience went wild, we were very emotional. It had been such a long wait to return to Broadway. After our director introduced us, Patti Lupone stepped forward and dedicated our performance to Steve Sondheim. They threw a spotlight on him and he stood up, the light was so bright – I hesitate to say that he looked like an angel, he would have hated that. But he did.

In his youth, Stephen Sondheim was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II.  He himself went on to mentor Lin Manuel Miranda, Jonathan Larson, and countless more, as Clay references in his reflections.  Sondheim once said, “I just hope that I’ve paid back some of the debt I owe to Oscar.”  I affirm that he has.  Sondheim not only mentored and inspired; he served as a model of how one mentors and inspires.  He’s been with me through every stage of my life, and he’ll be with me through many more, without ever needing to meet me.  

This is what it looks like: gifts well used, a life well lived.  As Stephanie J. Block tweeted last night, “There’s a giant in the sky.”

Grieving Abby Scuito

This post is a considerable departure from my usual, but it’s something I’ve been chewing on for months and seems worth talking about.

In 2003, a TV show called NCIS came on the scene. NCIS stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service. It’s a shoot-‘em-up action crime show with heart, still in production after fifteen years, in my opinion because of the investigative-team-as-family theme at the center. Gruff ex-Marine Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is surrounded by a crew of coworkers, most of whom are at least a generation younger than he, nearly all of whom have serious trauma in their pasts, and between the moments of plot, Gibbs nurtures his little Gibblets (as fans refer to them) much like a tough-love dad.2c6b7d18524f70b7f139f3caa0b126bf

 

One of the show’s most popular characters is Abigail Scuito, generally known as Abby (Pauley Perrette). When the show premiered, the actress was about thirty-four, though the age of the character was never stated. Abby is a forensic scientist with all but superhuman abilities, beyond brilliant, though it helps that she’s working with technology that seems to be flavored with a soupçon of sci-fi. She’s also deeply religious and exuberantly loving and passionate about hard rock and tattooed and pigtailed.

AbigailSciutoAbby Scuito is so compelling that some researchers credit the character with an upswing in young women entering the sciences. They call it “the Abby effect.”

I really love Abby.

At the end of season fifteen, Pauley Perrette left NCIS. There are some pretty sad rumors around the question of why. I don’t want to repeat the rumors because the truth is that we just don’t know. Someday we might.

In the meantime, I am grieving Abby. (No, the character didn’t die, but it’s clear she’s not coming back, which amounts to the same thing.) And as I’ve mused about this character—warm, sassy, faithful, smart—did I mention smart?—I’ve realized something. It’s not really Abby that made Abby so special. It’s the people around her.

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Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to take anything away from this character. She’s unique on TV and fascinating to watch. But sometimes people talk about her and say things like “the world needs more Abbys,” and I think the truth is, the world has a pretty fair number of Abbys. Our problem is that most Abbys get squished.

When Abby dresses authentically, her coworkers appreciate her individuality, while many women in the wabigail-e2809cabbye2809d-sciuto.jpgorld have to dress according to someone else’s code in order to be taken seriously.

When Abby teases her coworkers, they tease her back, then get down to business and listen to what she has to contribute, while many women in the world learn to play things straight because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously.

When Abby expresses her fears or shares about her personal life, her cow10a735d0c644c3a82621e7e58ce86dab.jpg.pngorkers respect her honesty and respond in kind, while many women in the world don’t dare show vulnerability because this will be interpreted as weakness.

When Abby excels, her bosses recognize that and offer raises and promotions, while many women are consistently passed over because raises and promotions are more closely tied to golf course relationships than professional capability.

When Abby is smarter than her coworkers, they admire her and act on her contributions, while many women experience jealousy and doubt from the people they work with.

This is why I’m grieving Abby. It’s because I’m mourning the example of a workplace that embraces her: a workplace where an intelligent and highly competent young woman is automatically taken seriously and regarded with respect, where contributions are fa5ad7e5f65a897d4a8adaac83c5b8b5--pauley-perrette-story-ideas.jpgevaluated on their inherent value, where ideas are not ignored until a man repeats them, where it’s possible to be emotional and still viewed as rational because everyone understands that these two states aren’t mutually exclusive.

The very existence of Abby, in the highly respected professional position that she held, was frankly a fantasy.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Here’s what I take from knowing Abby:

Do I want to be like her?  Yes, absolutely.  I find Abby inspiring.  I hope to be as smart, as hard-working, as kind, as authentic, as joyful, and as loving as she.

But more importantly, I want to be like Jenny Shepard and Leon Vance and Jethro Gibbs and Ducky Mallard and Tony/Ziva/Cait/Tim/Jimmy.  I want to recognize and value all of those who cross my path for their authentic contributions to the community.  And given the world we live in, that means working really hard to see and put aside my own prejudices and–sometimes–to point to people who are being overlooked and, when necessary, amplify their voices.

I’ll miss you, Abby.

What We’ve Learned

In my bedroom, I keep a framed copy of Professor Dumbledore’s end-of-year speech from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I made it—because the first time I read the book, I knew I needed that text on my wall.

“The end of another year…Cedric Diggory was a good and loyal friend, a hard worker, he valued fair play. His death has affected you all, whether you knew him or not…Cedric Diggory was murdered by Lord Voldemort. The Ministry of Magic does not wish me to tell you this…it is my belief, however, that the truth is generally preferable to lies…

“[Our] aim [this year] was to further and promote magical understanding. In the light of what has happened – of Lord Voldemort’s return – such ties are more important than ever before…we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.

“Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open…

“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”

Dumbledore made a speech at the end of pretty much every school year. They weren’t all as memorable as that one. He was also imperfect; there were years when he said and did, in his end-of-year summation, things that (in my opinion) were biased, even flat-out wrong. But he always made the speech. He always took the time to consider what he—and his people—had learned, and he stood in front of the school and reflected it back to them.

For a group that so values continuing revelation, I sometimes feel as though we Quakers spend very little time reflecting on what we’ve learned. We do speak the things we’ve learned, and we spend a lot of time writing (both journals and reports), but we often speak and write these things as we’re learning them. We don’t always go back after the fact, crystalizing, reassessing, reviewing. And the process of reassessing and rearticulating is part of what cements new knowledge for learners. It also might keep us from reinventing the wheel.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if every state of the meeting report, every end-of-year committee report, every periodic answering of queries began with this question: What have you learned this year?

I’m no Dumbledore, and I haven’t been watching you all for the last 365 days, so I’m not going to try to reflect back to you what you have learned. But I am going to put into words the most important things that I’ve learned this year—and I invite you to do the same.

1) Even those of us who are deeply committed to the equality of all people—to naming this equality, to living it, to witnessing for it—are biased, often extremely so. This includes people I respect. This includes people I love. This includes me. It is a function of growing up in cultures that teach us to be biased. The ways in which this bias expresses itself are slippery and, to those of us showing the bias, often invisible. Behaviors and ways of speaking that we each consider “normal” are often exclusive in ways that we don’t understand. Feeling guilty about this is neither necessary nor helpful; guilt and shame tend only to put up walls that prevent us from listening and learning. The way forward is to listen when we are told that a certain pattern or behavior is racist, or ageist, or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, and to believe the speaker and seek to understand why.

2) The fact that someone is angry does not indicate that they are wrong.

3) The gospel order method of dealing with conflict, as detailed in Matthew (first go to the person directly, then bring along an elder if the person doesn’t listen, then bring it to a larger group if that is still necessary) can work. When we are hurt or frightened or angry, it is phenomenally difficult to walk directly up to the person who’s hurting us and ask for a conversation and sit in worship with them and be vulnerable and talk the thing through. But it is worth trying, because it can work, and because it’s part of taking responsibility for the health of the community.

4) EXCEPT. The first step of that method, talking one-on-one, is not always healthy, especially in situations of a power differential. There are many reasons why one person might feel unsafe, or actually be unsafe, in a one-on-one situation. Sometimes it’s okay to skip to step two.

5) Even when it’s true, “this is the way things are done” is never acceptable as an answer when someone’s been hurt by the system. At the very least, engage with why this is the way things are done. And “this is the way things are done” is never more important than the health of the people as a whole. Or being faithful. Also, see #1.

6) God heals. I knew this before, but I learned it again.

7) And sometimes, God does not heal.

8) “Sabbath” doesn’t have to mean every-seven-days, but not to keep Sabbath at all is unfaithful.

9) Use everything God’s given you to do the work God’s given you. And the work God’s given you will likely not look like you would have imagined.

10) Speaking generally, you can’t make decisions about whether to trust, or whether to love, based on mathematics. Give humanity as a whole another chance.