On the Theatre in Washington D.C

Where would you expect to find new ideas and non-conformism?

Once upon a time in Dolumbia, a District of a great Kingdom, there lived a young maiden called Cinderella. Cinderella was a carefree young lady who whistled happy tunes all day long, to the delight of the villagers, and told them stories which made them laugh, for Dolumbia was a serious District where the peasants worked hard and needed light relief.

Cinderella had two ugly sisters called Itisntsondheim and Iveheardthatbefore. Itisntsondheim and Iveheardthatbefore were much older than Cinderella and had in fact seen everything before. They knew everyone in the business and were never happier than when they were conforming to the fashion of the day. When they sang and told stories the peasants listened respectfully, and some would even pay to hear their songs and tales. But they couldn’t remember the songs, and the tales were about uninteresting young men dying down holes in the ground. After some years they voted with their feet and stayed at work till 9pm. Which tends to explain why Iveheardthatbefore and Itisntsondheim were rather poor. In any event, Cinderella did most of the work in the house, slaving night and day while her ugly sisters attended award ceremonies for their friends.

One day the Handsome Prince of Dolumbia proclaimed a Prince’s Day Festival, when all theatres were to be dark, and all writers would have a chance to show their best work.

“Ah”, said Iveheardthatbefore , “I will dazzle the Prince with my piece for seven year olds, which starts off with a Nazi soldier beating in the head of a Dutchman with a rifle butt. Seven year olds see this at home every day”. “Hurrah”, said Itisntsondheim, “a chance for my musical about a family (extraordinarily like the Kennedys), which “fixes” the Presidency. It’s got drugs, sex, bad language, is derivative, and has not a melody in sight. It must win”.

From a corner of the room Cinderella piped up: “Sisters dear, I have a new musical which is quite entertaining and has some catchy tunes. I would like to come to the Festival, too”. “Dear, dear,” said Iveheardthatbefore, “I’ve heard that before. Your tunes are exactly the same as those composed before 1959. Tunes are out, forbidden. We’re past all that”.

“But see what’s happened to classical music,” replied Cinderella. “It became unattractive to the ear, lost audiences, and found itself in a cul-de-sac. Now composers are returning to old forms, even romanticism. The same will happen to musical theatre”, said Cinderella, just wanting to do her best.

“Stuff and tiddlypop”, said Itisntsondheim, not knowing her Gorecki from her Babbitt,“ You don’t know what you’re talking about. Everyone is writing dissonant songs over figures, and that’s what we’ll all do until we’re told otherwise. All stories should be about uninteresting young men trying to make a buck and dying down a hole in the ground. If the unmemorable music throws the attention onto the lyrics, and if only Sondheim can write truly brilliant lyrics, so be it. That’s what I learned at the Jerry Springer College of Advanced Culture. And by the way, this musical of yours hasn’t a single abused child or multiple rape.”

“I thought we were doing this for the peasants,” said Cinderella, and the ugly sisters laughed and they laughed. In fact it was the first time for years that they had laughed, for they were in the vanguard of art and took themselves seriously.

The great day came and Iveheardthatbefore and Itisntsondheim presented their pieces. In the intermission the peasants talked about the difficulty of finding a new plumber, and on the way home they discussed Aunt Ida’s arthritis.

Meanwhile, Cinderella, sad and forlorn, played with her Neapolitan chord. Suddenly her Fairy Godmother appeared in a whiff of smoke (which is politically incorrect but we’ve left it in just to annoy). “Child”, said she,” you may go to the Festival but I warn you, if your piece runs more than the statutory two hours, with fifteen minutes for intermission, you will be turned into dramaturg”. “Aaagh”, cried Cinderella, “Not that!”, and departed.

The Prince and the peasants were enchanted with Cinderella’s musical. Hummable song followed hummable song, funny line funny line. They could hear every word at the back (a first for Dolumbia), they were taken out of themselves, and there was a happy ending. And at the end of it they rose with one accord and gave her a standing ovation. This was a daily occurrence at concerts of the Dolumbia Symphony Orchestra, but the peasants hadn’t felt like standing up at a theatrical performance (except to leave) for quite a while. So long did the ovation last that the allotted time was exceeded and Cinderella disappeared. All she left behind her was her Neapolitan chord.

The peasants petitioned the Prince, clamoring for him to find the author of the musical they had liked so much and persuade her to write more light-hearted pieces, with happy endings to cheer them up. The Prince searched the land. “ Whoever owns this lost Neapolitan chord shall have a full production and a long run,” quoth he. He interviewed Iveheardthatbefore and Itisntsondheim, but they couldn’t put a tune to the Neapolitan chord, and so were not the rightful owners.

At long last the Prince found Cinderella, whistling happy tunes all day long, to the delight of the villagers, and showed her the lost Neapolitan chord. “Oh joy”, cried she, and immediately used the chord in a memorable tune. “Thanks, prince, ” said she, “This belongs in my finale. I wondered where I’d left it”.

“Why haven’t we heard more of your musicals, Cinderella”?, asked the Prince. “Because the theatre establishment wants cutting edge stuff only to impress their colleagues,” she replied.

“Dear, dear,” said the Prince, “ I’m sure there’s a place for that, but ours is a broad church, and there’s room for variety. We can’t have rigid minds, intolerance and intellectual snobbery in this great country of ours (yes, he was a bit pompous). Henceforward, I decree that the peasants shall be offered a balance between entertainment and enjoyment on the one hand and avant garde, psychology and unmemorable music (which we have all heard before) on the other”.

And thus it was.

Now the fashion had changed. Iveheardthatbefore and Itisntsondheim adopted the new paradigm as wholeheartedly as they had adopted the last one, the Community College of Dry Gulch Arizona taught balance in its MFA course, and for a while the peasants were happy and smiling and came home earlier, eager to go to the theatre (which was making money).

However, in due course a new generation of young, earnest and humorless theatre professionals emerged. They competed among themselves, ignored the wishes of their audiences, the lessons were forgotten, and the story started all over again from the beginning.