An Ode to “Mass Text”

Every year I write for Punching a Jayhawk about the worst music videos of a given year. Last year’s choice for the worst music video of the year, “Stupid Hoe,” was so delightfully bad because it was jam packed with decisions leading one to wonder how anyone thought any moment of that video was good.

As 2013 wore on, I wondered where was the delightfully awful music video for this year. How had I gotten through six months of the year and not found a flat out terrible music video?

And then “Mass Text” was unleashed upon the world. It’s okay for the first 14 seconds of the video, although Tay Allyn, the song’s singer, is texting her crush named “Drew Crush,” but then she sings the first verses of the song.

Why didn't I get your mass text?

Or perhaps you might enjoy the German translation instead.

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 11.38.12 PM

The music video then continues with her asking over and over why she didn’t get his mass text because she’s in his contacts. We then see her in a school hallway as Drew Crush and his friends walk by and check all their phones as they get a mass text.

Here’s the first problem: She’s wondering why she didn’t get his mass text, but why is he checking his phone and reading the mass text if he sent it? Unless he sends his mass texts to himself.

Then she looks dejected and plays with Barbie dolls, sings a bit more and then plays with her dog. She then sits in a stairwell and writes the song we are listening to at the very moment.

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 7.12.03 PM

Allyn then sits at lunch, gazing at Drew Crush when her friends come over with the discarded lyrics of “Mass Text” and encourage her to sing at the homecoming dance. As we all know, everyone wants to hear a song about not getting a mass text when they’re awkwardly dancing at the homecoming dance.

A bunch of her friends then get her ready for the dance and the video does that cliche thing where the girl with the glasses removes her glasses and discovers how beautiful she is. The problem is, people viewing the video have already seen her without her glasses on for most of the video.

Glasses off

Allyn then arrives at the dance and performs with her friends, serving as back up dancers. Although the pink fingerless gloves with her light blue dress seems like an odd fashion choice, nothing compares to the bit of choreography that occurs a few moments later where Allyn and her dancers put their hands up to their heads in a phone gesture while she sings “Mass text, mass text.” I’m not aware you can read a text while the phone is up to your ear. Is this a feature available on iPhones?

Mass text

She then leaves her dancers on the stage, continuing to do awkward dance moves, as she walks up to Drew Crush, saying she’ll get his mass text because she’s in his contacts. They kiss, as is inevitable in this music video and then there’s this:

WHAT THE HELL

The music video can’t end with us having an image of Allyn and Drew Crush kissing in the context of the dance because she’s going to get his mass text it has to show us her smiling at an iPhone that’s playing video of them kissing.

So I salute you, “Mass Text” for being really bad. I don’t know how it was possible to make such a bad music video.

Advertisements

(pause)

I was a weird kid.

When I was in high school, I discovered Harold Pinter and fell in love with his plays. When I auditioned to get in to Rockford College’s theater program I did the end of “Old Times” for one of my monologues. After I did the monologue I was asked why I chose the monologue and I spoke about my love of Pinter’s writing getting under the skin before lamenting the time limit for a monologue not allowing me to really use the full potential of the pauses.

My love of Pinter has continued and the sole play I saw in 2013 was “The Birthday Party” at Steppenwolf, which I greatly enjoyed. But then it eventually came up in a conversation that I’m a woman and I enjoy Pinter.

The issue came up when I was talking with someone about what I did over Spring Break. I mentioned I saw “The Birthday Party” and enjoyed it. The woman asking me about my Spring Break activities looked up the play on Wikipedia and then said, “You shouldn’t like that play.”

“Why not?”

“You’re a feminist. The women in this play lack agency.”

I never enjoy people applying labels to me as they tend to be incorrect, so I cringed when she said “You’re a feminist.” But to be fair, Harold Pinter is not great feminist literature. His work is, however, among the most important theatrical work of the 20th Century.

I have a history of being lectured by those in my age range for my taste in plays. I’ve even listened to a voice mail message where someone questioned me owning a copy of “The Essential Bogosian.” These are the plays I enjoy because of the writing and stories told within. Simply because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I should only like certain plays with strong feminist tones to them.

The surprising thing is I haven’t been lectured for my unabashed love of Philip Roth’s work. Roth’s work is derided often as misogynist and sexist, but he is in my opinion the greatest living American writer. It’s how the words flow when Roth writes and the characters he creates that draw me into his books, even though they might be rather piggish and, let’s face it, Alexander Portnoy was a schmuck. It is even possible for me to sometimes feel sympathy for his characters because of how Roth writes.

Among the things I learned in college is the importance to appreciate and analyze the writing of a writer rather than focusing on if you like the book or if you approve of the actions of the main characters. The actions of Alexander Portnoy and Coleman Silk aren’t ones I would engage in and I don’t condone them, but that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment. The writing of “Portnoy’s Complaint” does read like the world’s most messed up therapy session from an incredibly neurotic person and works very well on that judgement.

Occasionally I do stop and wonder, “Is it okay for me as a woman to enjoy Harold Pinter and Philip Roth’s work?” But at the end of the day, what is okay for a woman to enjoy? If a woman enjoys “Twilight,” and many women do, she’ll likely be accused of being shallow and be criticized for enjoying the books when Bella is not an interesting protagonist. If a woman enjoys a Dan Brown novel, she’s reading middlebrow thrillers. If a woman enjoys Jennifer Weiner novels, she’s stooping to “chick lit.”

The problem is there are no books or works you can openly enjoy without getting some criticism. As a friend of mine pointed out once, everything is problematic. It’s easier to prepare yourself to be criticized for liking anything in the realm of culture than to sit around and go, “Is this okay to like?”

There is nothing wrong with me liking Harold Pinter or Philip Roth’s work, even though other people might object. Just be prepared for me to launch into an analysis of his work if you ask me about Pinter.

Hospital Architecture and You

“Why hospital architecture, in particular?”

I looked at that question on my Blackberry as my train sped through middle-of-nowhere Michigan. The question came from Neil Steinberg, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist, in regards to my Twitter bio containing a declaration of me being a “hospital architecture enthusiast.” There was more to the direct message, but the question of why I enjoy hospital architecture stayed in my head when I was not catching naps on the train. I briefly answered the question at one point, trying my hardest to be concise.

I enjoy architecture in general because I view architecture as a form of art. For example, I find the Broad Museum of Art at Michigan State University to be too modern for the part of campus it sits on and impractical as an art museum. (Have you ever tried looking at paintings that hang on slanted walls?) Meanwhile, I love the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum because it enhances Milwaukee’s skyline while also allowing visitors to take in both the art and the beauty of Lake Michigan.

The main reason hospital architecture fascinates me because the architect has to fine the right balance of form and function.

A hospital has to be designed in such a way to make it easy for patients, visitors and staff to get around. But then there’s the aspect of making it not terrifying and making design moves to maximize beds in a tight space or improve recovery through design.

Take Thorek Memorial Hospital in Uptown for example. It’s a boxy brick building sitting in Chicago, nothing really spectacular about it’s design. Inside the walls and flooring looks like a generic hospital, although the last time I was there the hospital had vacant dark waiting rooms you had to walk through to get to other parts of the hospital and grime in various areas. It seemed like the last place you wanted to end up in for hospitalization and not a pleasant place to recover from illness or surgery.

Meanwhile Rush University Medical Center’s tower, which opened in 2012, features large windows and green spaces throughout the building, including a terrarium inside the lobby. On Rush’s website for the tower, the choice to design the area for patient rooms like a butterfly stemmed from the design improving sight lines for nurses and putting them closer to the patients.

The butterfly design, although feeling like a more attractive version of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, was done to improve the quality of care. When I toured John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County in 2011 for a piece for Gapers Block aspects of Stroger’s design pointed out to me were things like separate waiting rooms for pediatric emergency and private rooms in the neonatal unit were ways of showing how the hospital was an improvement from what previously existed.
Cook County Hospital
Cook County Hospital is a gorgeous building and one of my favorite buildings in Chicago for its aesthetic value. The hospital was built in 1912 and by the time it closed it was largely outdated. One of the more horrifying details to modern times is the use of an open ward for maternity where woman giving birth was sandwiched between beds where other women who were in labor lay. The hospital was also, by all accounts, not a very efficient hospital largely due to the design not working well as it entered the late 20th Century.

Although Stroger does not share its predecessor’s beauty, it is a pleasant building to look at. The lobby has large windows, allowing for a great view of the Fantus Health Center next door, and the purple signs and awnings feel oddly soothing to me. No, it doesn’t have the grand Beaux Arts look, but it works as a hospital and as was pointed out frequently to me while touring it, they tried to improve from what previously existed.

There are other hospitals with architecture that strikes me as interesting. The old Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center is another building with fantastic lines and excellent details that works well with the rest of other historic Los Angeles buildings built in the early 20th Century. Above the doors of the hospital are carved statues of various men–Hippocrates, Scottish surgeon John Hunter, Louis Pasteur–acting as if they’re the guardians of medicine. (Similar to Cook County Hospital, Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center’s predecessor isn’t nearly as architecturally interesting, but it is pleasant to look at.)

The new Columbia St. Mary’s Medical Center in a very modern and unique looking building. Rather than going with a boxy metal and glass design, the 2010 building features curved and straight lines. Next door is the women’s hospital, which uses a “cloverleaf” design, but not the same as the Rush Tower’s cloverleaf design. As I was going past the building with my mother, we wondered if the design maximized the amount of windows in the patient rooms, which would be nice since Columbia St. Mary’s Medical Center sits very close to Lake Michigan.

The old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago also featured a cloverleaf design, but due to the materials used in its construction it ended up being viewed by quite a few Chicagoans as being an eyesore. The materials used for the women’s hospital at Columbia St. Mary’s keep it from being a brutal structure.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan viewed from Lurie Children’s Hospital.

But sometimes interesting hospitals don’t have to immediately stand out for beautiful details or an interesting design at the street level. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago has a rather straight-forward boxy design. But on the inside you see all of the details the architects and planners created to make it a great hospital for children. There’s the large inviting lobby, complete with a giant fake whale; the aquarium near the emergency department waiting room, the indoor gardens and the design of the patient rooms to create a good space for the patient’s family as well as improve accessibility for doctors and nurses.

The hospital is located in Streeterville, which allows it to have fantastic views of Lake Michigan, which at least is soothing to me. Sometimes the best parts of hospitals are hidden from the street and can only be found on the inside.

Those little details are the best part of admiring the construction and design of hospitals.

The Night I Went to Miller’s Pub

Among the more interesting things I’ve written in my life is a post for Punching a Jayhawk, the blog I write with my sister, entitled “A Review of Drinking a Non-Alcoholic Beverage in the Palmer House Lobby.” This isn’t so much interesting because of what I wrote about, but what occurred the night I went to the Palmer House and had the drink featured in the review.

On that particular evening I was supposed to review the tour of “La Cage Aux Folles” at the Bank of America Theater a block away. There was a mix up with my press confirmation and as a result I could only see the show if I bought a ticket. Although I enjoy “La Cage Aux Folles,” I felt better enjoying the original Broadway cast recording with George Hearn in my apartment for free than coughing up the money to see the tour. Dejected, I decided to walk to the Palmer House, which I had every intention of going to after the show.

For those who have never been to the Palmer House, the lobby is incredibly exquisite, featuring a stunningly decorated ceiling I could stare at for hours. It is built in such a way that when I walked into the lobby for the first time while wearing a suit I felt underdressed. Because of the beauty of the lobby and the tranquility I tend to feel when I sit there, it is one of my favorite places in Chicago. (The first Palmer House was built as a wedding present from Potter Palmer to Bertha, his bride, but it burned down in the Great Chicago Fire. Still, lucky woman.)

I walked down Monroe and through a door held open by one of the doormen at the hotel’s entrance. Up the stairs I went before I plopped down in one of the yellow fabric and wood chairs in the lobby. A waiter walked over and I ordered a pomegranate lemon drop because the basil lemonade was unavailable. I also informed the waiter I might consider an appetizer or the creme brulee from Lockwood while I sat there.

At that particular moment, I was feeling a bit bluer than usual. This was likely the result of having recently gone through a mutual break-up with my boyfriend at the time, a sweet Libertarian who worked in PR, and being in that weird purgatory of being between semesters at Columbia College Chicago. It also possibly didn’t help at the time I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. The Palmer House lobby felt like the only place to go since I was 19 at the time. I couldn’t go to a bar and have an actual drink and I didn’t want to go straight to my apartment. So I decided to savor my drink and occasionally stare up at the ceiling.

While I was doing this a man in his early 30s wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, that morning’s New York Times and the previous week’s Chicago Reader walked up the stairs and sat down across from me. He greeted me and we began talking.

I learned he was a lawyer in I believe business law and studied at University of Chicago, having grown up in Highland Park. We talked about the papers he had and various other topics before he asked me if I wanted to have dinner.

Let it be known that most men do not ask me, “Care for a drink?” or “Would you like to have dinner with me?” and mean “I’m buying.” In fact, only twice in my life has that happen and once was with my ex, the other with the lawyer I met that night in the Palmer House lobby. Coincidentally, both are from Lake Country in Illinois. As a result of me rarely being asked this, I was caught off guard but accepted. Rather than staying at the Palmer House, we left the hotel and went around the corner to Miller’s Pub.

Miller’s Pub is an old-school Chicago bar. The lighting is dim, the walls covered in wood. It has a cozy feeling that makes you immediately think, “I’ve been here before” even if you’ve never been there before. It’s a place I immediately felt comfortable in because I felt like I’m not the person who wants to go to bars that scream “Pick up place!” or somewhere with blaring dance remixes which result in my eardrums feeling like they’re about to burst. I’ve been to the latter in East Lansing, Mich. and it was deeply unpleasant. Unfortunately, I don’t think the owners of such establishments are listed among the damned in Inferno.

We took a seat and looked at the menu. Miller’s happens to be known for its ribs and other meat, which I could have tried. However, I happen to be the weird person who will order one of the cheaper items on the menu even though someone is paying, so I ordered the Cobb Salad, which is fantastic. My companion ordered a sandwich and we continued to talk, largely about politics. Although there is the saying that you should never talk about politics, sex and religion in polite company, it is inevitable people will talk about politics with me because I write about politics.

The only specific thing I remember being said while we were in Miller’s Pub was he asked me, “Do you ever wonder if you think too much?” I responded with, “Yes, largely because I’ve been told I think too much since I was seven.”

After we finished eating, we walked out of the restaurant and he asked if I wanted to go anywhere else that night. I said I felt like I needed to go home because I was tired and had to be at work at 8 a.m., but thanked him for the evening. And so I walked up the stairs to hop on the Brown Line, which I would eventually get off of at either Belmont or Fullerton.

I failed to get the lawyer’s number and I don’t remember his name. This was probably because I did not go to the Palmer House to pick someone up, but to enjoy a nice drink. I ended up having a better night than planned because the lawyer sat down across from me and began talking to me before taking me to dinner at Miller’s Pub.

As I sat on the train I made a mental note to one day return to Miller’s Pub as it was a place I felt comfortable in. However, I moved to Michigan in August of 2012 to finish my journalism degree and I haven’t had the chance to venture back to the bar on the days I’m in Chicago. I have made a note that after I move back in May I will have to go to Miller’s Pub before starting to write my review of the drink at the Palmer House lobby in my head.

Even though I only went there once, it was one of those places that left an impression on me. When people were discussing on Twitter what could possibly replace the Billy Goat on Michigan Avenue as the place for journalists, someone mentioned Miller’s and I chimed in saying it’s a good place.

I don’t go to bars or restaurant to be picked up by some guy because most guys will eventually have to reckon with the fact I’m a journalist and my profession tends to make people uncomfortable. I go to any place to enjoy myself, be it a library, restaurant, bar or store. I happened to enjoy myself that night and anywhere I enjoy myself is worth revisiting again.

I do apologize to the lawyer for not remembering his name since he bought me dinner.

AIDS and the Theater: “Rent”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous parts looked at “Angels in America” and “Falsettos.” The final blog post will examine “The Normal Heart.”

“Rent” opened in 1996 and after the death of its writer, Jonathan Larson, it became a quickly praised work of theater.

The musical shows 1989 New York as a bizarre, almost sanitized museum piece. Look, attacks in Alphabet City! Squatters! Squeegee men! New York City is dangerous because Giuliani hasn’t done his crusade to clean up the city! It lacks the authenticity of being a window into the past you get with “Angels in America” or any of Eric Bogosian’s monologues in the ’80s.

But the biggest problem with the musical is it assembles the largest cast of despicable, self-righteous assholes in the theater. The majority of the characters we’re told to feel sorry for you find yourself as a rational adult thinking, “Good lord, they’re childish.” In fact the antagonist of this musical is one of the characters I often find myself sympathizing with because he’s one of the few characters to act maturely.

“Ah, Monica, you love ‘Falsettos’ and freely admit the main character, Marvin, is incredibly immature. How can you dislike the immaturity of the characters in ‘Rent’,” you ask. Well, the thing is that Marvin changes as a character in a very natural way as the musical progresses. The Marvin who sings “What Would I Do?” is very different from the Marvin who sings “A Tight-Knit Family” at the beginning of the musical. None of the characters in “Rent” make that journey and growth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Larson’s musical is a modern version of “La Boheme” and tells the story of a group of friends living in the Alphabet City neighborhood of New York City in 1989. Mark and Roger live together in a loft where they don’t pay rent, much to the chagrin of their landlord and former friend, Benny, who is possibly the nicest landlord ever. Their friend Collins is a professor back in town after leaving MIT and he falls in love with Angel, a performer who helps him after the attack. Then, their neighbor, Mimi, walks in during a power outage to ask Roger to “light her candle.” At that time, Mark is off helping his ex-girlfriend’s girlfriend set up a performance his ex-girlfriend is putting on. Drama ensues, some incoherent babbling occurs at a protest and then people order food and don’t pay for it. More drama.

Seriously, the action in this musical is one massive drama bomb.

Four of the characters in this musical are HIV positive and two of them have developed AIDS. This musical occurs much later in the ’80s than any of the other work I’m looking at. AZT has been approved by the FDA and two of the characters do take the medication. Although some of the characters are aware of the graveness of their diagnosis and one of the few good musical numbers, “Will I?” does involve the fear of the disease, overwhelmingly the characters take the attitude of, “We have each other and let’s live each day to the fullest. Yay!”

But there are so many problems with this musical it’s difficult to know where to begin. How about I start with the characters all being archetypes? Angel is, well, an angel, a saintly figure with the kindest heart other than that Angel drives an animal to suicide, but it was a pet owned by Benny so it’s okay in the world of this musical. Mimi is the drug addict stripper with the heart of gold. Roger is the recovering bitter drug addict with what we’re led to believe is a heart of gold, but I’ll get to the problem with him later. Collins is the professor sticking it to the man, Mark is the noble filmmaker afraid of selling out, Maureen is the hot lesbian performance artist, Benny is the jerk landlord and Joanne is the butch lesbian serious lawyer.

There’s also the issue with how bad the musical is. There are very strong flaws, such as lyrics like “Everything is rent!”, having underdeveloped characters, someone saying they’re on hold on 911 which doesn’t even make sense and having a character die in such a way that to those who don’t read between the lines they might think Angel dies from having really awesome sex.

Another issue is the musical could be accused of committing bisexual erasure because Maureen is always referred to as being a lesbian even though the lyrics of the musical imply that Maureen has had sex with men and women and she even states she loves how men and women flirt with her. But, no, Maureen cannot be bisexual. Maureen is a lesbian because the show says this and consistently refers to her as a lesbian.

Meanwhile, “Falsettos” refers to Marvin quite a bit as being “queer” and only “My Father’s a Homo” explicitly calls Marvin gay and that song is sung by a character who is 10. (There is a lyric in act two that introduces the act as having “homosexuals,” but it is worth noting there are three characters who are gay.)

And then there’s the fact that Roger is a pretty abusive jerk. After he start dating Mimi he becomes very controlling of her, telling her she can’t spend time around Benny. As is well-established, Roger dislikes Benny but that doesn’t give him the right to tell her to not spend time around him because he gets jealous easily. As a rational adult, I would rather root for Mimi to be with Benny, even though he’s cheating on his wife with Mimi, because Benny doesn’t treat her poorly. He even remarks in “La Vie Boheme” that she is a “bright and charming girl” while Roger is basically, “You’re pretty and remind me of my ex.”

The biggest sin committed by the show is how it ends. Mimi momentarily dies at the end of the show and then Roger sings a song he wrote for her. This brings her back from the dead because Angel told her to turn around.

What could be a very touching moment in the musical, everyone sad about Mimi’s death, Roger singing his great song he spent an entire year writing. And then maybe a reflection on the importance of them being together and working on the art because fuck selling out. Perhaps there would be a reflection on how them staying together and not having so much drama would be what Angel would have wanted. That would be a great ending. But no, this emotional moment is killed because God forbid a musical end on a depressing note.

I will admit it would be awkward for them to watch Mark’s video of random happy moments after Mimi dying, but then we could maybe go without seeing his movie. Which, by the way, the musical acts like Mark’s movie is this breathtaking documentary about life in Alphabet City. Yet in the movie it certainly looks more like a montage of random moments. It feels more like a lot of Vine videos people post than a groundbreaking documentary that would cause someone to feel the need to quit their job in order to finish it.

The thing about “Rent” is that it ended up having maybe more of an impact on people than “Angels in America,” which is the second most influential work I’m writing about. “Rent” ultimately is a more accessible work because it isn’t six-to-seven hours long and it’s a musical. It also ran on Broadway for more than 10 years and has gone on to be produced by various theater companies, as well as the “school edition” being done in high schools. Also, if you’re a 14-year-old in the Midwest, you will probably think this musical is awesome. I certainly did when I was 14, but then when I was 17 I went off to The Theatre School at DePaul University and I took what I learned there to discover the musical is very flawed.

Which brings me to the next question: If a musical is really not that good, is it worth overlooking the flaws because it brings awareness to issues? Possibly, but even when the musical opened on Broadway the world of the musical felt a bit distant because of the efforts done to clean up Manhattan. There is also the issue of the situation the characters find themselves in seeming a bit romanticized. However, people in this musical still die because of AIDS-related complications and face grave illness from drug addiction, which although not incredibly gritty, it still shows how things aren’t that sunny.

But honestly, this is not a great musical.

AIDS and the Theater: “Falsettos”

This is the second part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. The previous part looked at “Angels in America.” Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart” and “Rent.”

Something bad is happening.
Something very bad is happening.
Something that kills.
Something contagious.
Something that spreads
From one man to another.

-“Something Bad is Happening (Reprise)”

Some spoilers for the musical ahead

A musical by William Finn entitled “March of the Falsettos” opened in 1981 off-Broadway and told the story Marvin, a man who leaves his wife to be with his lover, Whizzer. In 1990, a follow-up entitled “Falsettoland” opened off-Broadway completing the story of Marvin and all of the other people in his life. In 1992, both musicals were put together to create “Falsettos,” which opened on Broadway to a rave review from Frank Rich in The New York Times.

In the context of Broadway history, “Falsettos” is interesting in that it follows “La Cage Aux Folles,” which is generally viewed of the first time a musical with two openly gay characters appeared. However, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented a butch/femme relationship–Albin fits the stereotype of the screaming, hysterical queen–that is very tame, as if not to offend anyone. “Falsettos” uses the word “dykeish,” has a character sing a song entitled “My Father’s a Homo” and features two male characters in post-coital bliss. (The phrase “homo baroque” is also employed at one point and I wish I could use that at some point in my life.) Additionally, none of the same-sex relationships are overtly butch/femme.

It’s also worth noting when the two acts of “Falsettos” take place. The first act takes place in 1979, before the horror of AIDS starts emerging and act two takes place in 1981 when cases begin emerging, but before anyone knows what it is.

The threat of the new disease is brought in the number “Something Bad is Happening,” where Charlotte, an internist and lesbian from next door, sings about a mysterious disease affecting bachelors that has no name. Then Whizzer collapses and is rushed to the hospital where everyone feigns not being worried. They tell Whizzer he’s looking better, but only Jason, Marvin’s son, has the guts to say the truth.

Still everyone, even though they are afraid of what will happen to Whizzer, tries to put on an optimistic mask. The idea that Whizzer could die is presented to us when Jason asks to wait to hold his Bar Mitzvah until after his father’s lover gets better. Mendel replies “We can’t be sure when/he’ll get better,/when or if/he’ll ever get better.” At this point the audience and the characters are actually presented with the idea that one of the characters is probably going to die. Then, in an excellent number, Whizzer accepts this and sings “You Gotta Die Sometime.”

But “You Gotta Die Sometime” is not a cheery, cheesy song about how it’s important to live life to its fullest because you’ll die soon. “You Gotta Die Sometime” is an almost acerbic and sardonic song that is still incredibly moving.

Ultimately, “Falsettos” is not a musical about AIDS or about gay people; it is a musical about a family dealing with various forms of turmoil. The main form of turmoil comes from Marvin leaving his wife and son for a male lover, but still wanting to have a “tight-knit family.” Marvin is perpetually self-absorbed and childish, something he is aware of at the beginning of act two when he sings about wishing to be as mature as his son, Jason.

Even today, the idea of a family where the mother remarries while the father is off with his male lover seems a bit odd, so imagine it back in the early ’90s and how odd it seemed. Ultimately, “La Cage Aux Folles” presented gay couples in a way people could maybe feel comfortable with. “Falsettos” does not do so and that and the fact that it’s ultimately a depressing musical might be why it hasn’t been revived on Broadway.

The musical also presents characters who are not archetypes. Yes, all but two of the characters are neurotic Jews, but they’re all fully realized characters with complex feelings. What’s more incredible is even though for a majority of the play he’s selfish and childish, Marvin does evolve as a character and by the end of the musical is not a schmuck. Unfortunately by the end of the musical it almost seems too late, which is one of the most sad aspects of the musical.

Marvin finally manages to be a man and he loses someone he can’t imagine not being in his life. And so the musical ends on a down note without a glimmer of hope because the audience can only begin to assume what fate will occur to Marvin.

(This and “The Normal Heart” are possibly the two most depressing works I’m writing about.)

“Falsettos,” although very moving and well-written is not a perfect musical. (My vote for the perfect musical goes to “My Fair Lady.”) The lyrical content would probably offend a lot of people today and some people would probably argue the lyrics just aren’t very good. I personally have a lot of feelings about the lyric “People might think/I’m very dykish,” but that’s another blog post. Still, it’s an effective musical that isn’t hokey about talking about AIDS or gay characters. In fact, how Marvin’s sexuality is treated still seems oddly revolutionary today.

Someone please do a production of this.

AIDS and the Theater: “Angels in America”

This is the first part in a series of blog posts examining major works of theater that handled AIDS. Other blog posts will examine “The Normal Heart,” “Rent” and “Falsettos.”

Tony Kushner’s epic two-part play “Angels in America” is easily one of the best known American plays, largely because it’s in two parts and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Spanning about seven-hours, depending on the production you see, and a time period of less than a year as the characters are in the middle of a turbulent time in America–the ’80s.

There are many themes addressed in the play as it is subtitled “A gay fantasia on national themes,” but for the purposes of this post I will largely focus on the role of AIDS in the play.

Two of the main characters in this play, Roy Cohn and Prior, are infected with HIV and have been diagnosed with AIDS. Prior, in the fourth scene of the play, admits this is a death sentence and accepts that he is going to die. Roy, a few scenes later, listens to his doctor give him the diagnosis of AIDS and tells him he can’t have AIDS because he is not a gay man*. The almighty Roy Cohn has liver cancer, because that looks much better than having AIDS.

What then comes from this how these two characters end up dealing with trying to survive. Prior takes his pills, goes to the doctor and deals with the dreams he has of an angel telling him he’s a prophet. Roy, while in the hospital, gets in on his own private stash of AZT, at that point still in trials. As he admits, he was never good on tests and prefers cheating.

While Roy hides in the shadows with his diagnosis, Prior accepts it and deals with the awfulness, such as his boyfriend, Louis, leaving him, that comes with it. This is a flipside to “Rent” which almost seems to cheerfully deal with the disease. Prior gets mad, bitchy and sardonic about his disease. He’s dying and it’s ravaging his body.

What’s interesting about the play is even though it deals with political issues, largely in the form of monologues from Louis, it never is didactic. The play makes you care about the characters and even feel sympathetic to some of them, including Roy Cohn. Unlike another play I’ll look at later, it isn’t a polemic. It’s a play that explores various themes while also looking at the drama surrounding the characters, which is not an easy task.

Finally, while there is a bit of hope at the end of the play, but it isn’t forced. It comes naturally and leaves the audience feeling good at the end. While two of the other works I’ll look at end on rather dour notes, one does have a cheery ending that feels very forced. “Angels in America” is a perfect play that handled a major point in our country’s history excellently.

(Okay, I’m being concise here because so many people have written about this play I felt like I should kick things off by writing about it here, but I thought, “What could I say that hasn’t been said already?”)

Next: “Falsettos”

*Roy Cohn’s speech about how him having clout means he isn’t homosexual is one of my favorite speeches in theater