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EST. May 2000 (AD)

 
 

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Fire, Famine and Pestilence—The Musical

By Pamela Miller

It isn’t often that theatregoers, that dwindling minority in the world of electronic entertainment, are allowed to wallow in sentimentality about the glory days.  It’s actually impossible because the most ardent fans are either dead or weren’t born when things were really kicking.  Even the dead would have a hard time thinking of nice things to say about what I call Fire, Famine and Pestilence, the show that makes the kindest, sweetest, ticket holder consider hostile acts with a potato masher.  (Okay, it’s Little House, but Whoa Nellie would have been much funnier.)

This writer is neither kind nor sweet, and felt the only bit of excitement in the show was when an actor pulled out a bullwhip.  Oh, yes, thought this theatregoer.  Let’s get cracking.  Alas, it was a tease.  The show was meant to be heartwarming and idyllic, which sucked the fun right out of the enterprise. 

In case you never read the books, watched the television series, or the much later mini-series, here is the premise:  a family moves someplace awful, hopes for the best, succumbs to hunger and fever, and decides these are positive growth experiences.  It ends with a wedding.  That’s already implausible.  People tend to start somewhere awful, look around, and decide to leave.  Helpful hints are usually suggested in the form of a witch burning, pogrom or plague of locusts.  So why any family would move someplace cold, sparse, and insect friendly boggles the mind.  Then we get to hope, which allows three shoeless imps to bet three pennies on a horse race.  You never see the characters accept the winnings.  Could this be because gambling is wrong?  Was the race was fixed?  Did they drink so many lime rickeys, they passed out before they could collect?  The answer is far less prosaic:  the entire town is in flames.  Forget the three cents; the crops are reduced to ash.  But what caused the fire?  If this musical were a courtroom procedural, someone would be guilty of sabotage, treachery or pyromania.  But in the world of the homesteaders, bad things happen because the world isn’t tame and people are too free. Control your wild impulses and you will finally be able to master the land.

There was a fistfight--no one lost a tooth.  There was a blizzard—no one froze to death.  Children ran around barefoot--no one got tetanus.  It was hyper-reality, without the reality.  And the biggest question of all:  Why didn’t they homestead somewhere more pleasant? 

Instead of paying attention to the litany of sung homilies, replete with folksy wisdom and faux fiddle playing, I was rewriting the story to suit my own fancy.  This took my mind off the iPod in my pocket, calling to me like a Siren, and my friends, alternating between naps and eye rolling.  The songs all sounded the same, soppy and forgettable.  Every so often, the crowd would start to applaud, and we couldn’t figure out why.  Stockholm Syndrome?  Mob mentality? Because they were sitting with a parent? Had my own mother been there, we would have high-tailed it after the first act. 

In my musical, a spirited young girl from Detroit moves out west.  (Cue the song: “So Long, Suckers.”) The land is foreign and dusty, but far more civilized than she imagined. (“You Can Get Soy Milk in the Desert”).  The heroine undergoes culture shock: “What Do You Mean the Only Kosher Bakery is 25 Miles Away?” She adapts to the wild country, buys a condo, and returns many end tables:  “It’s Not a Sugar-Mark—It’s a Flaw in the Wood.”    She does spy a cockroach, but calls the exterminator:  “No Pestilence in My Condo.”  She meets and makes friends: “Chess is a Sport,” “Is He a Lush (Or Just Luscious)?” “Duct Tape Saves the Day,” “I Don’t Have an Accent in Romania,” “Hypochondriacal Germophobe,” “Hooray for the Hounds from Hell.”  Everyone gets together for the truthful “We All Sing Much Better than You Do” and the rollicking “Six Hours To Vegas (In Traffic).”  The rousing eleven o’clock number is “I’m Not Sharing My Popsicle—Get Your Own.”  No one learns or marries or takes off their shoes. 

My show will never open on Broadway.  Its appeal is limited to people living in my condo.   The show I actually saw will never open on Broadway, either.   As is often the case, the book is better.  

Copyright © 2010 by Pamela Miller

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