Monday, February 28, 2011
Lessons from a High School Musical
1. Conflict does not equal shoving.
Here's a summary of how all the conflict was portrayed in the play: people shoving other people around the stage. And when I say that I mean that ALL negative character interaction devolved into shoving. Seriously. It began with soldiers shoving prisoners around a lot. All right. That makes sense. Then there was a whole crowd of factory workers shoving each other all over the place. Ok... that scene is supposed to break into a fight between Fantine and one of the worker so that still makes sense. Fantine as a whore struggling with a prospective client meant whole new levels of shoving. I can still justify this. But it was when Fantine began chasing Jean Valjean all over the stage in order to shove him while he's trying to help her that it went too far. She literally ran across the stage after him multiple times in order to shove him while explaining to him that it was his fault she had fallen into prostitution. It got completely ridiculous later on. Eponine is in love with Marius! Why is she shoving him so much?!?
Ok, kids, look. Maybe things are different in high schools now than I remember them. But is shoving really the way you respond to every kind of conflict? Even mild conflict, simple differences of opinion, seemed to result in shoving. Perhaps they think shoving each other around on stage in front of a large audience means they are cool or edgy or mature? I don't know. My mind is still reeling.
And this put me in mind of some stories I've read in recent years. Not that there was rampant shoving involved. But I feel that some authors tend toward depictions of violence in their works in the same way these high schoolers tended toward shoving. Conflict is about so much more than physical violence. There can be whole worlds of conflict in a look or a word.And filling your work with blood, devastation, death, war and horror does not make your story or you cool or edgy or mature. It makes you, in my opinion, a lot like a high schooler.
2. Portrayals of Sex and Sexiness do not make you look more like an adult.
I think it's telling that a lot of these kids only REALLY got into the "acting" when they got to pretend to be whores. Then suddenly girls who had been standing around like cardboard cutouts were all contorting their bodies in ridiculous ways in an attempt to "out sexy" each other. But it wasn't just during the "Lovely Ladies" scene when there was some excuse for it. No, every time there was positive interaction between two characters of the opposite sex the girl would inevitably be writhing around on stage in ways that must seem very sexy to high schoolers but seem very awkward and silly to me. (Well, I'll give the girl playing Cosette a pass here, she was cardboard pretty much the whole time.)
I get the impression that to these kids sex equals maturity. I get the impression that this is true of some writers as well. They seem to think that if they include lots of sex in their stories it makes them more of an adult and makes their books more edgy and mature. (News flash folks, there's nothing more immature than irresponsible sex.) When two characters can't have genuine interaction without the air crackling with sexual tension or falling into bed together at the next possible moment... you're just proving to me that you have the same emotional range as a high schooler.
3. If you're not mature enough yourself, you shouldn't be trying to portray complex issues of humanity.
Les Mis is an incredible show based on an incredible book. The book explores all sorts of mature themes like inequality, the struggle for freedom, mercy and forgiveness, falls from grace, redemption, love, death, sacrifice. The musical creates a lot of beautiful music that echoes these themes as well. Quite honestly, none of these kids were up to the task of portraying these themes well. They're far too young and inexperienced to understand these things. They did their best, I'm sure, but they really should never have tried. Les Mis just isn't good fodder for a high school musical.
There are some authors in the same boat. Perhaps they're young or just inexperienced. But they really aren't mature enough to be exploring the things they're trying to write about. Authors attempt to expose the true horrors of war but have never actually seen war outside of a TV screen. Then they dare to call Tolkien's depiction of war too light, fit only for children. Would you say that to Tolkien's face knowing that he survived the trenches of WWI and knows more about war than you ever will? I guess this is the area that I feel "write what you know" has some merit. Don't write beyond your own maturity level and don't write about issues that you can't truly comprehend due to lack of experience. In my opinion, you'll just end up looking like an awkward high schooler.
Well, now that I'm done being a wet blanket, I'll leave you with my favorite song from Les Miserables, Stars...