The Art of Showing People What They Want to See

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“They’re laughing so hard, they don’t realize that all they’re laughing at is a person in agony.”

There’s this Shakespeare quote that’s printed out on the wall of every high school theater classroom. “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players,” or something like that. I’m not googling to get it right, you’ve all heard it before. If you tweet at me for getting it wrong I’ll block you.

Anyway, I’ve thought a lot about it since I first saw it in the 6th grade, in Ms. Fletcher’s theater class. Really, I have no clue what the fuck it’s trying to say, and I’m not sure these professors do either.

To be honest, I’m pretty sure most of them keep it up because they think it’ll convince thirteen-year-old gamers to play zip zap zop.

The 2002 movie adaptation of the musical Chicago takes this fuckass quote pretty literally. Every musical number takes place on a stage, in front of an audience. Sometimes it’s a real stage in front of a real audience, sometimes it’s a fake stage in front of a fake audience in a character’s head, sometimes it’s an imagined version of what’s happening in the story, but it’s always on a stage.

The opening scene of Chicago. Catherine Zeta-Jones performing All That Jazz, which will never not go hard as hell.

I think Billy Flynn’s songs are some of the most interesting in the movie. While most of the numbers take place in weird mindscapes (such as the rundown deserted theater of Mr. Cellophane or the abstract void of Roxie), Billy’s seem to take place in reality, just a…distorted version of it.

I mean, you know right away that with Billy what you see is not what you get. In one of the more on-the-nose parts of this incredibly unsubtle musical, Billy’s introduction as a compassionate, easygoing lawyer in the song “All I Care About Is Love,” is directly followed with him refusing to represent Roxie in court, unless she can cough up $5000.

How Billy (Richard Gere) sees Roxie’s (Renée Zellweger) press conference.

Above everything else, Billy Flynn is an entertainer. His job is not to find the truth, but to create it. He takes Roxie, a ruthless egomaniac who will do anything it takes — including murder — for fame, and spins her into an innocent country girl whose only crime was loving her husband too much.

In “We Both Reached For The Gun,” Billy turns a press conference into a puppet show. “Notice how his mouth never moves — almost,” the narrator warns us. In “Razzle Dazzle,” he turns a murder trial into a literal circus. “How can they hear the truth above the roar?” Billy asks with a grin.

The key to Billy’s genius, in my opinion, is that he never denies the murder. At no point does he ever say that Roxie didn’t shoot a guy three times in the chest. In fact, very rarely does he talk about the murder at all. Instead, he spins a story about a simple woman’s love for her husband and how she was thrown off course by forces outside her control. In fact, you get so wrapped up in this heartbreaking romance than you forget the awful things she’s done to get here. That’s why he’s so successful— he creates a story so much more romantic and beautiful than real life that how could you not root for it.

I think that’s a sign of a really good entertainer. The ability to make you completely forget where you are. That moment right after a good book when you look up and say, “Huh. I guess I gotta go back to my life now, or something.”

Cabaret (1972) is all about this idea. In a seedy nightclub in Germany at the height of the third reich, it is the job — and the pleasure — of the Emcee to keep you occupied. “So life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful,” he tells the audience at the opening of the show. The world is messy and awful, yes, but in here? It’s just pure entertainment.

The Emcee and Sally Bowles, portrayed wonderfully by Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli.

The Emcee’s finest moment as an entertainer would have to be the song “If You Could See Her.”

“I know what you’re thinking, you wonder why I chose her,” the Emcee sings out. “It’s just a first impression! What good’s a first impression?” he earnestly asks, before revealing the lady in question: a gorilla in a dress.

A man’s in love with a gorilla, and you’re laughing?

The audience laughs, but the Emcee doesn’t care. A soft, romantic piano plays as he gazes lovingly into the gorilla’s eyes. It’s a funny concept, sure, but the song isn’t really a comedy. “When we’re in public together, I hear society moan. But if they could see her through my eyes, maybe they’d leave us alone,” he sings sadly.

The audience isn’t laughing anymore. The Emcee sings so softly, so sweetly, so mournfully that he wins you over. Hey, it’s not his fault he fell in love with a gorilla! Who are any of us to judge how cupid’s arrow flies?

“All we ask, is ein bisschen verständnis — a little understanding.” Is that really too much to ask? “I understand your objections, I grant you the problem’s not small,” he implores us.

“But if you could see her through my eyes,” the Emcee laments to his now sympathetic audience,

“She wouldn’t look jewish at all.”

That’s the real danger of it all: allowing yourself to think something is free of politics, and just pure entertainment. Everything has a little bit of an agenda, whether the creator thinks it does or not, and it’s important to know that going in. You don’t wanna get tricked by Pewdiepie into ironically becoming a nazi, like the thirteen-year-old gamers of america have.

All the world is a stage, and you better know what you’re paying to see.

*Featured Image:

You can rent or buy Cabaret on YouTube Movies.

Chicago is streaming on Hulu+Starz.

The quote in the subtitle is from Fosse/Verdon, all 8 episodes of which are on Hulu. The show, among other things, goes through the production of the Cabaret film, as well as the original Chicago stage show.

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