May 28, 2020

Best Showtunes Evah

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
Some years ago Adam Feldman at Time Out New York asked me to contribute some entries for a grand list of "Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I had nothing to do with the voting or the ranking (the Top 3, if you want to cut to the chase, were "Rose's Turn," "O'l Man River," and "Finishing the Hat"), but I was offered a choice from among the chosen 50 songs of which I wanted to write about, and was happy to land some of my favorites (lots of Rodgers, and both Tesoris!). The whole thing is worth a read, featuring pieces by Feldman, David Cote, Raven Snook, and James Gavin. Here are my contributions, with the number in the list they held.

5. “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (1949)
Good music is onomatopoeia in reverse--sound formed from, and hence transmitting, meaning. That’s certainly the case with this swooning mini-aria, which wraps a pro-forma romantic message in a creamy musical envelope; even without Hammerstein’s lyrics, typically warbled by an operatic baritone with a heavy European accent, Rodgers’s tune by itself conjures ephemeral intoxication. And lest this song’s stand-alone hit status and oddly speculative second-person voice (“You may see a stranger”) make us forget: This love bomb drops in South Pacific’s first scene, where it functions as a marriage proposal. Who says no to that?

14. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel (1945)
The best of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s secular hymns had a dual purpose in its original setting: as a bit of grief counseling for newly widowed Julie Jordan after her husband’s suicide, and as a climactic high school graduation anthem for their daughter. To meet both demands, Hammerstein contributed almost entirely monosyllabic lyrics and Rodgers banked his fire, keeping things folk-simple till the arrival of the title phrase, for which he unleashed a cloud-bursting chord per syllable. The song’s repurposing has continued: It’s the official club anthem of Liverpool’s soccer team.

18. “Aquarius” from Hair (1968)
For a musical purportedly running on hippie flower power and gloopy starshine, it’s striking that Hair's bookends are a pair of bad-ass minor-key blues chorales: this funky, driving opener and the rafter-shaking closer “Let the Sun Shine In.” Wafting in like stage fog over a brooding organ and a siren-like wail of guitar feedback, “Aquarius” may proffer dubious astrology and peacenik platitudes, courtesy lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni, but composer Galt MacDermot’s churning, darkly tuneful music both grounds and elevates it.

12. “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Some theatre songs are whole plays in miniature; that this is one of them maybe shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s based on one of the Sholem Aleichem folk tales not used for the show’s main plot. As such it’s less an “I want” song than an “I am” song--a wistful introduction not to the things that drive the poor milkman Tevye but to how he sees himself. Amid the affectionate domestic humor of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics is an insight the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, insisted the writers keep: This is a man whose ultimate idea of luxury is more time to pray and read the Torah.

23. “Lot’s Wife” from Caroline, or Change (2004)
This stunning 11 o’clock number would be overwhelming if it all weren’t so clearly and forcefully laid out by playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. As Caroline, an embittered black maid who has squabbled over pocket change with the young son of the Jewish family she serves, wrenchingly weighs her complicity in her own misery, she tears through shifting meters and styles, presses words through multiple meanings (“Pocket change change me,” a climactic cry of “Flat!” that piles spiritual and musical connotations onto her hot iron), and reaches a kind of truce with her own rage.

29. “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (2015)
A great theatre song goes places, but few travel as unexpectedly far and deep as this ebullient epiphany from the musical of Alison Bechdel’s memoir. The first trip is back in time, as 43-year-old Alison recalls her 10-year-old self admiring a butch lesbian she glimpsed at a diner; but the song’s real journey is the steep inward dive inspired by that shock of recognition. Lisa Kron’s lyric judiciously balances childlike precocity with stereotype-free hindsight, as Jeanine Tesori’s music spins subtly swelling cartwheels underneath, but the genius move is to leave blank space for young Alison to literally think out loud: “I feel…” and “I” and “…” Into these spaces a whole heart, and a lifetime, can rush.

39. “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (1951)
Open-hearted, ploddingly earnest Oscar Hammerstein II could be underrated in the indirection department. After all, he gave this strange, and strangely moving, pep-talk anthem to a supporting character, Lady Thiang, at a pivotal point in the impasse between the show’s quasi-romantic leads. As the King’s elder wife lauds, with a mix of damning faint praise and sincere special pleading, her monarch’s fickle, flickering greatness, she somehow makes Anna--and us--feel it. It doesn’t hurt that Richard Rodgers rose majestically to the occasion, crafting a monumental, angular musical portrait of the song’s offstage subject.

44. “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! (1943)
The musical’s version of the screwball comedy trope of the Lovers Who Can’t See They’re in Love, the “Of course I’m not in love with you (yet)” song has many fine exemplars (Carousel’s “If I Loved You,” Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” Guys and Dolls’s “I’ll Know”) but few as witty, playfully reciprocal, and, yes, sexy, as this bit of romantic gamesmanship, which features one of Richard Rodgers’s most felicitously constructed and artfully ornamented tunes (listen for the sly inversion of notes on “Don’t throw” and “Don’t start”).

46. “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes (1934)
Cole Porter wrote more than his share of durable melodies, but arguably his true metier was this kind of brittle, urbane word jazz, a kind of proto-hip-hop in which rhythmic flow and rhyming invention were everything. Though his original lyrics, full of wicked references to scandals and contretemps of his day, have often been censored or substituted with less topical variants, a listen to his original demo reveals that it isn’t arrangers or interpreters who’ve made Porter’s standards rock: The high-wire syncopations, feints, and sheer brass are all built into the original model.

49. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady (1956)
The first act of Shaw’s Pygmalion ends with Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle indulging in the luxury of a cab ride home to her Drury Lane digs. My Fair Lady’s first scene ends similarly, but not before she imagines--in this jaunty, syncopated minuet, one of many seemingly effortless, ageless gems in Lerner and Loewe’s score--earthly comforts so modest (heat, chocolate, a chair) that the song would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for its warm grin. It’s the “I want” song of someone with little reason to believe she’ll attain it, and it’s all the sweeter for it.

May 21, 2020

Sondheim vs. Weill's "Fruity" Sixths

Cross-posted from Train My Ear.
If you forced me to make a list of favorite composers, Kurt Weill would be at the top, Maurice Ravel would be second, and, though I'm not exactly sure about the order after that, Stephen Sondheim would definitely be in the Top 5 (don't ask me to name the others in the pantheon, I don't want to get distracted here). The affinities here are not incidental, I don't think: These are three composers who craft music of the highest sophistication in popular forms, and whose harmonic language, to varying degrees, works the outer edges of Western tonal music, flirting with and sometimes bedding down eagerly with dissonance. All are first-rate tunesmiths not content with mere tunes, whose signature chords are thicker than simple triads.

Those signature chords make all the difference, though: Weill, as has been widely noted (including by me), is known for his use of major sixths (think of the third and fourth note, under "shark bites." in "Mack the Knife"; it's a chord that has a ghost of its own relative minor key in it, and as such naturally feels haunted, irresolute). Ravel is king of the ninth—major, flat, all kinds (as Herbie Hancock demonstrates here), an alternately splashy and expansive or curdled and cramped chord sound.

Meanwhile Sondheim, as Steve Swayne details in his essential book How Sondheim Found His Sound, took a lot of his harmonic tastes from French composers, including Ravel, as well as from film composer Bernard Herrmann (who would be in my own Top 10). Herrmann loved the major/minor seventh (the opening chord of the Psycho theme, which you can hear all over Sweeney Todd; spelled in C, you'd play C Eb G B-natural). From his French influences Sondheim took a love for sevenths, ninths, and elevenths, even thirteenths—odd-numbered chord extensions which, if you add them up, often form whole other chords, schmeared on top of the root chord (try C E G in the left hand, Bb D F; you could call this a C11, or Bb over C, though to make it truly Sondheim-y, take out the E on the bottom). Sondheim's harmonies, true to his less-is-more aesthetic, can also sound stark rather than full, subtractive rather than additive: As I noted in that parenthetical, he often avoids the third of a triad so you can't quite place whether a chord is major or minor, instead layering it with a jagged 2 or a 4. The result is a suspended, or sus, accompaniment figure, a nervy, open-ended chord that is arguably his signature sound (think of the opening of Company or Pacific Overtures, to just name two examples). It's a tic that, while Sondheim executes it brilliantly, has become something of a musical theatre cliché, as Dave Malloy has noted.

In any case, the throughline here, as always in my favorite music, is harmonic adventurousness, singularity, flavor. And to my ears Sondheim and Weill, in particular, sound related, cousins in off-kilter tunesmithing. Consider this great Sondheim film theme. Maybe it's the chamber jazz chug of the orchestration, but this sounds sneakily, smokily Weill-like to me:

Sondheim's contemporaries, Kander and Ebb, were obvious Weill-o-philes; his influence is quite naturally all over the Weimar sounds of Cabaret, and they have acknowledged his influence in all their work. Sondheim's longtime collaborator in pushing the musical theatre forward, Hal Prince, was such a Weill fan that he helped created the misbegotten, neither-flesh-nor-fowl Broadway fan-fic show LoveMusik (in which, for the record, I found much to admire). But it turns out that not only does Sondheim not acknowledge a debt to Weill. He is a non-fan, and has expressed that distaste in no uncertain terms. In a scathing footnote in Swayne's book, he reports this exchange, from a 2003 interview:
SONDHEIM: I never liked [Weill's] stuff except for Threepenny, and some of his American stuff I like. There's a rumba version of "Girl of the Moment" in Lady in the Dark—I mean, I like so little of his stuff I can pick out the pieces I like—it's the theme that goes with the lyric [Sondheim sings]: "Hoping I'd discover some wonderful lover." And that about covers it. What I love about Threepenny is how harsh and dissonant it is. I like it when it's played by a small band. But outside of that, Weill's musical language is anathema to me.
SWAYNE: Anathema?!
SONDHEIM: Well, in the sense that I don't like it. I mean, anathema like those fruity chords with the added sixths. They make me come all over queasy.
Okay. That's some strong stuff. While Terry Teachout has helpfully pointed out that Sondheim probably does not mean "fruity" as an anti-gay slur—"it's more of a wine term," as he put it—this quote hit me like a ton of bricks. To know that Sondheim hates Weill is a bit like hearing your parents fight in the next room. (Or maybe it's analogous to the weird frisson my friends and I felt when we read one songwriting hero, Randy Newman, diss another, Elvis Costello.)

Years later I had occasion to reach out to Sondheim for a story I was writing about concert revivals of two musicals Weill wrote with Maxwell Anderson, Lost in the Stars and Knickerbocker Holiday. I already knew of his distaste for Weill's music, but I was curious—given that Sondheim's shows are often cited as examples of experimentation with form at the contested boundaries of the musical and the opera, a la Bernstein, Blitzstein, and Weill—if he had any thoughts about the two shows I was writing about. I couldn't use his response for the story but it's relevant here:
I know the scores well, having seen the original Lost in the Stars (my favorite songs being "Big Mole" and "White Man go to Johannesburg," if I remember the titles correctly), and I know Knickerbocker Holiday through recordings (going back to the original 78s). But I'd rather not comment, as I'm not as big a fan of Weill's songs as others are, and I wouldn't want to offend people. Also, I don't think Weill's American shows are experimental in any way (it's the actual songwriting that accounts for the unusual, quasi-operatic feel), except for Lady in the Dark, all of which wouldn't be helpful to your premise.
So yeah, that's a more gracious, non-argumentative diss than "anathema." And "except for Threepenny" is a big exception, right? I can hang onto that. Also taste is taste, whaddya gonna do? Sondheim's capacious, tendentious lyric books proved he's got his opinions and he's sticking to 'em.

I couldn't leave this there, though. Slur or not, that "fruity chord" comment still stuck in my craw. I don't have a lot of Sondheim scores lying around, and I only have limited time to take apart all of his songs. But one score I do have a copy of is one of my favorites of his, Pacific Overtures, which I love especially for its harmonic affinity with 20th-century French or French-adjacent composers (De Falla was one of his main inspirations for its harmonic sound). Accordingly there are lots of sus chords (they basically underpin all of his towering masterpiece, "Someone in a Tree"), ninths, and the like. I was about to give up when suddenly, staring right at me from the midst of the spare, lovely "There Is No Other Way," I saw it and cried out, vindicated, "I caught you!" It's in the song's exquisite B section, under the central word in the phrase "the bird sings" (at 1:55 below):

I mean, can it be a coincidence that that searing, yearning harmony—which I had the privilege of hearing the song's original singer, Alvin Ing, reprise in his inimitable tenor in a 1998 revival at East West Players—is among my favorite moments in all of Sondheim's music? The Bard of Turtle Bay may have felt queasy about employing that "fruity" chord here, but he sure did save it for a big payoff. Or maybe he just prefers not to do anything twice?

Footnote: Randy Newman later reversed himself on Elvis Costello.

May 18, 2020

Flashback: Rich Media

When I first arrived in New York City 15 years ago I didn't land a full-time job right away—it took me more than a year before I landed one writing web features for TDF—but among my freelance gigs was writing previews for a program company called Encore Magazine, which had accounts with both BAM in Brooklyn and UCLA Live (and still owes me money for some of my work, if memory serves). For that outlet I got to talk to Kronos Quartet's David Harrington, Sydney Theatre Company director Robyn Nevin, Marianne Weems of the Builders Association, playwright Rinne Groff.

I also found myself interviewing then-NY Times critic Frank Rich, who had hung up the theater beat a dozen years before to become a popular op-ed writer, and was doing a public appearances tour that included UCLA. Minus the contemporary references to Bush and Jayson Blair, it feels like much of his critique—of the dumbing down of media, alternative facts, etc.—could have been printed yesterday. As I republish that interview here, I've bolded one paragraph that jumped out at me now, about the response of artists in hard times. I think you'll see why.

(I will only add that though this interview was conducted quickly over the phone, Rich graciously wrote me a thank you note, and years later when I was flailing a bit, agreed to meet with me and give me some career advice. He told me I should try to diversify my coverage—write about anything other than theater, if I could, just to expand my options. Oops!)

Without further ado...

Encore Magazine, November 2005
by Rob Kendt

A critic is not always critical. Even though his 13-year reign as The New York Times' chief drama critic earned him the unaffectionate appellation "The Butcher of Broadway," Frank Rich was as fervent a champion—of Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett, John Guare, Richard Greenberg, among many others—as he was a scourge.

These days, however, Rich is very much a critic, in that word's other, more polemical connotation: As an op-ed columnist for the Times, he has used his bully pulpit to excoriate the country's cultural and political right wing, whether it was ganging up on President Clinton, politicizing arts funding, getting behind a Biblical movie with ostensibly anti-Semitic sympathies (The Passion of the Christ), or, most recently, taking a nation to war on faulty intelligence. As such Rich has joined an anti-Bush Administration chorus at the Times that includes Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Maureen Dowd.

At his upcoming talk at UCLA Live, Rich is likely to touch on these issues, not to mention on the topic of the theater in America, on which he still keeps an eye. But his central theme, he said recently, will be on the radically evolving media landscape and what it means for American democracy.

"I'm going to talk a lot about the way the media culture has changed, to create an alternative vision of reality that doesn't correspond to reality as we know it," Rich said, previewing his talk. From cable news to the Internet, a plethora of outlets now delivers news and entertainment in such a feverish cycle that the well-established journalistic practices of thorough and sustained reporting, Rich feels, are being ignored or compromised.

Of course, the response of many conservative bloggers, not to mention a network like Fox News, is that they are simply countering the disguised "liberal" bias of the mainstream media with their own undisguised perspective.

"I don’t buy the premise," Rich replied. "Obviously The New York Times and LA Times have left-of-center editorial boards; the Wall Street Journal has a conservative editorial page; Washington Post has a centrist editorial page. But reporting is really separate in those organizations. It's crucial to me that news organizations try to stick to reporting—always fallible, but still objective reporting. I'm less concerned about the seeming and somewhat fake conflict between liberal and conservative media than between news media that try to give you objective reporting, and another kind of media, which overheats the atmosphere, turning news into entertainment."

He admits, of course, that "there's always been an entertainment aspect to news. As George Clooney's film Good Night, and Good Luck shows, when Edward R. Murrow wasn't going after McCarthy, he was interviewing Liberace. But that kind of dumbing down has been ratcheted up in the past decade by the explosion of all kinds of electronic media."

"Weapons of mass distraction," Rich called the products of this new media marketplace, giving credit for the pun to "one of my favorite writers from L.A., Larry Gelbart." That phrase implies a level of intention. Does he think there's a conscious attempt by media companies to keep audiences and readers so distracted by tabloid news, celebrity titillation, and political shouting matches that they never ask more serious questions of their elected leaders? Or is this just a case of untrammeled media supply meeting insatiable lowest-common-denominator demand, which happens to converge with the wishes of the powerful to remain unaccountable?

"The jury is out," Rich said. "I would argue it's probably a bit of both. But convergence is the more likely scenario. The consolidation of the media plays a role, and we're still learning to what extent the interest of media companies determines this."

Rich works for a media company that has sustained some blows to its integrity, from the Jayson Blair scandal to the Judith Miller saga. More recently, the Times' introduction of TimeSelect, a paid subscription service that charges $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year for op-eds that were formerly available for free, including Rich's, has generated its share of controversy.

"TimeSelect was a business decision—no writer was consulted on that," Rich said. "It's way too early to tell whether it's successful or not. I approve of the principle. Organizations like The New York Times, which spend an extraordinary amount of money on news reporting, have to figure out a way to pay for that. If the Times can't have any income, then we'll just have bloggers. There's nothing wrong with blogs, but on the other hand if we don't have extensive reporting, we're not doing our job."

One medium that consistently rises to the occasion despite long financial odds is the theater. Even on the heavily commercialized and corporatized Broadway circuit, losing money is the norm, not the exception. It's no surprise, then, that the stage is still one place that alternative voices emerge.

"If you look at history of American theater, it has always—more perhaps than any other form in America—been activist at times of national trauma," Rich said. "In the 1930s, during the Depression, the Group Theatre and Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre did very political theatre, not only about the economic situation but about race and the rise and fascism. And way before Hollywood started doing it, issues like Vietnam were raised on Broadway. It happened again with the AIDS epidemic, which was particularly traumatic for the theatre. That was one of the things I noticed when I started reviewing theater: The people I covered were literally dying, and the theater responded."

Now, with another unpopular war in the headlines, theater is responding with everything from the Off-Broadway revue Bush Is Bad to David Hare's Iraq-themed Stuff Happens. One reason for the proliferation of topical theater is practical: "The theater has less of a development process. You can pull the trigger faster with a play than you can by making a movie or writing a novel."

The other reason is one this professional opinion shaper can admire unreservedly.

"In none of these periods has the theater changed the world," Rich said. "What's moving about it is that theater people tried to use it to change the world. That impulse seems not to die."

Apr 30, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 2: Major-Minor "Mbombela"

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear.

With the music I cherish most, it’s the sound that matters first and above all. I don’t just mean sound in the purely aural sense—i.e., the timbre of the instruments, the resonance of the voices, the dynamics and tone and pitch. These are not unimportant. But harmonic content is the real substance of music to me—the chords, basically, and the mysterious ways they work together to create something more than the sum of their notes. Harmony is as elemental to the meaning and potency of music as color and shape are to visual art, or time and space are to theatre and film, and it is the thing my ear, and my soul, most hungrily seeks out and clings to. The unique harmonic sound worlds of Weill and Ravel, for instance, are what put them at the top of my pantheon, as much or more than their brilliant orchestrations or compositional technique. And harmonic fluency or daring or pungency, whatever you want to call it, are what draw me, initially and decisively, into the orbit of any artist, whether it’s Joni or Jobim, Rameau or Rihanna.

All of which is preamble to attempt to explain my abiding love for “Mbombela,” the opening track on the 1965 collection An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. I happened upon this as an LP in the wake of Paul Simon’s ecstatic Graceland tour, which was arguably as important as the record itself, as it introduced his fans (including me) to two South African musical giants, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba. An Evening is misleadingly titled, as it’s not a live record and features only two duets between Belafonte and Makeba, who mostly offer reverent solo renditions of traditional tunes in Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, and Swahili, backed by choral arrangements not unlike the isicathamiya later made popular by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. “Mbombela” is one of the duets, which means it has harmony in a more basic sense—that of two voices entwined.

The song also has an intrinsic harmonic power both delicate and searing. One key reason it stands out is in its departure from the mostly-major-key world of popular and traditional South African music. (I remember Paul Simon telling the slightly condescending but apparently true story of how guitarist Ray Phiri introduced a relative minor chord into the song “Graceland,” a rarity in South African music, in an imitation of something he’d heard in Simon’s other music.) "Mbombela" starts with an achingly subtle guitar ostenato that hovers with a ghostly glow throughout, with four chords topped by a D: G9 (essentially Dm over a G), a Csus2, G9 again, and a D major.

Over that Belafonte begins with a 7-note melody marked out mostly in fourths, at the heart of which is a very strange, almost microtonal shift from Bb, which over the G chord forms a minor-key sound, to A, over the C chord—a 6th interval that evokes C’s relative minor (Am). Sixths are famously smudgy, ambiguous chords; they were a favorite Weill’s and are a tic of Elvis Costello’s, among countless others (as I detailed in this post). Between that odd G-minor over a G9 in the guitar, slipping into a C6 (with a discordant D, or suspended 2nd, atop it), we’re already in thick harmonic territory.

When Makeba comes in, she sings a lot of fourths and fifths over Belafonte—bright, splintery intervals that catch in the ear. And then, her keening rasp complementing his duskier rasp, she both sweetens and sharpens that minor-major chord change, singing a B natural over Harry’s D, for a sunny major G chord, only to drop to the G over his Bb, a passing minor cloud, but oh what a mark it leaves. Her final slide down to an F gives us a glimpse of G7, but then hangs over the next chord, creating the sound of a C11 (or, more precisely, with Belafonte’s A and the D suspended over the C in the guitar part, something like a D-minor chord over a C). That is some seriously stacked harmony! And damn if it doesn’t wound the ear in the best possible way.

I knew that “Mbombela” meant “Train Song,” because the record sleeve said so and you can hear it plainly in the chugging rhythms and the “Shuku, shuku, shuku” refrain and the winding accordion solo—this is literally a “choo choo” song. But it’s not a cheery railroad chanty but a version of “Wenyuk’umbombela,” a protest song by Welcome Duru about the trains that carried migrant workers long distances to work in apartheid South Africa. And while I discovered many other lovely renditions online, none has quite the intoxicating chord voicings of the Belafonte/Makeba version. My research tells me I should attribute these to arranger Jonas Gwangwa, who clearly resonated with the aching melancholy of the song’s lament, “The train is departing,” and found an ideal musical—which is to say a harmonic—expression for it.

Apr 22, 2020

The Private Canon, Vol. 1: Ven Bernabe y Lamento Jarocho

Cross-posted from my music blog Train My Ear

In my decades of listening to and thinking about, and occasionally making, music, I’ve had some widely shared crushes and obsessions (Beatles, Jimi, Eilish) and joined plenty of fervent cults (Yes, Costello, Sondheim). But I’ve also developed what I think of as my private canon—deep cuts or relative obscurities that I rank among my favorites but which don’t seem commensurately well known or highly acclaimed. Tunes like Peggy Lee’s “Sans Souci” or Dylan’s “No Time to Think,” or the Harry Belafonte/Miriam Makeba duet “Mbombela,” or a wild punk waltz called “Palindrome” by the Ophelias, or the entire catalogs of English guitar goddess Charlotte Hatherley or Texas gypsy jazz combo Café Noir...I could go on like this all day. These are the songs I loved putting on mixtapes for friends back in the day, songs I wish someone would make a hit by covering or dropping into a popular movie.

Or blog about. Many or most of the songs I love I couldn’t possibly get away with covering myself, and my moviemaking dreams were put out to pasture even before I finished film school 30 years ago. But I can apply my critical ear and pen to them here, as I’ve done for a series of formative album replays and other assorted music. As the hours of social isolation stretch ahead, I plan to do just that.

I’m going to start with a favorite I’ve taken for granted for 25 years and just recently made some new discoveries about—and how often can you say that about a beloved song?

I went through a Latin music phase in the early ’90s, inspired after a woman I briefly dated mentioned in passing that she liked salsa dancing. That was enough to send me to Ritmo Latino to snap up some cassettes (yes, cassettes), including some cherished Tito Puente joints and a Celia Cruz/Sonora Matancera hits collection, Tesoros Musicales. The woman and I soon parted ways, but I was left with some lifelong companions. I’ve already written about my love for Tito’s Tambo, but the Cruz/Matancera tape had a lot of great stuff on it too (“Pulpa de Tamarindo” is a particular favorite). For me the real keeper, by a long shot, is “Ven Bernabe,” three-and-a-half minutes of mysterious perfection, alternately sinuous and punchy, with the rhythmic equivalent of an earworm in its title phrase—a hard clave variation with its strongest accent on the 4—and a resolute refusal for much of the song to land on a strong downbeat. Though it has the horn blasts of classic son montuno and the angular piano filigree of Latin jazz, they don’t follow the usual patterns, to my ears at least; they keep eluding capture, even as they spin their own fascinating nets. This persists even after something curious happens exactly halfway through, at 1:45: The song shifts down to a slower gear for some ballad-like verses, only returning to the springy opening riff for the last 20 seconds or so. Before we go any further, here it is:

Until last week I hadn’t looked under the hood of the song or checked its lyrics. I discovered that it first appeared in 1959 on the album Cuba’s Foremost Rhythm Singer, and that it is not one song at all but a mashup of two: “Ven Bernabe,” by Santiago Ortego Gonzalez, a Cuban composer who also wrote another Cruz/Matancera song, “De Cuba A Mexico”; and “Lamento Jarocho,” a bolero by the legendary Mexican troubadour Agustín Lara.

Mexico is a relevant connection here, as well as what I would call a certain race consciousness. While “Ven Bernabe” seems to be about an ornery malcontent who’s broken up a “fiesta” of “los negros” (the “barracon” to which the singer calls him was a term for barracks holding Black slaves), “Lamento Jarocho” is an ode to the “bronze race” of Veracruz, who perhaps not coincidentally gave Mexico its preeminent folk music, son jarocho. Lara’s lament is far more sympathetic than the harsh street cry of “Bernabe,” lifting up an “an entire race full of bitterness” that is nevertheless “born brave” enough to “suffer all (their) misadventures.” While I’m not versed enough in Latin American colorism or the intra-racial dialogue around Celia Cruz’s Afro-Cuban heritage to speak of this authoritatively, there is clearly a Gulf-of-Mexico exchange, a bit of folkloric cross-representation, going on in the marriage of these two songs, and it goes deeper than its musical stylings. You can get some sense of it here, in a later concert Cruz did in Mexico with the Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco. When she breaks into “Lamento” (at 2:00), you can hear applause of recognition from the Mexican audience:

Throughout a career spent mostly in post-revolutionary exile from her native Cuba, Cruz was a kind of ambassador of the Americas—not only of music from Cuba, but of sounds circulating around the Gulf of Mexico from throughout and within the African Diaspora, fused with Indigenous and colonial musics—and in this sense she was clearly one of the great American artists. It turns out that “Ven Bernabe” isn’t just a banger that happened to catch my ear—it may be among the finest artifacts of that unique ambassadorship.

In my research I turned up this great broadcast version:

I was able to find only one recording of “Ven Bernabe” by itself, without “Lamento Jarocho” fused to it, from a 1981 record by Leo Soto:

This cover of the Cruz/Matanera arrangement, by Federic y Su Combo, embellishes both the piano and vocal parts, divertingly if with diminishing returns:

As for “Lamento Jarocho,” this is the lachrymose Lara original:

And a popular, big-bandish version by Toña La Negra:

Bringing it full circle, this “Lamento” by Orquesta Aragón is strongly in the Cruz/Matancera vein. "De Cuba A Mexico" indeed:

Nov 6, 2019

“The haunting nature of an idea, vehemently expressed”: The complete Will Arbery interview

Will Arbery (photo by Korde Tuttle)

Like August: Osage County, Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning is much, much better than its clunky title. Also like August it’s a veritable feast of a play about a white American family, drawn intimately from its author’s life and observations, though in this case it’s not primarily a blood-related family he puts onstage. Instead he sets it on the back porch and yard of a home in Wyoming, where four 20-something alums of a Catholic college there meet up after a party to compare notes on how they’re faring, and their erstwhile professor, Ginawho is based on Arbery’s mom, Virginia Arbery, an actual professor at Wyoming Catholic Collegeshows up later on to take stock. Danya Taymor’s production at Playwrights Horizons has been justly lauded for its peerless cast and tonal range, which encompasses high-flown debates, fugue-like flights of language, bristling sexual tension, and as much political and theological grist as any play since Kushner was in his heyday.

I sat down a few weeks ago with Arbery for this story in America magazine. Like many Catholics who’ve seen and enjoyed his play, my America editors hoped I would suss out Arbery’s own religious and political commitments. Though he wouldn’t reveal them to me (a liberal Protestant, for the record), we nevertheless had a rich conversation about his work and his relationship to the white, conservative, Catholic culture in which he was raised.

The following interview has been edited and condensed (but only slightly!) for clarity. Not sufficiently conveyed here: the laughter that punctuated much of the conversation, even or especially on the most serious topics.

I know you grew up in Texas. Which part? Was it Plano?
That’s an unfortunate thingpeople assume I’m from Plano now because I wrote that play. I grew up in Oakcliff in Dallas. Where are you from?

I’m from Phoenix. And just to lay my cards on the table in regard to themes we’re going to talk about: I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran, which is basically evangelical-adjacent, politically if not theologically. But then I went to Jesuit high school and had my world opened up. I didn’t become a Catholic, but I was deeply influenced by the Jesuit approach to the social gospel, and to an ethos of exploring and questioning.
That was the exact kind of Catholicism I was siphoned away from. It sounds like a Catholicism I could get behind.

How would you describe Catholicism you did grow up with?
I mean, it was Roman Catholic. It was very informed by my parents’ work. They both teach; my mom teaches political science, political philosophy, and my dad teaches literature. Both of them sort of thrive in great books curriculum. So there was a lot of literature: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, up through Melville, Faulkner. Building this Western canon.

So, a literature-steeped Catholicism. Is there a certain Catholic order or tradition your family identifies with?
We hopped around to different parishes in Dallas. I did go to a Cistercian prep school from 5th through 12th grade, run by Hungarian monks who'd fled the revolution in 1956. And their life was sort of bottled up with Bernard of Clairvaux. But my family followed the Vatican, kept up with the pope. My family were good Catholics, and were sort of skeptical of anything on the fringes, like charismatic Catholics.

Did they go so as far as preferring the Latin Mass?
My parents wouldn't take us to Latin Mass. But because my sisters all went to Catholic universities, they would have friends who were really into the Latin Mass, and they would go. My parents would be like, “Oh, I see you're going to the Latin Mass…” There were different levels of intensity, I would say.

Were they skeptical of Vatican II?
I didn't grow up with a whole lot of skepticism of Vatican II. Or if there was skepticism, they didn't convey that to us. They really followed the pope. They were non-schismatic. They were very skeptical of schisms, or any rumblings of schisms.

So mainstream Catholics, but on the conservative side. I would say that for me, the Jesuit brand of Catholicism I was exposed to was a kind of an intellectual playground where we could try out ideasit felt like it was okay to ask anything or address anything. There was total confidence that God was in charge, so we weren't threatened by atheism or pop culture or by the larger world. We could talk about it all.
I would say our Catholicism did feel a little bit more threatened by all that than what you're describing. Even in the response to this play, I'll come across responses in Catholic cultural circles, and people are looking for cluesbasically clues about my soul, I would say. The question of whether I go to Mass or not, whether I'm lapsed or not, as some sort of indication of...

Of what the play means, is trying to say.
And that sort of response, that sort of myopia, just immediately sent me back to the feeling I had in high schoolin the play I call it the panopticon, like you're being watched.

You have to declare a side.
Right, you can't just question without an initial declaration.

Which is what your character Kevin tries to say to Gina, the professor: You say you want us to question, but you all want us to come to the same conclusion, really.
Right, so any sniff of not getting to that conclusionthe questioning actually gets shut down and the debate stops, because suddenly the unholy has entered the sphere, the secular has entered it somehow. At a certain point I remember feeling very lonely in my questioning. Which is inevitable for anyone.

The feeling that people want to know about your soulit's touching in a way, but also a little scary. When I read Rod Dreher’s piece about your play in The American Conservative, it really reminded me of the way people who have long felt underrepresented onstagepeople of color, gay people, immigrants, trans people, people of lesser economic meansthe way they respond when a good play is written about them, by someone who’s part of their culture. They feel very represented, they feel seen. There's a version of that happening with conservatives and Catholics and your play.
This is something I've been thinking about a lot. First of all, I have to say: I can't help but point out that there is a bit of irony in this thrill of representation from people who tend to be either mildly or vocally annoyed when other kinds of representation happen. And I think it's a little overblown, the idea that these are characters we never see. We've seen so many Catholics and so many Christians, and so many conservativesthey have been represented for a long time. I think that something else is happening here that goes beyond representation. That's why I sort of still feel called to exist in this spacemy mom called it the fissure space. I am in that fissure space right now, and I feel responsibility toit's weird, I feel called to deny both sides a full, complete understanding ofyeah, my soul. Because both sides are clawing for it, like, what does he think?

I wonder if I could ask how much calculation you put into which arguments go into which character’s mouth, and what tone they take. The pro-life argument that Teresa makes, for instance, sounded so strident to my ears, but Rod Dreher quoted it approvingly in his article.
I think that gets to the heart of what is actually going on with this piece. It's basically a mirror. In their responses to it, people reveal themselves. It's as much about what they don't object to as what they do, and as much about what they notice as what they don't. I think what's happening, in large part because of Teresa, is that things are getting said more bluntly than they usually get said. And whether that thrills you or terrifies you says more about you than it does about me.

Your play does feel like a big idea play, where people argue out their differences. A lot of plays I admire, by Shaw or Brecht or Kushner, say, are polemical plays, dialectical plays, where even though they take in many points of view, what they’ve done in part is built an argument. You've portrayed an argument, certainly, but is your play making an argument?
If it is, it's an argument for something more mysterious. Maybe the simplest way to put it is that it's an argument for listening. But the play was designed to linger in people's minds long after they saw it, to create conversations that couldn't be resolved in one post-show drink. I'm not providing a diagnosis, I'm not providing an answeryou won't find an easily articulable conclusion. But that's not to say that I don't think that there's a real shape to it. It goes beyond words for me, but I feel itI feel the shape of that piece. I know how it's working viscerally. Even with the arguments, I'm not someone who likes arguing.

I like listening. And I'm interested in the animal nature of debate and the way ideas can take over a body, and what talking for a long time very fast does to a body, what listening does to a body. These are the things that interest me more, and I sort of have to cultivate a level of delight and curiosity in the nuances of these ideas that hadn't really been there before. My goals with this play were more primal than they were intellectual, at least at first.

Still, you put a lot of meat on the table with this play. And folks like Tony Kushner, who also have characters arguing all sides of things onstage, are pretty clear about their politics outside their work. I’m not trying to pin you down too hard here, Will. But the magazine I’m writing for wants me to at least ask where you stand.
I guess I just wonder what that question...I'm just so suspicious of it.

Do you identify as a Catholic person?
I don't think I have any choice.

Another way to address this: With many plays based on a playwright’s life or worldview, you can often tell which character onstage sort of stands in for them. With yours, I really didn’t feel like any of them were you.
No, they're not.

So you really were a listener.
I think that if you are a listener, truly, and you're listening more than you're talking, and if you don't want the focus to be on you that much, it's inevitable, I think, that… (15-second pause.) I think that listening is what I'm offering to everyone, and arguing for. Catholic conservatives ignore that call at their own peril, that's how I feel about it. And that's how I always felt growing up; there wasn't enough listening to what the other side was actually saying.

Right. When you say this play is in favor of listening, we liberal New York theatergoers receive that as, "Oh, you mean we have to listen to all these conservatives." But you also mean they're not listening to each other, or to the world outside their bubble.
Yeah. I would almost argue that progressive publications are modeling a better kind of listening than is happening at conservative publications. Why can't conservative publications go see A Strange Loop with the same level of openness and willingness to be challenged that progressives had going to my play?

It’s a fair point. But I think the conservative response is, they’re already inundated with culture they feel is hostile to their values.
But are they really? Everyone's inundated. We live in a beautifully complicated world, and there are so many people in it. I think what's happening when they say that is, they're not being inundated by the people, they're being inundated by what they see as an agenda, and they're not actually listening. Those things that they're supposedly being inundated with are being categorized before they even have a chance to be observed by the viewer's soul.

Right, there’s a feeling of threat, that if you let in too many ideas, if you're open to all that, it’s a slippery slope. Why go see a play in which gay people are fully human characters if you already have decided, and have an ostensible faith commitment, that says they can’t be?
I would just sayI mean, I get it. That just sounds like fear to me. It doesn't sound like an actual Christian mode of being. Aren't we supposed to care about each other? I don't know. I mean, I know very intimatelythey worry that an agenda is being forced upon them, that they are being forced to, as it says in the play, not just tolerate but affirm something they think will ultimately lead to the destruction and collapse of their faith and the institution. Sort of like "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie."

But really, how strong is your faith if you feel it can't withstand the world it’s supposed to be saving? If it can’t face the world, what is it even for?
This is part of what has been sowhat you're witnessing in real time right now is part of what has been the entirety of my life, this sort of toggling back and forth between these two ways of seeing the world. That's probably why I get so touchy about the church question, because it seems to me that whatever I answer, it's: “Okay, if he's arguing for listening, if he's someone who apparently listens, let's see how that filters into his life.”

John Zdrojeski, Jeb Kreager, and Zoe Winters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

One thing Tim Sanford thought I should ask you: You’re 30 now, and this is based on conversations that must go back many years. So why this play now?
It just takes a while. The first full-length play I ever wrote was about a priest going to confession, and the arc of that piece was this very torturous process of him finally just saying the words, "I'm a homosexual," and all the ways he dances around it and distracts from it, diverts from it. So I've been interested in writing about Catholics and those structures from the very beginning.

I think this play was something I had in me. It really came out of my experiences growing up in the house that I did, where they would always have students over. But also going to the boys school that I did, and the experience of sitting around a firepit late at night and hearing the competitive one-upmanship of provocative conservative ideas. To be honest, the initial idea that this play came from was going to be something called Douchebag, about just a bunch of guys sitting around and saying these horrible things. It took years for it to dawn on me that the much more provocative idea was to approach it with significantly more grace and love. And yet that feeling was what I was after, of sitting in the dark, and what the darkness does to an idea and the way it floats above your head and sort of oozes into your bodythe haunting feeling of that. The haunting nature of an idea, vehemently expressed. 

Hauntingthat’s a good segue to ask you about the supernatural elements in your work. There are a lot in Plano. In this one there’s that loud feedback noise that comes in unexpectedly at various times. I know that Justin first says it’s his generator, then admits he has no idea why it happens. Can you talk about what that’s supposed to represent?
Just dramaturgically, that noise functions as a sort of extremely aggressive, seemingly random antagonism and contradiction. It also has the effect of yanking us out of the potential of solving this here on this night. It's like: No, you're not going to get to reach a consensus. Even if all five of you got really close to consensus, that noise would somehow come in to mess that up.

Beyond that, everything I write is a ghost story. Within an hour of people in my family getting together, at a certain point it will start becoming about ghost stories.

Literal ghost stories?
Like, truly real stories, things that we've experienced. Stories from people that we know; this thing that happened that we can't explain. It's such a part of the fabric of the way that we communicate and love each otherit’s through the unexplainable, through these sort of disorienting messages from an invisible world.

Are you talking about actual dead people communicating from the beyond, or synchronistic coincidences, or what?
The noise in the play for me is the perfect example of something thatyou know, when my sisters or parents saw that, they didn't bat an eye. It's like, “Yeah, that checks out.” The example in Plano would be the red ribbon that sinks down the staircase. It's a real thing that happened in my family: It was going down step by step, tracing the outline of the staircase, in a way that just didn’t make sense. That's sort of links back to Emily's thing at the end, when she says, "We love pain, we love it." It hurts us to have these things that we can't explain, but we almost don't want them explained, because we love it.

When the professor, Gina, shows up later, she looks at these four stragglers and wonders whether the college has failed in raising up good Catholics. Do you feel like it’s failed, and do you intend that as a larger critique of Catholic institutions, even the church itself? Like, is it raising good people or breaking them?
It's important to note that Emily asks that question of Justin: Are they the weird lingerers? Justin says, “I think this school makes 99 percent great people, and I’m so heartened tonight seeing how everyone ended up, happy, healthy, humble, building families.” I think there is a sense that these are four characters who, for whatever reason, are not following that very Catholic model of starting to build a family within the first couple of years of graduating undergrad. A vast majority of their classmates have started that work, and here we are with, for four very different reasons, people who have not started that family building. I would never say that that's what they should do: “Well, if they just started building families they would all be fine.” But I do think that might be what the church and the school has modeled for them. So the fact that they're not contributes to their feeling of isolation and despair, and makes their energy go into those strange other places that we see them putting it.

I think this play, which doesn't get talked about a lot, is so much about motherhood and the woman's body and the way that the church sort of has real provenance over their bodies, and the effect that that has on women. And also fatherhood, and the ways men feel called to uphold thisto be the kind of man who can build a family, who can be the strong head of the household. All of that stuff is so alive in this night, and is sort of the unspoken link between everything that they talk about and everything that they're obsessed with.

I was thinking when you said motherhood, you were talking about Gina, who’s based on your own mom and is sort of a mother figure to these four characters.
I mean, that's part of it.

But the link to the pro-life argument is what you're talking about, right?
Yeah, and the argument that Emily and Teresa have about abortion; and the conversation that Kevin and Teresa have about the Virgin Mary; and Gina's ultimate takedown of Teresa, hinging on this idea of motherhood being the way white Western civilization will continue, and the pro-life movement being linked to that. Some people have said that the play is about the dangers of repression, and I don't think that’s actually what's going on. I think the restraint in the play is actually quite charged and sexyin the room, we were like, “This restraint is so hot.” I think it's actually more about the fear and the desire of creating a family and that level of commmitment. What are you willing to die for? What are you willing to put your body on the line for? Obviously Teresa has taken up this idea of a coming war, and she's using that language. I'm not saying Gina is right when she says, “You're turning your fear of motherhood into false machismo.” But I think that for them, the standards and expectations that they're living underthat's what's happening with these people.

So are you personally pro-life?
Well... (11-second pause.) I don't want to make it that easy for people. Look, I grew up with seven sisters. And this is what I'll say: My work is so much about women trapped in and upholding a system that's designed to limit their autonomy. Part of the reason I don't want to lay out really clearly, tempting though it might be, what my positions are and what my personal life is like is that part of what this play is trying to do is to topple some of our dependency on that as experiencers of art in this day. Can we get back to a place where we're experiencing the thing itself on its own terms, rather than looking to the creator for clues about where exactly it stands politically, and whether it falls into some sort of party line?

Susannah Flood, Crystal Finn, and Miriam Silverman in Plano. (Photo by Elke Young)

Did you ever consider the preisthood?
My mom certainly wanted me to become a priest.

I know firsthand that any serious, bookish, religious boy gets told that they should consider some sort of pastoral calling.
I never seriously considered it. But there have been times when I've thought it would be great to have that structure.

Was there a point after Catholic high school that you started to question your faith, or see other alternatives? Was it at Kenyon College?
No, I would say that happened before. I became an enormous film buff, starting in eighth grade. It was the Criterion Collection and Roger Ebert's great movies books and Pauline Kael. It was cinema.

Why did you end up writing plays? Do you want to write movies and TV as well?
I do want to. Plays I didn't quite anticipate. It was sort of spiritual. It was a charge in the room, and an experience of breath, and sort of a challenging calmlike, the event of calming down and listening did actually have a real sort of primal recurrence in my body. It reminded me of Mass. I just felt totally drawn: I have to be a part of that. I was acting and directing, and I'd been writing the whole time, I really wanted to be a writer and couldn't find a way to make it all fit. And then when I started writing my first plays, everything fit together. I also just felt like, to be honest, it was the hardest one. That's the hardest one to pull off. So if I can do that...

It's a fundamental craft. I have had great communal experiences in a movie theater, though that’s really about the audience, not primarily what’s onscreen.
Yeah, I've had great experiences in a movie theater. But something about theater for meit’s, yeah, I'm writing, but more than that I'm creating an experience. It's entirely about, what are we going to do to the people that come into that room?

Does your family like the play?
Yeah. What I said to them was, this was a really difficult offering, but thank you for receiving it. It is ultimately a gift. But it's a difficult gift. My dad said he felt a little soul-scouredthat was the word he used. Which...I'm not trying to scour anyone's soul!

Do you think your play gave him that panopticon feeling you mentioned earlier?
Yeah, I do think that my parents were a little taken aback at how closely I'd been watching and listening.

I’ve read that you also shared a draft with them before they saw it.
Yes. I shared a draft with them.

Did they give you feedback, or ask you to change things?
There were references or ways that I could make it deeper that proved really helpful.

So they were good literary notes, not so much personal objections.
They had questions around how much whiteness gets talked about. I think that that's been really interesting. It's been something we've started to be able to talk about a little bit.

I know that Vinson Cunningham keyed in on how some of the arguments hinge on race, and I guess this is a matter of, like you said, earlier, what you see and what you don't see. I did not hear race as a major theme in the playor perhaps I just factor that in as part of the noise of our current conversation.
It's not to say that it's the whole thing. But I will say in terms of, what's different about this night? One of the things that's really different about this night is that Teresa is talking about this, and it's something that doesn't get talked about and wouldn't get talked about in those circles. She's broaching it in a way that indicates that she has thought really deeply into it from the other side, as a progressive, so when she's talking there's a fugue state that she almost goes intoand it's why Gina says, “You're one of them.” Because she’s seeing things from that perspective in a way that seems like the ultimate violation.

You mean the speech where Teresa says, “You call us racist, we'll call you racist. You call us white, we’ll call you black.”
And everything she says before that too. The way she's bringing up Pat Buchanan and Barry Goldwater, and saying, “Look, [race] is what it's always been about in [progressives'] eyes, and we have to start treating that as true.” Basically she's admitting that she has accepted the critique, and now we have to come up with our rebuttal. We can't just ignore it anymore, we can't just pretend that it's not there, that it's going away.

But is she embracing the full white supremacist agenda?
She's not quite doing that, but she's saying that she sees their logic and has not found a way to rebut it, and is sort of owning that, yes, we are trying to save white Western civilization; we don't want our civilization to collapse. That's where motherhood comes back in, because in a sense each woman becomes a warrior for that cause and the man has to be strong for civilization to survive.

Zoe Winters and Michelle Pawk in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. (Photo by Sara Krulwich/NY Times)

You know, for several decades there has been the understanding from white Christians of conscience that the right thing to do is to not think in terms of color, to think we're all the same, we're all in this together. I would argue, one of my main arguments would be, that no, in fact, the Christian thing to do is to acknowledge your whiteness in this country and to spend some time thinking about what that means, and how that affects your fellow citizens. It's a very simple proposal, but it's one that makes people very uncomfortable. There's a sense in which we should feel very energized and comfortable in navigating that level of guiltinherited guilt is sort of the name of the game, and yet there's a way in which that's sort of pushed down. I would just challenge everyone to ask, why? Why can't we talk about this? Why can't we refer to ourselves as white? What are we afraid will happen when we do that?

These are all things I'm going to be writing about for a long time. There are a lot questions. Part of the reason I don't want come down too clearly in terms of my own identity is that I really hope to have the ear of both sides, as much as I can. Who knows? Maybe I'll get really sick of writing about, you know, things of this world. I might just want to write a mystery. But right now I want to be able to navigate both worlds. It feels really important.

You don’t want to be pegged as a conservative writer, a progressive writer.
That also links back to the "we love pain" speech that Emily has. So many of us claim to wish that things weren't such a binary, that there weren't these clear lines in the sand. And yet we love that battle, it's such a symbiotic relationship. So much of who we are now is defined by what we’re not: "At least I'm not them, not like that." I think really all I'm trying to do is to blur those lines a little bit. I think it makes people really uncomfortable, but all that it is is love. There's a real desperately dangerous lack of love happening right now. The nation doesn't love itself, and we don't love each other. We love our factions, we love our tribes, but we don't love each other.

What you said earlier about inherited guilt reminded me that we often talk about slavery as America’s “original sin.” But if Christians took that analogy seriously we would own that it’s in us, like sinthat we’ll never fully overcome it and must constantly be repenting for it.
Exactly. All I'm asking is that we look at it with the same level of humility that we look at original sin in the religious context, if that's what you believe. 

Your play doesn't go directly into the red/blue arguments we seem to be having every day, but it does capture the feelings I know I feel when I’m arguing with my red-state family and friends. Like, does someone need to win this argument? Can we still love each other when we disagree so much? You’ve put these arguments at a slight remove, in a world that feels a little exotic for most audiences, especially New York audiences, but it’s captured with such specificity that it really feels immediate.
In sixth grade, I remember my favorite teacher at the school walked in, and before he said anything, he just wrote in chalk on the board, in big cursive, "Attention to detail is the key to success." As soon as I saw that, I thought, that's what I'm gonna dojust be really, really detailed, because I think in that specificity is where you find...

They also say "God is in the details."
So that's the answer to, "Do you go to church?" God is in the details.