Musical Theatre Monday – J. Holtham on Elegies: A Song Cycle

It’s Monday, and around these parts that means it’s Musical Theatre Monday. This week I am incredibly happy to welcome J. Holtham to the blog. So I am gonna let the man get to it.

J. HOLTHAM: When I get some fancy new way to play music, one of the first things that winds up on there is the cast recording of William Finn’s Elegies. (There’s also a whole of The Hold Steady and the Replacements, so don’t get the wrong impression (or the right one, I suppose…shut up.).) I don’t know that I would say this is my favorite musical, but it’s probably the single most important musical in my life. Sorry, Company. You’re a close second.

Sometimes, in your life, you wind up in the exact right place at the exact right time. For me, that time and place was the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre on Wednesday, April 16th. That’s when I saw the original production of Elegies. I’ve had some great theatrical experiences in my life and some personally important ones. This was both.

If you don’t know Elegies, get to know Elegies. Like, right now. Elegies doesn’t have a story or a plot; it does what it says on the tin. It’s a series of songs written in honor of the dead, a cabaret of loss, pain, humor and love. The songs range from the faintly silly remembrances of friends and colleagues to the sneakily heartbreaking remembrances of family to Finn’s elegy for his mother. As you can tell from a quick YouTube search, the songs are pretty popular in the cabaret world. Many of them are malleable, full of character but free of too much context. It’s like a collection of short stories or poems on a common theme. Even in performance, the original production took place on another play’s set, with just a large rug and a piano and a few chairs. It’s an unadorned thing, this show. Two hours of songs about the dead. And I love it, all out of proportion.

Finn consciously put the show together as a balm for a city still deep in mourning and grief. For those who weren’t there, it’s hard to fully grasp what post-9/11 New York was right. It took a long, long time for the city to shake off mourning clothes. I think Elegies helped. For me, it was more than help. It was just what I needed. You see, exactly one week before 9/11, I buried my younger brother. Just as I was starting to grieve, the whole world around turned to ash and we were all grieving. You’d think a musical about death would be the worst thing for that, and something I wouldn’t want to be reminded of. And yet…

Here’s the thing about grief. I really think it’s the only human emotion that is far, far beyond words. In some ways, it’s every emotion happening all at once. Maybe French can handle it, or Japanese or cuneiform, but English is woefully inadequate. What can handle it is music. Music can capture that emotional stew perfectly. And when I listen to Christian Borle singing “When The World Stopped Turning,” I know I feel that sound. I know that sound. I have been that sound.

The truly lovely thing about Elegies is that it’s not about death; it’s about the dead. How they were when they were alive, how we loved them, how they loved the world. It’s not mopey or depressing. It’s not shoe-gazing. There’s a very, very good reason that it begins and ends “Looking up.” There isn’t a story to the show, but there is a journey, as we move closer and closer to William Finn’s heart and to deeper and deeper pain, until it’s almost unbearable then we get the release, the acceptance we all hear so much about in the stages of grief. And it’s sweet. In 2003, my brother had been gone for nearly two years and I was just starting on the path back to life. I can thank William Finn for that.

Grief is a massive, hugely important emotion that can only be captured fully in song, and yet, there are not a lot of musicals about grief. Love, lust, jealousy, the desire to kill presidents, sure. Lots of musicals about those. But grief? We get one, just one. If Elegies is the only one…I’m good with that.

J. Holtham writes things, eats things and, for the time being, talks semi-professionally. He’s a recent transplant to L.A. so he can write things professionally. You can find more about him here and read his writing on various matters, as 99 Seats, here.

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