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background and analysis by Scott Miller
Back in the late 1960s, with the profits from their hits The Fantasticks and I Do! I Do!, lyricist/bookwriter Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt opened the Portfolio Studio in New York, in which they could experiment with the modern musical as an art form, away from the economic pressures of Broadway and off Broadway. Their first experiment there, in 1968, was a ritual based musical called Celebration, inspired by an ancient Sumerian ritual play (no kidding), an allegory in which the villain Edgar Allan Rich (not only a pretty funny pun of a name but also a parody of the widely despised producer David Merrick) and the hero, Orphan, go to battle over the not so angelic heroine Angel.
Celebration is really unique among musicals, more adult (at the time), more cynical, more R-rated, and yet still so magic and so joyful. There are lots of laughs, but they bite.
Schmidt and Jones had been working on the show off and on, since The Fantasticks had opened in 1960, but kept putting it aside for other projects. Two of their earlier projects, Ratfink and The Bone Room, "contained the genesis and inspiration for Celebration," according to Tom Jones. Full of masks and symbolic props, Celebration was inspired by Peter Brookís work in England, combining ritual or "holy" theatre with street theatre and populist theatre.
The showís reception was widely varied. Some found it pretentious, while others thought it was terribly sophisticated. It opened on Broadway in January 1969. John Chapman, in the Daily News, called it "a hapless, helpless, hopeless little musical charade. It tries to be cute and smart but it just isnít. It is sticky and icky." Critic Martin Gottfried wrote, "Though Celebration seems highly experimental when compared to other Broadway musicals, itís not because the show is so fresh but rather because Broadwayís are so archaic that anything even eight years out of date will seem inventive."
But Clive Barnes in the New York Times gave the showís creators credit for what they were attempting: "Once upon a time Ė for this is a fable Ė a man called Tom Jones and a man called Harvey Schmidt sat down and pondered. They pondered and they pondered. They pondered on what was wrong with the Broadway musical, and they decided (at least this would be my guess) that it lacked simplicity, magic and uplift. Last night the curtain rose on their Celebration, which might be thought of as unpretentiously pretentious fairy tale for adults." Later in the review Barnes wrote, "Yet undoubtedly they do want to introduce a new look into the Broadway musical, and Celebration is a musical with a certain style of its own. Sophisticated Ė even knowing Ė perhaps is the best inclusive term for Schmidtís music."
But instead of moving from the 100-seat Portfolio to a mid-sized off Broadway theatre, the producers took the show straight to Broadway where it seems to have been accidentally transformed by its surroundings, and where it just could not sustain its magic. It closed after only 110 performances.
But the show still made its mark. The Portfolio was home to a very new process in creating musicals Ė the workshop process that would become more common a decade later after A Chorus Line found major commercial success using it. In fact, perhaps the only thing that killed Celebration was putting it in a theatre that was too big for it. Also, Celebrationís sense of style and look presaged some of the more successful musicals of the following decades, most notably Julie Taymorís The Lion King. During the 1970s, the Portfolio financed (with profits from The Fantasticks) a series of small musicals, all minimalist, all happily free of the constraints and limitations of Broadway.
More than anything else, Celebration celebrated the act of theatre, the communal ritual itself. Itís really about storytelling, about why we tell stories, why we need stories. Itís about the most primal kind of theatre. The show starts with a monologue by our host, the Loki-like Potemkin:
In ancient days, in Winter,
But take away the artistry, Tom Jonesí beautiful-ugly, deliciously smartass dialogue and lyrics, and Harvey Schmidtís luscious, rowdy, jazz-rock music, take away all the dressing, and at its heart Celebration is about a rich guy who canít get an erection.
Of course, along the way the show explores two fundamental worldviews, one focused on material gain and comfort, "success," power, control, safety; and the other focused on the joy and mystery of the journey of a human life, the surprise, the fun, the passion, the music, the life of a human life.
Celebration is a wonderful, though perhaps accidental, companion piece to Zorba, both shows about embracing all that life brings to us, not just the happy and the easy, but all of it, summer, winter, autumn, and spring. Both stories are about accepting our path for what it is. Zorba opened in November 1968. Celebration opened on Broadway in January 1969. There must have been something in the air. The legendary concept musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris explored many of the same themes, opening a year before Celebration. A few years later, both Pippin and, arguably, Follies, wondered many of the same things.
Maybe these times we live in are another of those periods in American history when unfettered capitalism has caused lots of collateral damage, and we wonder aloud as a culture if the love of money really is, after all, the root of all evil, if success might be defined better by measures other than dollars (as Michelle Obama once argued), and if we have come to admire the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
After all, money is power, and power corrupts.
So Celebration is sort of about Erectile Dysfunction, but itís also about a lot more than that.
Something Deep Inside
Weirdly enough, Celebration is a primal ritual drama about Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love, sex, and wisdom, re-enacting the ritual of the hieros gamos, or Sacred Marriage, which takes place during the New Year Festival, symbolizing the union of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar and her lover Dumuzi. Doesnít that sound like a great idea for a musical comedy?
Though Inanna and Dumuzi are surely more an inspiration for the story rather than its source material. Celebration is really more a classical Hero Myth story, isnít it?
Well, except the obvious hero figure, Orphan, isnít really the protagonist. He doesnít learn anything or grow really. Heís a great guy when we meet him, so open and warm and sincere and guileless. And thatís also who is he is at the end. Even though Orphan fits the description of the hero in most ways, and even though heís the first character introduced to us (after the narrator) Ė and most important, even though he seems completely innocent and naive Ė heís really the Wise Wizard figure in this story, like Ben Kenobi or Glinda the Good Witch. He teaches Angel to Follow Her Bliss, just like the late great Joseph Campbell taught us.
You might expect Potemkin, our untrusty guide, to be the Wise Wizard, but no, heís the storyís Agent of Chaos, like Shakespeareís Wise Fools. The structure of a Hero Myth is here, but the roles are all jumbled around.
And in tune with the classic Hero Myth, much of the action of the show is a battle Ė both figurative and literal Ė between Orphan and the storyís Evil Wizard figure, Mr. Rich. Rich tries to lure Angel to the Dark Side, in this case, a life built upon the love of money (and we all know what thatís the root of). Orphan offers her the Light Side, not money, but Life. Literally, in the form of his garden, the oldest metaphor of them all.
But why does Angel end up with Orphan if heís really the Wise Wizard?
Because in this story, Angel is the hero, the protagonist. Sheís the one who has something to learn, who grows, who perhaps sees a different path for herself by the end, following love/sex rather than money/fame. At the beginning of the show, we might make assumptions about her because sheís an exotic dancer, because we see her almost naked in her first scene. Some among us may assume sheís a bimbo or a slut. She does her first number, about wanting fame and fortune, and we might assume sheís as vacuous as a Kardashian. But none of that is true. Itís a trap Tom Jones lays for us, to challenge our assumptions.
Angelís life goals have been taught to her by a cold, commercial, disconnected world (is it any different today from the late 1960s?). Sheís never thought to questions them Ė just like most Americans never have. She has to be awakened to these new values (kinda like The Matrix), and then make the very difficult leap to consider a wholly different worldview from the one thatís gotten her thus far. What if money doesnít equal happiness...?
Angelís quest is to find her matching other half, to de-couple from Rich and re-couple with Orphan. To do that, she must find herself. But by the end of the show, we know only that she has some new self-awareness, not necessarily that it will lead to a Happily Ever After. We really donít know what will happen to Orphan either. (That really doesnít sound like a Hero Myth story, does it?)
Okay, maybe Celebration is really just a musical comedy Ė that is, a musical comedy as only Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt could fashion one. But there really isnít a normal protagonist in the way we usually think about it. The story is more just a crazy allegory for the patterns of life. There are no Heroes when it comes to birth and death, summer and winter. We all just follow the cycles. The fascinating part is that though it was written in 1969, Celebration feels a whole lot like shows being written right now. I guess thatís not a surprise, coming from the guys who brought us the wild experiments of The Fantasticks way back in 1959, almost a decade before Hair.
This show fits quite comfortably alongside the neo-musical comedies of this new millennium, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other contemporary musical comedies: hyper-serious, with crazy-high stakes, but utterly totally honest on the inside. The more serious, the more honest the performances, the funnier the crazy stuff gets. Really, the truth is that Celebration takes from many different sources and traditions (as Tom Jones did with lots of his shows), all blended together brilliantly into something both ancient and new at the same time, both primitive and deceptively sophisticated, a pointed metaphor for each of our lives in this modern world.
So who do we identify with? Potemkin, the onlooker and toadie? Rich, successful but empty and lonely? Angel, chasing the cultureís false gods? Orphan, all good intentions in a crooked world? The ultimate message of Celebration is that we all must choose. Every day. And that choosing is how we celebrate life.
Celebration works from many of the same influences as Hair and Pippin. Itís different as only a Schmidt and Jones show could be, but it shares some things with those other shows. Pippin is slicker, Hair is wilder and looser, but Celebration is primal. Itís such a small story but itís about such incomprehensibly big things. Life, death, love. And yet itís also about such silly, trivial, little things... Will Mr. Rich get an erection?
Hey, Mr. Somebody in the Sky
Celebration is an experiment.
In bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jonesí book Making Musicals, he writes:
Before I finished my college education, I came gradually to realize that there were two kinds of theatre: one that I liked, and one that I didnít like as much.
The kind that I liked was what might be called "presentational" theatre, "poetic" theatre, the theatre of Shakespeare and the Greeks and Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht. The kind that I didnít like as much was what might be called "realistic" theatre, "prose" theatre, the theatre which almost totally dominated the stage for the first half of the twentieth century.
I didnít like stage sets very much. That is, I didnít like "realistic" stage sets -- sets which purported to be the actual environments where the action took place. I didnít like living room walls and charming bric-a-brac and pretend windows with pretend bushes outside. Something in me resisted the whole thing, as if someone were trying to trick me. I felt the urge to say: "Come on, who are you kidding? I know thatís not a real door. I know that the tree outside is made of papier-machť and held up by a stage brace."
On the other hand, if little or no pretense was made to literally depict a place, I had no trouble in believing in its reality. A suggestion was all I needed, all I wanted. Any more than that took away the fun, the magic, the creation. It robbed me as an audience member of my part in the proceedings. It limited my imagination. The whole thing was a paradox: Try to convince me that it was really real and I resisted. Admit to me that it was false and I could believe in its reality.
Also, and in a similar way, I didnít like plays where the actors spent all of their time just talking to each other and never acknowledged the presence of the audience. It seemed stupid to me. And rude. And again, it robbed the experience of the direct involvement and participation of the audience.
Jones goes on: "The theatre, after all, is surely one of the last bastions of the spoken word. In an increasingly Visual world, the theatre provides a place where people may gather and have a group experience induced primarily by the power of words. And, surprisingly, these needs are still deep within us. They will not be dropped so quickly. They are part of us, part of our species. To gather in a circle and have a story told, to experience a group reaction (possibly even a group revelation) this is a basic need. Too bad the theatre nowadays so often forgets that."
Though all theatre is ritualistic in some way, Celebration isnít just a modern descendant of ritual; it is actually ritual itself. Jones wrote in the introduction to the published script:
Celebration is different. For one thing, it is mostly in prose. For another, it requires a bit more explanation. It is "different" from other musicals. In fact, Iím not even sure it is a "musical" at all. Not in the usual sense of the word. It is a fable. It has ritual overtones. It is based upon ancient ceremonies depicting the battle between Winter and Summer. It was suggested by an editorial in the New York Times about the meaning of the Winter Solstice. It annoyed the hell out of some people. It delighted others. It ran for only 109 performances on Broadway. But it is done often around the country and the world. And it has been phenomenally successful in Scandinavia (where the Winter Solstice is something to be reckoned with.)
There is no subplot here, no secondary couple, no eleven oíclock number. No, our four leads are the four seasons. But this isnít just a story about nature; this is a story of nature. This isnít a story about the passing of time; this is the story of time. There is no Fourth Wall. And our stage is infinite. Which means the audienceís imaginations will do much of the work. Which means the audience will be engaged.
Potemkin tells us himself in the show that heís autumn. Rich is obviously winter, cold and dying, which makes Orphan summer (he has his a garden, after all). And Angel has to be spring since sheís the only woman here, the only one who can give birth. Once you see that structure, everything else makes more sense.
This really isnít like any other musical. This is ritual disguised as linear narrative. This is a storytelling experiment. The "story" here is just the changing of the seasons and the calendar, and the climax is literally the clock striking twelve on New Yearís Eve.
But thereís so much more here in addition to that, so much more put into the service of this ritual story Tom Jones created...
Fifty Million Years Ago
This show is chock full of references and devices going back to our earliest human history. We find Angelís roots in the Sumerian fertility goddess Inanna, who name means "Lady from Heaven," coincidentally (not). The action of Celebration essentially follows Inannaís ancient Sacred Marriage rite.
But is Angel being "used" for her sexuality, or is she "using" her sexuality as power, as a tool? And depending on that answer, is she in charge here or are the men...? Is the story unintentionally sexist because itís originally from the late 1960s? Or is sexuality just Angelís nature (as a stand-in for Inanna), something which she must "use"?
An article on AncientHistory.net, says, "Contrary to claims that Inannaís priestesses engaged in ritual prostitution, it is more likely that they were in control of their choices of bed-mates along with the high priestess engaging in the ritual re-enactment of the sacred marriage between Dumuzi and Inanna with a young man of her choice once a year on the Spring Equinox. The tales of Inanna make it very clear she was not shy in picking lovers and promoting them to Kingship and her priestesses would have followed her example."
And then thereís The Ancient Green Man, who sounds a lot like Orphan. That same site says, "During the Neolithic Age, which was the era when, as some say, God was a Woman, the Goddess and Her Son, the Green Man, were venerated by people worldwide for annually bringing forth the Earthís material abundance. A universal legend about them arose that began with the annual impregnation of the virgin Earth Goddess by the Sun, the ĎFather in Heaven,í and the subsequent birth of Her Son, the Green Man." Itís worth noting that three times during Celebration, Orphan sings, "The sun! The sun! The sun!"
Sounds a lot like Christianity. Long before Christianity.
The article goes on: "This important event occurred annually at the time of the Winter Solstice, when the spirit of the Green Man that had been slumbering underground in the underworld was shaken back to life. But although his dormant spirit had been stirred, it was not yet fully awake. This did not occur until a few days later, on December 25th, when the Sun or Solar Spirit completely reversed its downward path and took measurable steps along a northerly route."
Sounds like Celebration...
The same article says, "In order to awaken Dionysus from his slumber at the time of the Winter Solstice, female representatives of the Goddess would loudly bang pots and pans as they danced their way in ritual procession to the snowy summit of Mount Parnassus. And then after receiving his new set of clothes at the following spring equinox, the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego, Pan, a name meaning Ďthe All,í as in All of Nature.
Likewise, in Celebration, Angel and her backup girls, The Hittites, do a big dance number early in Act I, and soon after, Orphan gets a big number himself, "My Garden." In the second part of "My Garden," Orphan sings his song, even making up a bridge on the spot, and the Revelers all sing with him, in echo. That sounds a little like, "...the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego..."
Now, in terms of our friendly guide and con artists, Potemkin... According to Wikipedia, "In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is. The term comes from stories of a fake portable village, built only to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. While some modern historians claim accounts of this portable village are exaggerated, the original story was that Grigory Potemkin erected the fake portable settlement along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool the Russian Empress."
Unlike most narrators, Potemkin is built to deceive. Heís literally a con artist. And he pulls a helluva con on Mr. Rich.
Boil it all down and itís so primal. Angel/Inannaís true nature is to create life (as goddess of fertility and sex), exactly like Orphan (with his garden). Richís nature is nothing but appetite, to destroy, to consume. Angel and Orphan are Life (the New Year), while Rich is Death (the old year), which is why he has to die when the clock strikes twelve. If Angel were to choose Rich, that would be against her nature. She belongs with Orphan because together the two of them can create life. She must choose Life because sheís the fertility goddess. Which is why the show first presents her nearly naked, not for sexist titillation, but to present and make central to the story the female body itself, the crucible of Life.
But how can our story be about choice if itís about the relentless, unforgiving cycle of the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar, the passing of time? Arenít the perpetual cycles of life and death inescapable?
Maybe their (our) choices are illusory, and theyíre really all just cogs in a cosmic machine that just keeps going. Maybe there will always be Angels and Orphans and Riches, whose battles and triumphs keep the calendar turning. Itís The Story of Humanity, or maybe of Time. After all, thereís always another New Yearís Eve...
Tom Jones wrote in his book, "I decided that the American musical offered a wonderful opportunity to pursue the kind of theatre that I felt in my bones was the real theatre." Theatre like Celebration.
At the end of his intro to the 1973 published script, Jones wrote, "We did Celebration first at our Portfolio Studio. It felt good there. It belonged. When we moved it into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didnít feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasnít a Broadway musical. Who knows? Perhaps we will do it again someday. With revisions. And in a proper place." Jonesí wholesale rewrite was first produced at New Line Theatre in St. Louis, in 2016.
Each Seed Contains a Mystery
Celebration follows certain conventional musical theatre rules, it appears to follow others, but it ignores even more. Itís a wonderful, subversive, quirky combination. As Tom Jones has said repeatedly, this show was an experiment. Jones wrote in his intro to the published script, "When we moved Celebration into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didnít feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasnít a Broadway musical."
The characters in Celebration have arcs, but not necessarily the arcs we would expect. They all fit musical comedy archetypes, but awkwardly. Mr. Rich is clearly the musical comedy villain, and yet almost the whole story focuses on him. His desire to feel emotion is the central plotline. Angel seems like an old-fashioned musical comedy heroine, but she isnít looking for love, just advancement. While Hope Harcourt may have used her "feminine wiles," Angel uses her bare breasts.
Orphan seems to be a typical musical comedy hero, cousin to Billy Crocker and J. Pierpont Finch; but really, heís closer to Leaf Coneybear. Though Orphan falls for Angel Ė and can you blame him, the first time he ever meets a woman his own age and her boobs are hanging out there like that? Ė his central motivation has nothing to do with love. All Billy Crocker wants is Hope. All Orphan wants is his Garden. Would it be too crass to say Orphan wants Angel to be his new garden...?
The other thing is that the usual musical comedy hero is a good guy but also a smartass, going all the way back to Little Johnny Jones in 1904, and as recently as Nick Bottom in Something Rotten. But Orphan is never sarcastic. Thereís no darkness in him, no judgment, no ulterior motives. Thatís not a musical comedy hero. Thatís an archetype in a religious ritual. Which is why Orphan doesnít have a name.
And then thereís Potemkin, con artist and self-preservationist. Pippinís Leading Player is an almost exact twin to Potemkin, just more show-bizzy. When Fosse inserted this new character into Pippin for Ben Vereen, had he seen Celebration? The difference of course is one of stature. Leading Player is God and Satan. He controls reality. Potemkin, on the other hand, starts the show warming his hands over a trash can. He controls a freaky pageant in a rich guyís ballroom. As much as I love Pippin, I think I prefer Potemkin.
Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.