Floyd Collins, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, is a musical about historical figure Floyd Collins and his tragic death in exploring the caves of Kentucky. It is a truly beautiful musical, ranging from bluegrass music to passages reminiscent of Bartok and Stravinsky. I have a lot to say about it, but one thing that burns in my ears and affects me every time it occurs is a musical exchange that happens between the beginning and end of the show.
When the show begins, Floyd has a rather large monologue/musical scene where he is exploring caves. He uses a special yodel-call to measure the dimensions of the caves. He determines he has reached the perfect cave because his yodels echo back to him - and he begins to sing with them. One of the only instances of electronics effects being used in a musical, "The Call" has an extended sequence where the singer sings to their own voice on a loop-pedal. Layering upon itself, the echoes intensify but never overwhelm - a completely consonant exchange.
In finding his perfect cave, Floyd has found his dream. He wants to call it the Great Sand Cave and create a tourist attraction, gaining wealth and security for his family.
Important to note is that Floyd's brother and sister are pursing similar dreams. Nellie's hopes are to support and love her family, but ultimately have caused enough stress to put her in a mental hospital just before the events of the musical (she is released at the beginning). Floyd's brother, Homer, is a traveller and comes back to town soon after Floyd is trapped in the cave driving a brand new car.
The family is divided into sky, land, and earth. Nellie is the 'dreamer' - with metaphors of dreams, the sky, and the clouds in her characterization - and she is never let into the cave. Homer travels - (Oddessy much?) - and only briefly enters the cave, while also being tempted by Hollywood producers to enter the realm of fame (I'd say a similar ethereal realm of sky). And Floyd works in caves and, ultimately, does not survive them.
All of this comes to a head in the next to last number in the show - "The Dream." Floyd, having been trapped for days, begins to lose hope about his rescue. He wakes up from a nap and sees Nellie, who tells him they've finally freed him. Homer shows up in his new car and informs Floyd that the cave is now set to be a tourist attraction and everything is set. Nellie and Homer sing the same musical material as Floyd in "The Call" as they explain this - and as Floyd's excitement directly mirrors the musical development of "The Call" to the cave-echo section.
This time, however, as Floyd begins to sing, Nellie and Homer fill in the two echoes that sing with Floyd. Instead of echoes, the counterpoint is a counterpoint of sky, land, and earth - and a call that all three claim to have inherited from their deceased mother.
As Floyd realizes his dreams have come true, not only for the cave but for the unity of his family, he yells for his Papa to hear the call. Floyd yodels once again and the music suddenly cuts out - silence fills the stage - and Floyd decends into his despair and dying body.
The moment Floyd, Nellie, and Homer sing together gets me every time, upon every listening. At the beginning of the show, Floyd has, what could be seen as, a normal Musical Theatre wish. Economic stability and the good of the family - going up a social class too. His dream, however, betrays a deeper desire - one for belonging, one for community, and one for the presence of his mother. The mother's voice, in the shadows for most of the show, is heard here in her children.
As Floyd dies, he yodels one last time and the echoes follow - along with a haunting violin line - until they all blend and fade away. The source of the echo is gone.
Who hears hope? In Floyd Collins, Floyd has a gift to utter his own dreams and hear then reflected back to him. It could be said that this singing might have been the cause of the cave collapse too - meaning his dream was also his undoing. His dream at the end finds him at the dream's fullest potential as each sibling is able to 'ground' the other via their element - just as their mother did when she was alive.
Why is this of significance, other than my emotionally affective charge? In this case, the 'musical' of musical theatre is not just a narrative device - it integrates into the historical narrative in both the libretto AND self-reflexivity. Floyd's yodels and songs are his "I Want" songs and there is seldom a musical without one. The fact that he can hear it, as music, as well as Nellie and Homer, provides a commentary on the utopian and danger of following one's dreams. Nellie has been in a mental institution, Homer is without purpose or place (too much of a city-boy for home, too country for Hollywood), and Floyd dies in the earth that he wished to explore. The Call, for whoever hears it, is seductive but not unproblematic. It isn't merely 'how do we get our wish' - it is 'should this wish be granted'?
In any case, this moment makes Floyd Collins a contemporary musical that confronts the history of American Musical Theatre's preoccupation with unabashed optimism through the means of its own tradition (I don't think I could call this musical antimusical or metamusical, even though it is fairly dark and I'm claiming it is somewhat referential). Identified by Sondheim as his heir, I expect no less from Adam Guettel and look forward to more works by him in the future.
There are many movies from my childhood that stick with me and, upon further reflection, probably explain why I have such a dark and disturbed demeanor and perspective on life. One of these is The Brave Little Toaster, a 1987 film I owed on VHS and watched pretty regularly as a child. The story of a set of appliances fighting for their master’s approval and for their technological relevance was something that I enjoyed watching over and over again. Not that I thought of it that way when I was a kid, but I definitely understood that they were fighting to be in a world that might not accept them – and that world was the city. (Hmm, maybe this is why I love city living so much, having grown up in the country.)
This all said, the film has one of the darkest musical moments in Disney history (the Disney Wiki lists this number as #2 against the “Hell” song from Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m talking about “Worthless” from the end of the film, as the brave toaster and friends face death in the junkyard (read:graveyard). The song is sung by various cars as they are taken to be crushed into small, orderly cubes – and ostensibly their death, as they lose any sort of anthropomorphic elements indicating their liveness in that form.
Like many journey movies, the real threat of mortality is usually employed to garner a positive and greater appreciation of life. Through the threat of death, life becomes more valuable (when arguing for the superiority of one, safely threaten it with its Other and you can strengthen belief in the one). Another Disney feature, Homeward Bound (1993), uses this concept. Shadow, the older and wiser dog, is injured towards the end of the film and seemingly gives up, claiming that age will finally take him. As the pets (after having thought they were left behind, just as the appliances think) reach home, Shadow is nowhere to be found – until moments later, when he limps over the hill and the family is reunited.
Sound is very important to this scene for dramatic purposes. As the young, Jamie thinks he hears Chance’s bark, the scene’s dramatic trajectory is tied to its aural content. Chance’s bark announces his presence, followed by the shouting of Jamie and Chance (Michael J Fox). Next, Sassy’s meow (unbelievably) carries across a field and she begins changing “Hope, Hope, Hope” – the name of her owner – and they reunite. At this point, the family and audience expect (and want) Shadow’s sound to proceed his presence – only to be left with an significantly long stretch of a repetitive low string gesture. When Shadow appears to the audience, a french horn melody announces the hero’s return – gradually joined by the rest of the orchestra into a full, climactic reunion music. Chance, in particular, learns the meaning of family and home – disciplined, so to speak, to feel the pleasure of the American Dream.
So, what does this have to do with The Brave Little Toaster? I bring up Homeward Bound because it ends quite triumphantly – heroic melodies, the family is together, and there is very little threat behind the problems of the story. The pets aren’t really left behind, they just think they are, and Shadow is momentarily hurt, but apparently got himself out. Moreso, the family is just sad – they were never placed into any harm along the way. The Brave Little Toaster, however, brings the appliances’ owner to the junkyard to be put into the same threatening situation as the appliances. Not only could the toaster die, but also a real human person in the process. To me, the threat of mortality is greater than many other stories told – it is infections, it spreads, and actually applies to all subjects rather than selectively (as in the case of Shadow). The artificial bounds of storytelling for the purpose of affective manipulation (Shadow’s heroism inspires Chance – and, assumably, the audience – into believing in a home that is apart from the ‘squishy stuff’ and more important, read:ideological, to life) is left behind for a very, dare I say it, real moment of mortality and existence. Combine this with the fact that the appliances themselves are in real danger of being replaced – their materiality is an old technology and throughout their journey their functionality and efficiency is called into question as compared to the modern world – and The Brave Little Toaster becomes a movie that is more about the dissolution of technology into nostalgia – the only element that saves the appliances in the end. I welcome any and all ties to Marxism that this story can garner – and, while you’re at it, also to J. Jack Halberstam’s low theory and the politics of early Pixar movies involving anthropomorphized objects and their potential for radical political agency.
"Worthless" - a brief musical analysis
“Worthless” takes us through a story of how easily and quickly these things slip into total destruction. I’ll take each verse as it goes to show how quickly and frighteningly accurate the threat of destruction unravels everything, including the notion that someone can somehow get through the experience unscathed.
The first two verses establish the condition that many of the cars are in; they are old, they don’t start, and they’ve resigned themselves to their fate.
I can't take this kind of pressure,
I must confess one more dusty road
Would be just a road too long
I just can't, I just can't,
I just can't seem to get started
Don't have the heart to live in the fast
Lane; all that has passed and gone
But then, this becomes problematized when the rest of the junkyard repeatedly sings “Worthless” as if it is their mantra. Perhaps these cars were told too many times they were worthless and they’ve been coerced into accepting this fate? The yelled interpolations indicate there is some resistance to the whole process, but they are laments, not calls to action.
(And there ain't nothing you can do about it!)
(Pardon me while I panic!)
Worthless! Worthless! Worthless!
Then the more personal verses occur – the first embodies the mythical South and Americana of Route 66. This car is indentified by place, by where it’s been, and, interestingly, many of these doubly refer to musical places. This verse establishes a very ‘American’ geography that these cars inhabit – and mainly a representation of the Midwest and South.
I come from KC Missouri,
And I got my kicks out on Route 66
Every truck stop from Butte to MO
Motown, New Orl’, Alabama
From Texarkana and east of Savannah
From Tampa to old Kokomo
The next car identifies itself by function – it ran the Indy 500. As a failed participate in the race, the car laments about its ability to be anything other than a winning racecar. A losing racecar, it seems, is not an option - instead of overcoming failure, the car seems stuck in it.
I once ran the Indy 500
I must confess I'm impressed how I did it
I wonder how close that I came
Now I get a sinking sensation,
I was the top of the line; out of sight;
(Out my mind), so much for fortune and fame
A note: some of these verses are broken up by story elements – so the song could be heard as being a lot longer, yet we only see/hear a few of the verses that the camera allows us. Also, because of this, the musical form is like a musical scene rather than a song – which could be an explanation for the dramatic key change before this next verse.
The next verse speeds up the narrative energy. Two cars sing and are crushed together: a limo and a hearse. The limo drove a Texan to a wedding, who ultimately left the marriage because he still felt lonely – thus leaving the limo’s purpose and meaning as an empty dream. Marriage apparently doesn’t create connection. The hearse’s lyrics are even more powerful – this car seems to embrace dying because “it’s quite hard enough just living with the stuff I [the hearse] have learned.” Having been so close to death, actually having dead bodies within it, the hearse is burdened with the knowledge of mortality and seemingly wants it.
Once took a Texan to a wedding
Once took a Texan to a wedding
He kept forgetting, his loneliness letting
His thoughts turn to home and returned
I took a man to a graveyard
I beg your pardon, it's quite hard enough
Just living with the stuff I have learned.
With the image of sunsets, surfers, and mention of Fellini, the next car goes further west into the West – that frontier that is either California or Imaginary, where dreams become reality. Americana is in full force, with hot dogs, bikinis, and surf culture, but it is a certain out-dated mode of American that begs for nostalgia but also recalls the anxieties surrounding this idyllic beach parties (wars, changing gender roles). The pure expanse of American is called upon with the mention of highways – this car had a hand in the expansion and conquering of the American West.
Once drove a surfer to sunset,
There were bikinis and buns, there were weenies
Fellini just couldn't forget
Pico, let's go up to Zuma
Pico, let's go up to Zuma
From Zuma to Yuma the rumor was
I had a hand in the lay of the land
Get up and go hit the highway!
The previous car, then, curiously and powerfully leads into the last car – one that was abandoned as its owners left their reservation to join the city. Mirroring the story of the toaster and its friends, this car was left behind and was told it was “worthless” by its owners. Considering many of these cars are tied to place, the lose of population of reservations concluding a (I think) pretty direct narrative describing the westward movement of Americans in creating the American Dream of the West both geographically and culturally, the song ends with American’s most deeply rooted yet underdiscussed violation of human rights.
I worked on a reservation,
Who would believe they would love me and leave
On a bus back to old Santa Fe
Once in an Indian nation,
I took the kids on the skids where the Hopi
Was happy 'til I heard 'em say...
So, in a quick conclusion – the song maps a lot of signifiers into a fast-paced and dramatic song, one that links a lot of scenes and characters together towards a finale. American’s westward expansion, the atrocities done to Native Americans, and the modern quest of technological progress are placed alongside each other. As the last vehicle says, it was left behind because it was worthless to the new way of life in Santa Fe. Perhaps, this indicates a critique of technological progress that also tells past progress it is worthless. As we drift towards a “Cloud” society of data on computers, servers, and the world becomes increasingly smaller through this technology and the recent revelation of monitoring techniques, many (such as the low-tech and DIY movements) are calling for the old technologies as a means of getting out of the dystopian society ahead of us.
What strikes me, most of all, is that this reading and watching of The Brave Little Toaster is not hidden as much as contemporary films. Perhaps because it wasn’t as relevant then, but the BLT seems to have much more to say now about the balance between nostalgia, home, technology, and uselessness that plague our present discourse. If one boy can risk his life for a toaster, what does this say about our current state of affairs? More importantly, though, this song forces the listener to stop and think about who ends up in the junkyard of history – who is told they are worthless, who resigns to the structures of value as ‘fate,’ and how can one intervene? Ultimately, the appliances are still function and their ‘master’ has a nostalgia connection to them – so they are saved the fate of the junkyard. The story would be much more different today. The radio, in particular, may meet his maker and the television, secure in his place during 1987, would also be on the chopping block and journeying from being left behind.
Comments? Concerns? These are general thoughts - blogging to get things off my chest and also get in the practice of being able to analyze and communicate. Any and all views could be completely wrong and I love when I am politely (or not so politely) told how I can be better.