I want to talk for a little while, if I may, about the suspension of disbelief. It’s that pesky little detail that makes audience members doubt the believability of a moment or a new reality. It is a moment that forces a person to look beyond the possible and accept, for good or ill, that this is what is happening and nothing else.
As an avid film fan, I think about this a lot. I think about it when watching, as my friend Sarah’s boyfriend calls them, “popcorn movies”–those movies that are crowd pleasers. I always think of Jurassic World for some reason. Great, great movie. But it didn’t win any awards worth mentioning (or indeed, any at all?) yet, it’s one of my recent favorites. And like other movies, it calls for a suspension of the known world, our known world, and asked its audience to believe in the possibilities of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs who, as we have come to know and love, eat people. A lot of people.
But this suspension of disbelief doesn’t just apply to “popcorn movies.” I recently watched an independent film on Netflix the other day where the sole premise was a day-long love story between a German businessman visiting New York to let go an entire division of a company and a musician-first, secretary-second African-American songstress who, as a result of this businessman’s trip, just lost her job. And, as is so often in the independent films I come across, there is a lot of suspension of disbelief. That feelings like the ones the main characters were experiencing could happen–to that degree–in less than a day. That life-changing decisions based on these experiences could even be a topic of conversation!
I guess what I’m getting at is that suspension of disbelief is something that is all around us. It is a veritable fact. It’s in the movies and in the lyrics of songs and television and books and (YES, I’m going to say it now)…MUSICALS.
Two weeks ago I traveled to St. Louis to see Finding Neverland at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. I’d spent a week learning the songs, becoming hopelessly obsessed with the music. I had, on at least 5 occasions, cried in my car while listening to the cast album. If that isn’t strong stuff, I don’t know what is.
But also, the part I’m leaving out, is that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, thought leaving the sanctuary of Springfield during the…iffyness of the weather was a bad idea. It was icy, or supposed to be, and literally every person who had not actually been out of doors all day was talking like it was the next apocalypse. You can probably guess how much thought I gave their words.
We made it to St. Louis without much trouble, just a few slick patches, in about three hours. We went to the mall and ate food and watched parts of a few Hallmark movies and, with every step, I stuck it to the proverbial man, the naysayers who said we wouldn’t make it and then I waited until the next day when we would see the show, a show, I had become increasingly aware, that was going to mean a whole lot more to me than I thought.
I realize, now, as I type this story that it sounds a little anticlimactic. A little like there’s something inspiring and life-changing around the corner and all you have to do is follow me there and wait to find out. But I also want to paint a little picture for you. Because I feel like I didn’t really know what was coming for me. That this musical, this idea of suspending my disbelief, was tied to a whole lot more than just watching a show. It was embedded in every mile we drove, in defiance of MODOT (Missouri Department of Transportation) warnings about travel and good, old-fashioned country hicks, and all the people who complain about spending $7.50 on a movie ticket and would never, in their wildest or most ill-conceived dreams, think of driving 3 hours, spending the night in a hotel, and paying $40 a ticket to see “some” musical.
So that’s where I’m coming from with this. And also, the trip and the tickets were a Christmas gift to my mother and two friends who were coming with me, so there was already a lot of meaning in what we were doing.
One of the most beautiful moments in my life, I think, up ’til now, has to be the moment after the final curtain call, when I was grabbing my merchandise from below my seat, and turned around to make sure my mom was behind me. And there she was, halfway turned toward the stage, with a tissue in her hand and tears in her eyes. And I remember thinking about my experience watching the show–in silence–and forgetting that there were a thousand other people watching it with me. And I remember thinking, before we walked out of that row and before my mom said, too many times to count, “It was amazing, Megan.” I remember thinking that this show, this show that I’d bought the “cheap” seats for, this show had just changed my life.
And, I had bought the CHEAP seats. Unbelievable.
Finding Neverland, if you don’t know, tells the story of the creation of Peter Pan. It focuses on playwright J.M. Barrie during the early years of the 20th century as he struggles to produce a new play, something original. His creativity is born anew when he meets a recent widow and her four young sons, who inspire him to do something new with theatre, breaking all the rules and creating a classic in the process.
But what that cute little synopsis doesn’t tell you is the sheer brilliance of the production, of the colors and the lights. It doesn’t tell you about the shadows that play against the backdrop as James and Sylvia dance during “What You Mean to Me.” It doesn’t tell you how your heart will simultaneously drop and soar as Sylvia is engulfed in a tornado of glitter and later, when her scarf falls to the ground and you know that she’s gone.
I’m probably spoiling things here, but oh well. You’ve wandered here and now you’re probably regretting it. I hope you’re not.
This production of Finding Neverland demands the suspension of disbelief. It must happen. There’s a scene, a beautiful, heartbreaking scene, when the very sick and dying Sylvia is visited by James Barrie and the cast of Peter Pan. The entire show is put on in her home as Peter, the son who has been changed the most by the family’s interactions with Mr. Barrie, narrates what is happening on stage. Sylvia and James sit in the background, holding hands, watching the performance, and there, in front of them, are Peter and Wendy, flying.
But they aren’t flying like you’ve seen in other shows. They are being held by other actors, hoisted into the air, reaching for one another. I love this moment for a lot of reasons. The first is that there are no wires holding Peter and Wendy in the sky. There are only people and human hands. Humans holding humans. The choreographer for the musical, Mia Michaels, said something to that effect in an interview and I loved how she explained it. But also, behind this idea of people holding each other up, supporting one another, you have James and Sylvia in the background, just sitting there watching as Peter and Wendy reach for one another, suspended in midair, and their hands never leave the other.
I’m not sure there’s really any way a photo can do that breathtaking moment justice, but there you have it. I took a screenshot from a trailer of the musical on Youtube, should you be interested in seeing it in action.
Anyway, I know I talk a lot about musicals saying a lot about a person and how they, in essence, both reflect and connect humanity–the human in us all. And the writer in me loves the idea that even simple choreography can show the ways in which life reflects art–or the other way around–and also how people always need people. Always.
So those are some thoughts to think on, if you wish. And if not–
–Here’s a picture of me after the show scraping off ice with a tin of Altoids, mere minutes after I slipped and fell in the parking lot. (It was worth it).
Until next time…