I can make an endless list of musicals adapted from classic fictions: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Plautus's Pseudolus), Man of La Mancha (Don Quixote), Les Miserables; Notre Dame de Paris; Le Petite Prince…the list goes on. The use of literature is nothing new to theatre, and it's also a medium that can be used to present to an audience with some of today's most current issues. Why are Shakespeare and Shaw still relevant in 21st century? What's the role of theatre activism?
In a sun-lit café in downtown Hartford, as I chatted with Broadway actress Chilina Kennedy (Jesus Christ Superstar), I felt as though we touched upon something important. Chilina has an impressive list of credits in musical adaptation of literature: West Side Story, Lord of the Rings, and now, the recent world premiere of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder: an Edwardian period musical based on Israel Rank: The Autobiography of A Criminal (Roy Horniman).
"The creators of the musical tried to lighten the story up," Chilina said. "We gave ourselves creative license to make it whimsical [even though] it's about murder." Chilina explained how Monty, the anti-hero, killed to climb the social ladder: "He's fighting a class war and it's obviously relevant in today's society. There are always people destroying others to get to the top."
If Monty's story is a reflection of our society through a historical scope, then updating a classic story is a more direct "smack in the face" of reality. "That's why people always update Shakespeare," Chilina contemplated. "[He was] centuries ahead of his time. He understood and wrote about human conditions that most didn't know how to communicate. Take Romeo and Juliet: it'll always be one of the most relevant stories of all time." Indeed, this star-crossed pair traced all the way back to Pyramus and Thisbe, and up to 1960s' youth gangs in West Side Story. She mentioned the issue of teen suicides as well as the recent shootings in Toronto. "It's about love conquering all, through which we must understand what is keeping people apart and how can we cross the boundaries. I think good art is always about social issues."
Of course, those socially relevant stories come in different forms. Some are mythical and speak to us in metaphors. Chilina saw Lord of the Rings as a huge statement about war. "It's a archetypical theme about how we overcome hardship and rise above, and the smallest among us doing the greatest good," she said. "A hobbit saving an entire creation…it's beautiful."
A theatre is where you can immerse yourself in a fictional universe while discovering the truth of the world we live in. "One of the jobs we have to do is to reach out and educate people about reality," Chilina said, remembering how Steinbeck used The Grapes of Wrath as an educational device to show the audience the problems of migrant workers. "They were abused and taken advantage of in the fields. It's important to give [the audience] more information, such us pamphlets of what's happening in Canada, because it's easier to believe it to be a period play and ignore the existing problems because it's comfortable to sit in the darkness. There's much more potential for activism in art and I feel the responsibility to change people's lives."
Being the latest Mary Magdalene on Broadway[in Jesus Christ Superstar], Chilina has done a lot of research on that legendary woman. "Of course it could be daunting to make her mainstream," she said, expressing the wish of having more female leads in theatre. "We see strong female Shakespearean characters [who] often had to be in male clothing [in order to] step center stage," she said."[P]owerful women in society sometimes act masculine instead of being themselves. We don't need feel that way, but rather should share our values and energy."
Change! Progress is all we need.
"That's why we have to make the stories current," Chilina said. "Art reflects society, [so]we can use it to get the message out."
In his Diary of a Madman, Lu Xun called traditional Chinese society an inescapable iron house without windows. "Does force of habit blind a man to what's wrong?" he asked. "Change!" he called out over and over. His satirical response to a viciously obstinate Asian society is more than a regionally specific piece. "Change!" is the calling of all artists with the strongest will to show the truth, pounding on the iron houses around the world, trying to wake up those still in dreams.