Looking for Morality? These Days, Try Broadway Musicals

May 1, 2017

What do you go to a musical for? The singing and dancing, a great story, and charismatic performers, right? But this season a clutch of new musicals are flaunting something else: a moral compass—and compassion. A colleague of mine suggests that our increased awareness of this has to do with our post-election state of mind, and, in a time when compassion seems scarce, some of this season’s new musicals are coming to the rescue.

In Bandstand, the story accumulates a sense of compassion about the six World War II vets who try to start a band together. The turning point is when Julia, who lost her husband in the war, writes a song that tries to understand and commiserate with these guys and what they’ve been through—even though she herself is wracked with grief. Titled “Welcome Home,” the song describes the personal hell each vet endures in the wake of their war experiences. The song turns out to be the hit that the band needs to succeed.

Anastasia with Derek Klena and Christy Altomare, photo Matthew Murphy

set in St. Petersburg during the Russian revolution, tells us about Dmitry and Vlad, two down-and-out guys who cook up a scam to train a street sweeper to pose as the missing Anastasia of the royal family (shades of My Fair Lady). But it ends with generosity on the part of both the once-powerful Dowager Empress, who grants Anastasia her freedom, and Dmitry, who foregoes the cash prize in favor of his respect for Anastasia (and, well, he falls in love with her).

Christy Altomare and Derek Klena in Anastasia. Photo Matthew Murphy

The engine of Come From Away is the goodwill of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, triggered by the plight of thousands of people diverted there during 9/11. With no hesitation at all, the tiny town jumped into action when 38 passenger planes arrived, full of 7,000 tired, needy and frightened people. With understated heroics, they disrupted their own lives to provide for people in need. And all were changed by the experience.

Come From Away, Rodney Hicks, center, photo by Matthew Murphy

Only one of these is a big dance show (Bandstand, directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler), but all three linger in the memory for the compassion that shone out like a light from the stage. It has often been said that aggression is a natural human instinct. But kindness and compassion are equally part of our DNA. And it takes a moral compass to corral those feelings and apply them to life’s decisions. For my eyes, that kind of sincerity brings a certain luminousness to the stage.