The key to my interpretation of A Case for the Existence of God’s ending:
I’m not claiming it’s the sole interpretation, trumping any other. Rather, my interpretation can exist side by side with different interpretations, none more conclusive than another.
So why was I compelled to specify this? Because, as critical audience members, we should try to shy away from disparaging a piece of art based on a subjective interpretation, especially if another potential interpretation would negate our disparagement.
The Grey Lady provides us a recent example of one such occurrence.
But first, a caveat: I’m in no way demeaning, chastising, nor even correcting the great Maya Phillips, who wrote The New York Times review for A Strange Loop (conflict of interest alert!). Instead, I’m entering into a conversation with one of her (scant!) negative-tinged interpretations, in hopes of expanding our conception of the piece’s parameters; the artistic discourse should always be about continuing and deepening the discussion.
The passage in question:
In one instance, however, the production strikes a simple note. In one scene, Lee portrays a “Wicked”-loving tourist who gives Usher a pep talk, urging him to tell his truth in a sincere, optimistic song that recalls that show’s “Defying Gravity.” Given the calculated sharpness of the rest of the musical, especially regarding the commercialism of Broadway, such a carpe diem song feels out of place.
The song in question:
Now, Ms. Phillips’ read on the song is completely valid…but it might be incomplete, too. The music seems to underscore the song’s message…but that doesn’t mean the show itself unreservedly supports these sentiments. As she “accurately” notes (AKA: I agree with her fallible take here), A Strange Loop sharply deconstructs the downsides of Great White Way commercialism. At the same time, it captures — and even celebrates aspects of! — the powerful appeal of this often superficial form; heck, it proudly (and satirically) labels itself “a big, black and queer-ass AMERICAN BROADWAY SHOW.”
A crucial component of this dichotomy: A Strange Loop adopts the sound of conventional, classic Broadway; it becomes what it’s unpacking, so that its commentary comes from inside the house, one of the title’s many strange loops of meta self-referentialism.
Much like Usher’s relationship to his “Inner White Girl” tunes, A Strange Loop excavates the pros and cons of a musical genre’s imperfections. Phillips picks up on the surface pros found in “A Sympathetic Ear”, without mentioning the appearance of its subtle cons. Register all the cliches packed into the lyrics; the singer rattles off a cavalcade of saccharine cliches, bumper-sticker material that reduces life’s complexity into self-help 101.
But guess what: sometimes, such broad empowerment (belted by a broad! on Broadway!) is exactly what we need to hear to get through the day; it’s been the not-so-secret sauce of musicals for generations.
Does the song emphatically emphasize the flaws in this artistic recipe, particularly their overly-generalized inadequacy at delving into the uber-detailed nuances of existence? They’re not underlined, but they still reside in the realm of interpretation. The song operates with an awareness of both these pitfalls and how, despite them, they can still elevate us in a bind. In our darkest hours, old-fashioned musical theater optimism can be just the ticket (which is still a debatable argument! Composer Michael R. Jackson fronts this skepticism in one of the first lines uttered on stage: “should there even be a show?”).
So calling “A Sympathetic Ear” one note might miss its subtextual point.
Which connects to a wider problem I have with audience expectations: art has no obligation to clearly and resolutely explicate how it’s supposed to be interpreted. Art can convey the perspective of what’s depicted, without necessarily endorsing that perspective. If a character voices an opinion, even if it’s positioned as the culminating finale of the drama, it stands to reason that the production may not share this viewpoint, even if it refuses to outright state an objection. Can’t a show show us all possibilities, and then let us deduce their credibility ourselves?
Which brings us back to A Case for the Existence of God‘s ending. Its moral: multiple truths can be at play simultaneously, without one taking precedent over another.
Art being open to interpretation opens up room for misunderstanding, but also greater understanding; otherwise, art would be too simplistic.