Back in college when I lived in the dorm, my house made a point of mounting the occasional expedition to a concert or a show, as an exercise in both giving us some culture and getting us out of the books for an evening. As my house here seems to be increasingly emulating the best aspects of that old place (the communal cooking being another prime symptom), we've been making sporadic forays to take in live music of various sorts. In our most ambitious outing to date, last weekend we took the State Theater by storm and partook of Avenue Q.
This is the second time I've seen this particular piece of theater (my sister, awesome girl that she is, took me to see it on Broadway a couple of years back when I was visiting her in NYC), and I would say that it holds up well. The roommates all found it hilarious, each seemed to associate a little too well with at least one song1, and I must say that muppet sex is less awkward with roommates than the baby sister.
Last time I was having too much fun with the novelty to give it much deep thought. This time I left with the nagging concern that the message of the show is a bit too pro-status quo for my tastes. In one sense this is understandable: the core audience is post-collegiate but still young enough to remember, or still inhabit, their years of passionate idealism. For them the show is either a poignant reminder, or a helpful warning, of the painful letdowns and compromises involved in navigating from that place into a real, mundane life. A "BA in English" and strong desire to save the world will not, in general or by themselves, go very far towards paying the bills.
However, the uncomfortable feeling remains that, in laying on the theme as thickly as it does (and in resorting to such a blatant deus ex porn-magnate machina to contrive a happy ending), the show winds up over-fertilizing the very attitudes that lead from wry detachment to ironic disengagement to political apathy, social resignation, and voting Republican. That all our troubles (even George Bush) are "only for now" is cold comfort when you're seeding the logic that brings many of them about -- and implying that the best strategy is to just wait them out and make do for yourself. Idealism, in this show, is a fast track to poverty and dejection.
But the major theme of Avenue Q isn't idealism so much as happiness. Here, the old maxim certainly seems to apply that "most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be." With the caveat that a sufficient run of misfortune will get most anybody down, of course. That said, it's significant that the two characters who are closest to sublime fulfillment at the final curtain are the Republican investment banker (who just adds a modicum of tolerance to his life) and the idealist who is gifted a million bucks to make her vision come true. Otherwise, the surest road to contentment is not to stress about other people too much -- use a little friendly stereotyping to help everyone get along, use other folks' suffering as a pick-me-up, even use your own generosity primarily as an antidepressant.
The loophole in this whole argument, of course, comes back to the audience. Targeted at the generation of irony, it's impossible these days to lay anything on that thick and be taken seriously. With any luck, the remaining idealists in the audience will leave the theater thinking, well fine, but surely I can do better than those losers!
1 Pretty much in the ways you'd expect, too. The Americorp volunteer with boy troubles: "I'm kinda pretty and pretty damn smart / I like romantic things like music and art / ... So why don't I have a boyfriend!? F#*@ it sucks to be me!"
The variably employed artist: "What do you do with a BA in English? / What is my life meant to be? / Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge / have earned me this useless degree!"
The one with the boyfriend who's afraid of commitment and currently in China: "The more you love someone / the more you want to kill him. / The more you love someone / the more you want him dead!"