You know how Facebook puts these “Your Memories on Facebook” posts into your newsfeed? You know, to make it even more addictive…? Today, up pops a post of mine from three years ago today, while we were working on Next to Normal.
And it’s uncanny how exactly it describes the central point of Zorba:
“Ordinary happiness depends on happenstance. Joy is that extraordinary happiness that is independent of what happens to us. Good luck can make us happy, but it cannot give us lasting joy. The root of joy is gratefulness. We tend to misunderstand the link between joy and gratefulness. We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it. We hold the key to everlasting joy in our own hands. For it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.” – David Steindl-Rast
I’ve been talking about wanting to work on Zorba for years, and so many of my theatre friends would always respond with some variation of, “Ugh, that’s so depressing!” But it’s not. It’s just real.
The point of Zorba, as I see it, is that you must embrace all of life if you want to be truly happy, even the bad times, even the pain and hurt. It’s all part of the same tapestry, or as Dustin Hoffman puts it in I Heart Huckabee’s, everything is the blanket – “When you get the blanket thing you can relax because everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.”
But I realize that’s what a lot of musicals – or at least, a lot of New Line musicals – are also about.
In Spelling Bee, Chip sings, “Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium.” At first hearing, that sounds depressing, but it’s not. It’s not saying that life is shitty; it’s saying the life doesn’t take a moral position. Good behavior is not necessarily rewarded and bad behavior is not necessarily punished.
I don’t find that depressing; I find it powerfully reassuring. Bad shit happens to everyone. Don’t take it personally. God’s not mad at you and you are not cursed. If life is random, then by definition, it can’t be “fair,” which would imply judgment and consequence.
This point is driven home more forcibly later in Spelling Bee, when Marcy is visited by Jesus…
MARCY: Jesus… I was wondering what would happen if I didn’t win today.
JESUS: What do you think would happen?
MARCY: I don’t know, but what I mean is, would you be disappointed with me if I lost?
JESUS: Of course not. But Marcy, I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win.
MARCY: You’re saying it’s up to me then?
JESUS: Yes, and also, this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.
Personally, sinner that I am, I take great comfort in a universe that isn’t assessing my worth and doling out commensurate amounts of fortune and failure, a universe that places me on an even plane with everybody else, no matter what the Holy Books say.
Passing Strange arrives at a similar conclusion in itss final song…
‘Cause the Real is a construct.
It’s the raw nerve’s private zone.
It’s a personal sunset,
You drive off into alone.
There are no cosmic scales of justice. We each have our own road, our own “Real,” and each of our roads is littered with good shit and bad shit, in random amounts, placed at random intervals. That’s not something to bemoan; it’s something to celebrate.
Life is a fucking adventure. That’s what Zorba thinks. Or as Mame puts it, “Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitche are starving to death.”
But if life is an adventure, if it’s random, if everybody’s road is different, that means that the idea of universal morality is up for grabs. Your Real isn’t my Real. You don’t get to judge how I live, and vice versa.
One of the hardest aspects of our story for Kent, who plays Zorba, is this lack of recognizable morality. Zorba is a great guy, fun to be with, full of wise if cockeyed philosophy, and chock full of joy; and Kent found that part of Zorba easily.
But Zorba is also a dick, and that part is proving harder for Kent. I think it’s partly because Kent is a really decent, good guy, and being a dick doesn’t come that easily to him. (He got a little practice in the fall as Potemkin in Celebration.) I think it’s also because as much as Zorba often feels like musical comedy, it’s much deeper and more complicated than that.
Everything about Zorba is gray area – except for his joy, which is always full throttle. He makes Hortense very happy but he also treats her very badly. He teaches Nikos a great deal about living a good life, but he also essentially steals a lot of Nikos’ money by spending it on women and drink. He’s not a patient man. He’s not subtle. He’s usually not nobly motivated, though it does happen occasionally…
Zorba’s morality is about appetite. He follows his road wherever it takes him, and along the way, he consumes life, women, drink, food, dance. To use a relatively recent phrase, he knows how to Live Out Loud.
He does have a kind of reverence for women, but it’s a skewed, misogynistic kind of reverence, as Zorba explains in one passage in the novel:
A woman is a refreshing spring. You bend over it, see your face reflected in the water, drink – you drink, and your bones grate. Afterward comes someone else who thirsts. He bends over in his turn, sees his face reflected, and drinks. After that, still another comes. That’s what it means to be a spring, what it means to be a woman.
Women are to be consumed. And then passed along.
What do you do with a character like that? In a lot of ways, he acts like an antagonist to our protagonist Nikos, but Zorba is really a deliciously fucked-up version of the Wise Wizard, a character like Ben Kenobi, Glinda the Good Witch, Jiminy Cricket, or Angel in Rent.
Maybe that’s why the Zorba the Greek film and novel are so beloved.
Maybe the point of all this is that Zorba is Life. He is Life Force incarnate. And part of that Life Force is Death. But Death is neither good nor bad, it simply is. You wouldn’t label gravity or electricity as morally good or bad; they simply exist. Only the uses to which humans put them can be good or bad.
And this all connects back to my greatest revelation about this extraordinary show, which I talked about in my first Zorba post:
What I realized at that point was the subtle, stunning brilliance of calling the opening song “Life Is.” It’s not an unfinished phrase, which is what it seems on the surface. After all, the title is not "Life Is…“ No, the point of the title – and the song and the entire show – is that Life just is. Or in my own lingo, "It is what it is.” No use trying to change it or rage against it. Life is good and bad and beautiful and ugly and tender and rough and everything else; and the only way to fully love life is to accept all of it. The only way to be truly happy is to love all of life. Even when people leave us, even when they die.
So many musicals are about this idea of yin and yang… Pippin, Company, Celebration, Rent, Hands on a Hardbody, High Fidelity, Hedwig…. I could keep going…
This is what I’m talking about when I say that New Line does “adult musical theatre.” It’s theatre about the adult world, not always family-friendly, not always reassuring – because that’s not the world.
One thing I can promise you: Joy. As Zorba sings:
I have nothing.
I want nothing.
I am free.
I need nothing.
I owe nothing.
I am free.
If my feet say, come this way,
I probably would.
But if they say, go that way,
That way is just as good.
I ask nothing.
I judge nothing.
I am free.
There’s one Zorba,
And that Zorba,
I must be.
Heaven waits for other men,
But not for me.
I fear nothing!
I hope for nothing!
I am free!
Zorba isn’t piling up good deeds to get a seat in Heaven; he’s too busy living. Whether or not you agree with his philosophy, you will come out of our show feeling a little better about the world, and a little more zen about these crazy times in which we find ourselves. Zorba is the tonic we all need.
The adventure continues. We’ve almost blocked the whole show and we move into the theatre in a week! Woohoo!
Long Live the Musical!
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre http://newlinetheatre.blogspot.com/2017/02/that-way-is-just-as-good.html