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background and analysis by Scott Miller

            In November 1968, a new musical premiered on Broadway from the Cabaret team, composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb, choreographer Ron Field, and director Hal Prince; and the bookwriter of Fiddler on the Roof, Joseph Stein. It was called Zorbá and was based on the popular 1946 novel Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, as well as letters the team found from the real Zorba. A successful film version had been made in 1964 starring Anthony Quinn, but the musical returned to the novel for inspiration, and the end product was very different from the film. With considerable input from Hal Prince, the show opened in a “bouzouki parlor” on Crete where a group has gathered to tell stories. They tell the story of Zorba, his philosophy of living life to the fullest, and a very dramatic, emotional, tragic, but life affirming encounter with a young man and with love.

            Unfortunately, with two leads, Hershel Bernardi and Maria Karnilova, who had both starred in Fiddler on the Roof for much of its run, audiences and critics alike compared the two shows, usually to the determent of Zorbá. And because of its creative staff and the similarity of its roots, it was also compared too often to Cabaret. Just as novelist Christopher Isherwood had turned the real life Jean Ross into the literary Sally Bowles, so too had novelist Nikos Kazantzakis turned the real life Alexis Zorba into the literary Zorba the Greek, and now both were musical theatre characters singing Kander and Ebb songs. Despite huge advance sales, great reviews, and seven Tony Awards nominations (but only one win), the show ran out of steam early and closed after 305 performances. Not a flop, but not a hit either.

            Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, “From beginning to end this is a musical with exquisite style and finesse. Prince calculates his efforts like a Mozart. Prince has learned the principle of the musical as a gesamtumskwerk, the Wagnerian ideal of theatrical unity where every part plays its role in the whole.” John Chapman wrote in the Daily News, “Zorbá is magnificent – a great work of musical theatre.” Other reviews were more mixed.

            Some reviews complained that there’s not much plot, that it’s just a series of episodes. But that’s only true if you think Zorba is the protagonist. He’s not. Nikos is the protagonist, the one who learns and grows and changes. Zorba is a Wise Wizard figure, like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Jiminy Cricket. If you understand that Nikos is our hero, then it’s a very straight, linear path from incident to incident, as Nikos learns something from each episode, each encounter, and slowly accesses more and more of his emotions and his “animal” nature, leading to his eventual enlightenment, in a way parallel to Company. He follows a classic hero myth trajectory.

            As ticket sales slowed down for the original production, Prince decided to go back into rehearsal with a new cast – including John Raitt and Chita Rivera – take the show on tour, then return to Broadway. The tour sold badly, closed early and did not return to Broadway. Another tour went out in 1970 but also did poorly.

            In 1983 the film version’s director, Michael Cacoyannis, and its star, Anthony Quinn, put together a revival, which did well financially but betrayed the material by considerably softening its darker edges. Lyrics were changed, dialogue changed, and two new songs were written. In 1986, a tour went out with Joel Grey in the lead, and a movie version of the musical was announced with Anthony Quinn and John Travolta, but it never happened. 

I Am Zorba

On the surface, Zorba is a wild mix of sex comedy, romantic tragedy, social commentary, and philosophical debate. All in one. Along with some amazing Kander & Ebb songs. It’s very much like their other shows Cabaret and Chicago, except Zorba really isn’t cynical, while the other two are almost entirely cynical.

            The show’s opening song is called “Life Is,” in which a bunch of villagers in a “bouzouki parlor” debate the meaning of life. It starts with dialogue that segues into singing:

Manolako: So, what should we do now?
Fivos: Want me to sing? Anybody here want me to sing?
Crowd: No!
Konstandi: Shut up!
Manolako: How about a story? Hey, let’s tell them a story…
Sofia: What story?
Manolako: The Zorba story…
Marina: Zorba! That’s an old story!
Manolako: Old? 40-50 years! Old?
Mordoni: What’s it about?
Manolako: What’s it about? What’s any story about? It’s about life.
Konstandi: Just life?
Manolako: That’s right. Life. Love and hate and joy and anger and death.
Konstandi: I had to ask.
Manolako: And sadness and happiness. Life.
Fivos: That’s right. You know what life is? (He sings:) Life is a glass of rum.
Manolako: No! Life is a sip of sage.
Zorba: No! Life is the taste of raki flowing warmly from the cup.
Despo: Shut up! Life is a walnut leaf.
Hortense: No! Life is an olive tree.
Mordoni: No! Life is a scented, melon breasted woman, when her lips are red and full.
Fivos: Bull! Life is a pomegranate orchard and two lovers passing by it.
Konstandi: Life is my fist in your face if you don’t keep quiet!
Fivos: What did you say?
Konstandi: I said, life is my fist in your face if you don’t keep quiet!

Most of this was cut or rewritten for the revival. Too earthy.

By the time the man part of the song starts, the subtle, stunning brilliance of the title becomes obvious. “Life Is.” It’s not an unfinished phrase, which is what it seems on the surface. The title is not ”Life Is...” No, the point of the title – and the song and the entire show – is that Life just is. No use trying to change it or rage against it. Life is good and bad and beautiful and ugly and tender and rough and everything else; and the only way to fully love life is to accept all of it. The only way to be truly happy is to love all of life. Even when people leave us, even when they die. That’s the secret to happiness that Zorba knows and Nikos must learn. Or, as our  Wise Wizard figure, “The Leader” then sings:

Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,
Life is how the time goes by...
Life is where you wait while you’re waiting to leave,
Life is where you grin and grieve…
Having if you’re lucky,
Wanting if you’re not,
Looking for the ruby
Underneath the rot,
Hungry for the pilaf
In someone else’s pot,
But that’s the only choice you’ve got!

Life is where you stand just before you are flat,
Life is only that, mister,
Life is simply that, mister,
That and nothing more than that!

Life is what you feel
Till you can’t feel at all,
Life is where you fly and fall…
Running for the shelter,
Naked in the snow,
Learning that a tear drops
Anywhere you go,
Finding it’s the mud
That makes the roses grow,
But that’s the only choice you know!

Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,
Life is how the time goes by...

            Many people complain that Zorba is depressing, but they miss the point of the show, and they’re not listening to the opening number. That’s not depressing; it’s aware. When Anthony Quinn revived (and emasculated) the show in the 1980s, they changed the Leader’s first line to, “Life is what you do till the moment you die.” A kinder, gentler Zorba. But Zorba isn’t about the fear of making the audience sad: it’s about the embrace of the adventure of living, even at its darkest, most brutal moments.

But this opening is brilliant not only in its content, but also in its form. We all know from Stephen Sondheim that in the best musicals, content dictates form. “Life Is” is a debate, an argument; and so is the rest of the show. This story, though very funny and emotional on the surface is as much a philosophical debate as it is a romantic comedy-drama. Throughout the entire show (and the entire novel), Zorba is teaching Nikos just as Socrates once taught Plato, through argument, through story, through parable.

            According to Wikipedia, the legendary Symposium (upon which is based Hedwig’s “The Origin of Love”) is “a philosophical text by Plato dated c. 385–370 BC. It concerns itself at one level with the genesis, purpose and nature of love, and (in latter-day interpretations) is the origin of the concept of Platonic love. Love is examined in a sequence of speeches by men attending a symposium, or drinking party. Each man must deliver an encomium, a speech in praise of Love. The party takes place at the house of the tragedian Agathon in Athens. Socrates in his speech asserts that the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher or, literally, a lover of wisdom. Commonly regarded as one of Plato’s major works, the dialogue has been used as a source by social historians seeking to throw light on life in ancient Athens – in particular, upon human sexuality and the symposium as an institution.”

            That sounds an awful lot like Zorba and Zorba. And a lot like “Life Is”... 

That Way Is Just as Good

             David Steindl-Rast, a monk, says, “Ordinary happiness depends on happenstance. Joy is that extraordinary happiness that is independent of what happens to us. Good luck can make us happy, but it cannot give us lasting joy. The root of joy is gratefulness. We tend to misunderstand the link between joy and gratefulness. We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from gratefulness. If one has all the good luck in the world, but takes it for granted, it will not give one joy. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it. We hold the key to everlasting joy in our own hands. For it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

            The point of Zorba is that you must embrace all of life if you want to be truly happy, even the bad times, even the pain and hurt. It’s all part of the same tapestry, or as Dustin Hoffman puts it in I Heart Huckabee’s, everything is the blanket – “When you get the blanket thing you can relax because everything you could ever want or be you already have and are.”

            That’s what a lot of musicals are also about. In Spelling Bee, Chip sings, “Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium.” At first hearing, that sounds depressing, but it’s not. It’s not saying that life is awful; it’s saying the life doesn’t take a moral position. Good behavior is not necessarily rewarded and bad behavior is not necessarily punished. That’s not depressing; it’s powerfully reassuring. Bad things happens to everyone. Don’t take it personally. God’s not mad at you and you are not cursed. If life is random, then by definition, it can’t be “fair,” which would imply judgment and consequence.

            This point is driven home more forcibly later in Spelling Bee, when Marcy is visited by Jesus...

MARCY: Jesus… I was wondering what would happen if I didn’t win today.
JESUS: What do you think would happen?
MARCY: I don’t know, but would you be disappointed with me if I lost?
JESUS: Of course not. But I also won’t be disappointed with you if you win.
MARCY: You’re saying it’s up to me then?
JESUS: Yes, and also, this isn’t the kind of thing I care very much about.

Passing Strange arrives at a similar conclusion in its final song...

‘Cause the Real is a construct.
It’s the raw nerve’s private zone.
It’s a personal sunset,
You drive off into alone.

There are no cosmic scales of justice. We each have our own road, our own “Real,” and each of our roads is littered with good shit and bad shit, in random amounts, placed at random intervals. That’s not something to bemoan; it’s something to celebrate.

            Life is an adventure. That’s what Zorba thinks. Or as Mame puts it, “Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death.”

            But if life is an adventure, if it’s random, if everybody’s road is different, that means that the idea of universal morality is up for grabs. Your Real isn’t my Real. You don’t get to judge how I live, and vice versa. One of the hardest aspects of this story for actors and audience alike, is this lack of recognizable morality. Zorba is a great guy, fun to be with, full of wise if cockeyed philosophy, and chock full of joy. But Zorba is also a jerk and a misogynist. As much as Zorba often feels like musical comedy, it’s much deeper and more complicated than that.

            Everything about Zorba and Zorba is gray area – except for his joy, which is always full throttle. He makes Hortense very happy but he also treats her very badly. He teaches Nikos a great deal about living a good life, but he also essentially steals a lot of Nikos’ money by spending it on women and drink. He’s not a patient man. He’s not subtle. He’s usually not nobly motivated, though it does happen occasionally...

            Zorba’s morality is about appetite. He follows his road wherever it takes him, and along the way, he consumes life, women, drink, food, dance. To use a relatively recent phrase, he knows how to Live Out Loud.

            He does have a kind of reverence for women, but it’s a skewed, misogynistic kind of reverence, as Zorba explains in one passage in the novel, which was turned into a song for the revival:

A woman is a refreshing spring. You bend over it, see your face reflected in the water, drink – you drink, and your bones grate. Afterward comes someone else who thirsts. He bends over in his turn, sees his face reflected, and drinks. After that, still another comes. That’s what it means to be a spring, what it means to be a woman.

Women are to be consumed. And then passed along. What do you do with a character like that? In a lot of ways, Zorba acts like an antagonist to our protagonist Nikos, but Zorba is really a deliciously twisted version of the Wise Wizard, a character like Ben Kenobi, Glinda the Good Witch, Jiminy Cricket, or Angel in Rent. Just really amoral. Maybe that’s why the Zorba the Greek film and novel are so beloved.

            Maybe the point of all this is that Zorba is Life. He is Life Force incarnate. And part of that Life Force is Death. But Death is neither good nor bad, it simply is. You wouldn’t label gravity or electricity as morally good or bad; they simply exist. Only the uses to which humans put them can be good or bad.

            So many musicals are about this idea of yin and yang... Pippin, Company, Celebration, Rent, Hands on a Hardbody, High Fidelity, Hedwig.... I could keep going...

            The end of the show leaves us with a weird mix of feelings, joy but unease, glad to have met Zorba but also glad he’s moving on. It’s a complicated but also simple moral universe Zorba operates in. As he sings:

I have nothing.
I want nothing.
I am free.
I need nothing.
I owe nothing.
I am free.

If my feet say, come this way,
I probably would.
But if they say, go that way,
That way is just as good.

I ask nothing.
I judge nothing.
I am free.
There’s one Zorba,
And that Zorba,
I must be.

Heaven waits for other men,
But not for me.
I fear nothing!
I hope for nothing!
I am free!

Zorba isn’t piling up good deeds to get a seat in Heaven; he’s too busy living. Whether or not you agree with his philosophy, we emerge from his story feeling strangely a little better about the world, and a little more Zen about these crazy times in which we find ourselves. Zorba is the tonic we all need.

            Everything that makes Zorba special can be illustrated by a line in the opening number, which reappears at the end. The beginning of the first song, “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die,” is really intense if you think about it, and it often draws a few uncomfortable laughs. What kind of musical is this? But when that same line comes back at the end of the show in the short epilogue, after an evening of laughs and heartbreak and death, suddenly those words don’t seem harsh or pessimistic anymore; now, with the whole show as backdrop, with Zorba’s unique philosophy underscoring everything, now those words just sound right, enlightened. Of course that’s what life is, and we should celebrate that. Life is just time, and what we do with that time is up to us.

            This is not your average musical comedy. It’s a lot richer.


Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.