Sunday, November 28

Lessons from Sufjan, Lenny, and Mary.

In my doddering old age, I find myself scribbling lots of notes to myself, littering my apartment with reminders of things I know but imagine I will forget I know:

"Email Noah."

"Reschedule jury duty by 12/2."

And, of course, endless variations on:


Recently, it occurred to me that the best theatrical experiences are like little reminder notes, scribbled to us by someone else, in some other language. They stick with us, cluttering up the deskspace of our brains, reminding us of things we know, but that we forget we know. Over the past couple weeks, I've had two such experiences, so thrilling in the moment, as great theatrical experiences should be, yet rich enough to yield little gifts that stay potent long after I've left the theater.

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, and my apparent penchant for sending notes to myself, I received the following two emails, with the aim, I imagine, of reminding my future self what my past self was certain he'd forget.

From: Adam Gwon
Date: November 16, 2010 3:28:41 PM EST
To: Adam Gwon

Don't be afraid to be big, bold, messy, crazy, day glo
If it comes from the heart, it will be clear

sent from my Verizon BlackBerry

My past self, of course, had just seen Sufjan Stevens in concert at the Beacon Theater. Sufjan Stevens is a cultishly popular "indie" musician known mostly for his achingly beautiful, banjo-laden folk songs. This concert, however, was supporting his latest album release, in which he went in a totally different direction: it's pulsing, it's electronic, it's ambient, it's at once dark and powerfully peppy. The first lesson is pretty self-evident: just go there if you want to. Wear neon and dress like a robot and write big. You can pull it off. In fact, dare yourself to.

The second lesson came about halfway through the concert. Sufjan and his band were soaring through this intense, electro-heavy instrumental number from the new album. I wasn't so familiar with his new material, and as I sat there listening, I started getting overwhelmed with emotion. But it was so specific: I started thinking, seemingly out of nowhere, about a specific event that I had a specific emotional reaction to; it was all I could do not to start sobbing as the throb of the music swelled and swelled.

The song ended, and Sufjan, as he did with a number of his new songs, told the story of what made him write that song. And his story was the same as my story, the one that came into my head as I was listening. Like, freakishly, Twilight Zone theme-inspiringly the same. And I was reminded: if you really feel it when you write it, the audience will feel it, too.

Another email.

From: Adam Gwon
Subject: What I learned from candide
Date: November 28, 2010 8:00:32 AM EST
To: Adam Gwon

Truth is beauty
It's never too late to make changes for the better

sent from my Verizon BlackBerry

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I popped down to Washington, DC to see a production of Candide at the Shakespeare Theater. I had a bunch of friends in it, and the production was directed by Mary Zimmerman, of whom I'm a fan. And, of course, I looooove Candide.

Candide is sort of notorious for being a classic piece of theater that just doesn't work. It was written in the 1950s and has this mind-bogglingly amazing score by Leonard Bernstein. I mean, just shimmering magical musical genius. Over the decades, it's undergone many re-inventions, with a number of bookwriters who've attempted to make something good enough to support the brilliance of the songs. I've seen a couple productions of the show, and was always mystified at the disconnect between the power of the songs and the flimsiness of the script. They all tended toward this strange, Vaudeville-like, over-the-top performance style, which never really captured the emotional or thematic depths that the songs did so well. Which is not to say the show shouldn't be funny--it should be funny, but not false.

Enter Mary Zimmerman, who's done her own completely new version of the script around the existing songs. It's a production that's so inventive and beautiful and full of humanity because it's all so true. Pair Bernstein's music (see lesson #2 from Sufjan) with refreshingly honest performances (Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina as the two leads are funny and heartbreaking and, in the middle of a big, wacky comic operetta, real people) and you'll be reminded: truth is beauty, and beauty, truth. Honesty shines through above all else.

And the long story of this Candide, surviving, if not thriving, through the generations to its most current incarnation, is a huge reminder in itself: sometimes really great things take a huge amount of time and effort. There's never an excuse to not make something better. Some things are worth all the hard work you have to put into them.

Just before sitting down to type this blog entry, I'd jotted down another note to myself in preparation for the start of the week:

Chad video
Car rental?
Mp3s to Dennis

And on and on and on. But the reminders that were written down and gifted to me by Sufjan Stevens, and Leonard Bernstein, and Mary Zimmerman, are so much better. Because they're as much about their work as they are about life, that mysterious thing perpetually at the top of our to-do lists, that thing we're all, ultimately, writing about.