An Analysis by Scott Miller
Joy is under-appreciated in American theatre today. Perhaps it’s under-appreciated in America. Joy is a cliché. Joy is a cop out. Now, in the midst of the “War on Terror,” steel-jawed determination is far more acceptable than joy. Part of the reason joy has gone out of the theatre is that the earliest, silliest Broadway musicals and plays, in the first part of the twentieth century, traded only in joy and happiness. In reaction to that (or perhaps, over-reaction), the American musical theatre has steered in the last fifty years more and more toward death, despair, and destruction, either societal or personal.
And really, A New Brain is pretty dark stuff, too. After all, the main character is in a coma with a deadly brain disorder for part of the show. But like a few other musicals of the past decade – Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, Rent, Bat Boy – A New Brain takes that despair and those images of death and it turns the sophisticated angst of modern musical theatre on its ear. How many writers or composers would – or could – write a musical comedy about brain surgery, a musical that takes a surreal, circuitous path through unlikely subjects like sailing, genetics, homelessness, and children’s television? Probably only William Finn.
It was only three days after winning the Tony Award for his Broadway musical Falsettos that Finn was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. It wasn’t a brain tumor, it turned out, but it was a congenital condition called arterial venous malformation (AVM) – just as deadly. It also wasn’t inoperable, it turned out; the doctors did end up operating on Finn’s brain and he came out of it good as new. It was upon his return home that he began writing songs about the experience. And his still wobbly walking made it easier to just stay sitting at the piano. In one interview, Finn said, “When I came out of the hospital, I couldn’t sit at the piano without writing a decent song. At the piano, there was just all this gratitude that I was alive and this life spewing out of me – the piano was singing – and I was just there to write it down.” It started out as merely a song cycle, but soon it had turned into a full length musical – a musical about a theatre composer trapped in a job writing songs for an insipid kiddie TV show, who ends up in the hospital awaiting surgery and sure that he’s dying. And though some of the events in the show are fictionalized, the most bizarre moments are the truest ones. Finn really did have occasional conversations with an outspoken homeless woman near his home. Finn’s mother really did throw out all his favorite books while cleaning his apartment. He really did try to write a song while he was in the hospital, although in real life it was for a Wendy Wasserstein play, not a kiddie TV show called Mr. Bungee’s Lily Pad.
its subject matter, though, A New Brain manages to be one of the most
life-affirming, most heartfelt musicals written in the last decades of the
twentieth century, maybe a show only someone who actually faced death could have
written. Jonathan Larson, the composer/lyricist of the rock musical Rent
wrote before his untimely death at age thirty-five, “In
these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams,
we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face
every day.” Perhaps, A New Brain
is proof that Larson was right. “The truths I learned I couldn’t have
learned any other way,” Finn said in a USA
Today interview. “That you’re put here to do certain things, and you
can’t waste your time not doing it. You have to greet each day with enormous
gratitude and hope and happiness.” Then he adds, “I know I sound like a
But A New Brain isn’t only about brain surgery any more than Fiddler on the Roof is only about a Jewish family. Just as Fiddler is about the broader, more universal theme of tradition – holding on to it, allowing it to change over time – A New Brain is about the more universal journey Gordon takes toward the understanding that the world is how we perceive it and how we leave it. The world is neither good nor bad, gentle or hostile; it just is, Finn is telling us. Our experiences are shaped by how we perceive the world and how we react to what life hands us, and our lives are measured by how we affected the world while we were here.
Yet A New Brain does not ignore the darker side of its subject matter. After twenty years of the AIDS pandemic, with shootings in America’s schools continuing unchecked, with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon still fresh in our collective memory, the homeless woman’s admonition that “We live in perilous times” rings especially true. And gay audiences may well see Gordon’s brain troubles as a metaphor for AIDS (especially since Gordon is gay) and though that wasn’t intended by Finn, the comparison is a legitimate one.
Finn’s alter-ego and Brain’s central character Gordon Schwinn is like the character Lester (Kevin Spacey) in the film American Beauty. They both go through life changing experiences and come out on the other side realizing that all the things they thought were important just aren’t, that “security” isn’t worth the stifling of happiness, that happiness doesn’t come from money or things, that we pass up everything that’s beautiful in life every day, never taking time to notice or appreciate it all. Interestingly, that’s a change that composer William Finn has gone through with his work. In his earlier shows, In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland, Finn takes a very cynical view of the world. There is love and beauty in those works, to be sure, but they’re never fully expressed, never fully realized. Everything is tempered by darkness and cynicism. But with A New Brain, Finn is different. Having gone through the experience of almost dying, having gotten that New Lease on Life, Finn – like Gordon and Lester – sees the world differently now. It’s hard to believe that the same man who wrote “Marvin’s Giddy Seizures” or “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” or “I Never Wanted to Love You” has now written “I Feel So Much Spring.” It’s rare that we get to see such personal work from an author both before and after a life changing experience, but here we do, and it’s exhilarating. There are still shadows of the old Finn in New Brain, in the nasty, frog-suited TV show host Mr. Bungee, in Gordon’s manic mother, in songs like “And They’re Off,” but something’s definitely different here.
Past Tense Imperfect
As in most plays and musicals, the behavior onstage in A New Brain is predicated on what’s come before in the lives of these characters. Gordon and his mother have a very volatile, sometimes hostile relationship, but there is love there. They have a history together, and the fact that it is a history of shared abandonment by Gordon’s father and of despair makes it an even stronger bond. They accept harsh words from each other, they accept explosions from each other, they accept unkind moments, all because each of them knows what the other has been through. Each of them knows the scars the other carries with him. Both have been hurt by Gordon’s father (about whom we find out only the barest of details) and they have clearly been support for each other over the years. (Interestingly, other siblings are mentioned in “And They’re Off” but we never hear about them again and none of them come to see Gordon in the hospital. What’s that about?) But it’s their history together, their roles as mutual protectors, that demand that they accept the worst from each other without recrimination. And it’s also their similarities – their tendencies to react to fear with aggression, their habit of denying what’s inevitable. Both of them are harsh, volatile, difficult people; but knowing that about themselves, neither can judge the other for being that. Gordon knows that if he dies, he will be the second man to abandon his mother. And we see in “The Music Still Plays On” that his mother definitely sees that parallel as well. On the other hand, his mother is not without mercy. In the song “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe,” Roger tells Lisa that “his mother hopes he dies if he gets worse.” Or is this less mercy than the selfish refusal (or inability) to deal without something as tragic and difficult as having a son who’s a vegetable?
Gordon and Roger’s onstage relationships is also built inextricably on their past. Roger knows Gordon’s past and how it affects him. He loves Gordon deeply and accepts the dark side as part of what makes his lover the man he is. Gordon and Roger belong together because Roger has the inner peace and strength and patience to handle the insanity and extremity of Gordon, and Gordon has the passion and energy that makes life interesting for Roger. Gordon knows that Roger will never abandon him the way his father did.
It’s interesting to note that the score takes off, pretty much from the start, at a manic pace, and it doesn’t really stop to breathe until Roger shows up to sing “Sailing,” the first relaxed song in the show after a succession of frantic, neurotic, relentlessly driving, dissonant numbers. The music tells us that Gordon’s life is crazy (presumably even when he’s not being rushed to the hospital) and only Roger can bring a calmness to that craziness. We see that influence throughout the entire show – Roger’s patience, his humor, his deep understanding love , and his calm.
Roger is Gordon’s own
personal Zen master, someone who can calmly see the big picture while Gordon is
agonizing over the latest petty injustice. (And perhaps that’s why Roger
connects so instantly with Lisa, the homeless woman, who shares Roger’s calm
and Zen-like nature.) While Gordon wants success Right Now, Roger knows that
life – and more importantly, in this case, healing – takes time. Roger’s
easy-going nature is represented by his love of sailing, not just a peaceful,
outdoorsy hobby, but also one in which you’re at the mercy of nature, moving
when the wind moves you, sitting still when the wind is busy elsewhere, ignoring
the demands of time. It’s worth noting that in the song “Cutty Hunk” they
are sitting “becalmed,” something Roger loves and something that drives
Gordon absolutely crazy.
But “Cutty Hunk” goes even further. The whole song – and Gordon’s recollection of sailing with Roger while the MRI happens – is a metaphor for Gordon’s past, present, and future, and Gordon, being overly self-analytical, recognizes the metaphorical significance when he sings, “Could this be a metaphor?” The “lee” of a boat is the side sheltered from the wind. For years now, Gordon has been sitting in the lee (the shelter) of Roger, represented here by Roger’s boat. Despite turmoil at work or with his mother, Gordon always finds peace and shelter ad safety in Roger’s sense of calm. Roger lets life take him where it will, or metaphorically, lets the wind take his boat where it will. Gordon, on the other hand, wants to use the boat’s engine to steer it (life) where he wants it to go. This is the fundamental difference between the two men, illustrated throughout the show but most notably in “Cutty Hunk.” But it’s also important to notice what happens over the course of the song. The ensemble – the people in Gordon’s life – tell him in this song that “Cutty Hunk is in our past.” In other words, the safety of Roger’s calm will not shelter Gordon from what’s ahead, from brain surgery, from this life threatening situation. Gordon wants to turn on the motor to speed through all this, but he can’t control this. He has to let life steer him this time, instead of the other way around. He has to let go and let events unfold of their own accord. He tells his mother earlier in the show, “This thing’s outside our control,” but only now is he starting to actually accept that.
Finally, in the last verse of the song, the wind starts to blow and Gordon and the boat start moving. Instead of the safety (and stagnation?) of his past life, now he’s moving forward but with no control over the destination. Perhaps the wind is a metaphor for Gordon’s brain problem. It’s taking him to a new place, but it’s anybody’s guess where that new place will be or what it will be like. In many ways, Gordon hates the way his life is going, so moving anywhere at all is probably a good thing. He sings, “Getting somewhere at last is a sign of things improving.” In the context of the song, he means he’s bored sitting still. But this line also means that Gordon’s journey through this life-threatening illness will be a change for the better. His life will improve. He’ll end up in a better place, and this – the MRI – is the first step. “Cutty Hunk” segues directly into the song “Craniotomy,” in which the doctor finds the arterial venous malformation and plans are made to take care of it. The journey ahead may be dangerous, but Gordon is now moving forward. The safety of Cutty Hunk/Roger is in the past, the journey ahead is uncertain, but at least he’s moving forward.
The joke of Roger naming his
boat Cutty Hunk is obviously a gay man’s parody of the famous clipper ship
Cutty Sark (and its namesake whiskey), and it carries with it all the
hyper-masculine, gay-appropriated imagery of an all-male crew of sailors on long
sea voyages. The famous Cutty Sark was so named because of the ship’s
figurehead, a woman wearing a short chemise or nightshirt (called a cutty
sark in Scottish). Also, Cuttyhunk is an island off of Massachusetts, where
Roger likes to sail (notice the other place names in the song – Nantucket,
Cape Cod, Newport). But the joke goes even further. Other definitions of cutty
include irritable, short-tempered, and impatient (its literal meaning in
Scottish is short), which makes it that much funnier that Gordon, Roger’s
irritable (hunky?) lover, is aboard the Cutty Hunk and is complaining endlessly.
I Give You Time
Perhaps Gordon takes advantage of Roger’s easy-going nature. Imagine the profound, soul-crushing hurt that Roger must feel the night before Gordon’s brain surgery (in the song “An Invitation to Sleep in My Arms”) when Gordon chooses to try to write a song rather than spend the evening with Roger. Roger has been with this man for years and loves him deeply, and yet Gordon chooses to write a song for Bungee’s show rather than spending what might well be his last hours alive in the arms of his lover. There is clear tension in this song, with Roger gently but firmly asking Gordon for nothing more than a little time – something Roger will give Gordon at the end of the show – and Gordon trying to explain to his lover why writing a kiddie song is more important. Gordon tries awkwardly to equate this not-yet-written song with the symphonies he wishes he had written, but Roger’s not buying it. Gordon wants to leave something behind, but Roger knows this kiddie song (which ends up being the horrifically misguided “Yes” song) will never be all that Gordon wants it to be. It will never make up for regrets Gordon can’t dismiss. Roger believes that leaving something behind is less important than enjoying the time that’s left. But Gordon hasn’t learned yet the value of time, something Roger knows well. Roger understands the magic of time spent on his sailboat, free of commitments, clocks, and deadlines. Roger knows nothing matters more than time well spent. To Gordon, time is his enemy. To Roger it is his salvation – until now, when for the first time in his life, time is slipping away.
Time is a theme running throughout the show. The story beings with Gordon being late for lunch with Rhoda. At lunch we find out Gordon is late in completing songs for Bungee, and that he feels he’s running out of time in his career. At the hospital, Rhoda has to cancel an appointment with her therapist. The song “Sailing” is all about ignoring time. “And They’re Off” is all about living in the past and being unable to let go of the past. When Roger finally gets to the hospital, Gordon chastises him for being late. The song “Cutty Hunk” is all about how long Gordon has to lie still in the MRI machine, comparing it to how bored he gets when he’s sailing with Roger. In “Craniotomy,” the doctor makes it clear that surgery must be performed immediately, but also excuses himself because he has he has tickets to see Chicago that night. “An Invitation to Sleep in My Arms,” as discussed earlier, is all about how Gordon’s last hours before brain surgery will be spent. Will he use this time to love Roger or to write a song for Bungee? It’s interesting that Gordon writes the “Yes” song almost entirely in the future tense, even though his own future is looking awfully tentative. “In the Middle of the Room” is another song about time passing way too slowly.
It’s only after Gordon awakes from his coma that he finally understands the value of time. He sings, “I feel like I’m sailing. I’m slowly exhaling, holding on for life.” It’s the first time he has relaxed in a long time, maybe ever. At last, nothing seems urgent and he’s not late for anything. It’s in the song “Time,” near the end of the show, that Roger makes explicit this theme that has run throughout the show. He makes the gift of time that Gordon has discovered official.
I give you time to screw around
I give you time to kiss the ground
I give you time to value what you’ve found.
But most of all my friend, I give you time.
understands now, and his earlier manifesto “Heart and Music” now becomes
“Time and Music.” And this segues into the show’s finale, “I Feel So
Much Spring.” He sings “What was dark so long had felt like winter. Finally
there’s sun.” Time has passed, in more ways than one. Many of the images in
the song are images of time passing – spring, winter, dawn. The song – and
the show – end with the two most important themes of the show – time (in the
repeated lyric “time and music”) and new beginnings (“I feel so much
The homeless woman Lisa is a commentator, a one-woman Greek chorus, who not only articulates some of the show’s central themes (most notably in the song “Change”), but also, like the God-Devil figure Leading Player in Pippin, steps into the action and moves events forward. Based on an actual homeless woman that composer William Finn regularly encountered on his street, Lisa is a cosmic figure in this very cosmic drama.
From her first entrance in the show’s second number, she announces to Gordon and to us that “We live in perilous times.” She knows that something bad is about to happen. Especially, now in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the pentagon, her world view is even more arresting than it was when the show premiered. Her message is to live life now, to make life count, to appreciate life. Life is ever perilous and ever heading for unexpected change. It isn’t clear until halfway through the show, in her song “Change,” that Lisa is talking about two different things, and the less obvious of these is the more important. She sings, “All I’m asking for is change,” and after all, that’s all Gordon’s asking for too – change in the direction of his career and his health. And both Gordon and the Lisa get their change. Gordon comes out of his coma healthy as ever (or maybe more than ever, at least psychologically), his outlook on life has changed substantially, and by the end of the show, he has finally written, in the form of New Brain’s finale, the great song he has been searching for. His talent is not lost, as he thought.
And the homeless lady gets her change too, as she retrieve the books Gordon’s mother throws out and she turns (at least on the surface) from homeless lady into entrepreneur; she takes her opportunities where they come. But her selling of Gordon’s books isn’t just a monetary issue; it’s also an existential issue. In her role, as God/Devil figure, she has to take Gordon’s books away from him. He has to let go of the past in order to make a new life for himself. He gets to start over – quite literally – with his life, and that involves letting go of the baggage of his less than successful, less than satisfying former life. The books are a symbol of the old Gordon, of his obsessiveness and his over-intellectualizing of life, and he must leave them behind. (This might explain why the song’s title was changed from “The Homeless Lady’s Revenge” to “On the Street.”)
In her role as Shaman, Lisa counsels Roger in his grief, she issues a warning to Gordon, and she acts as parent in the end, forcing Gordon to leave his old life behind and start over. She’s smart and apparently educated since she can make jokes about Gordon’s high-minded books (she knows who Doctorow, Brecht, and Thackery all are), and she’s got an unerring bullshit detector. She embodies one of the central themes of the show, all the while acting as a reminder to Gordon and to us all that our comfortable lives can be taken away from us in a heartbeat. No matter how wise, how smart, how funny, how mystical she may be, she’s still homeless. Just as the reality of Gordon’s brain problem can’t get lost in the humor and chaos of the story, neither can Lisa’s homelessness.
But she’s also a social commentator on a larger scale. Her song “Change” makes a pretty “politically incorrect” statement about the hypocrisy of pity in America today.
People walk by me with glee.
I am what they’ll never be.
The point she makes continually throughout the song is that all she wants is money. She doesn’t want friendship, pity, compassion, or social programs – just money to buy some food. She mocks the liberal minded who lobby for governmental change to eliminate homelessness:
Change the government.
Kill the mayor.
It’s not fair
How lives evaporate.
Change the system that made us what we are.
She’s homeless, however she came to be that, and lobby and legislation won’t buy her dinner tonight. She needs to eat today, not two years from now, when lawmakers will have appropriated money for another shelter that still can’t accommodate all the homeless. She makes fun of the over-reaction to problems. Give her money right now, she’s telling us – and nothing much, just pennies, nickels, and dimes (she reinforces her point by refusing a dollar from Roger) – and her problems will be solved tonight. Give her compassion, friendship, or legislation, and she’ll go hungry tonight. She laughs at the inability of Americans to respond appropriately to a problem, to fit the solution to the problem, to solve a problem rather than talking about it, forming committees, collecting signatures, and giving interviews. She doesn’t need us to change our lives to solve her problems. She just needs our spare change.
And this parallels Gordon and the people in his life. Everybody’s over-reacting. Everybody’s freaking out. If they only knew what Lisa knows – address the problem, deal with it, and move on – they’d all be a lot happier. All Lisa wants is loose change. Giving her legislation is too much and won’t help. All Gordon needs to do is face his problem, have his surgery, and hope for the best. Instead, everybody wants too much, gives too much, and it doesn’t help. It’s not until Lisa takes his books – his past life and preoccupations – away from him that he learns to simplify his life and his outlook. And he ends up a lot happier. We see what’s wrong with him when he sings to Lisa:
But you found my books.
You have found my history.
You don’t know what this means to me.
It means to me I live.
Lisa sees (and so do
we) that Gordon still hasn’t learned to live right. He doesn’t live because
he found his books; he lives because he’s been given a second chance to
correct all the mistakes he made the first time out. To return to his past
(represented by his books), to return to his old habits and obsessions, will
mean he has squandered that second chance. And maybe this makes Lisa even more
determined not to let him have those books. Gordon has been reborn –
represented physically by the fact that he (sort of) has to learn to walk again
– and he must start with a clean slate, a blank canvas. In a very clear
parallel to Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, Gordon starts his life over here at the
end of the show, but living it the same way this second time won’t work; he
has to learn to live his life better this second time.
A Fungee Bungee Time
In sharp contrast to Lisa stands Gordon’s arch nemesis, Mr. Bungee, host of Mr. Bungee’s Lily Pad. So why is Mr. Bungee so mean? Well, imagine having to work with or depend on Gordon Schwinn. Bungee hired him to be a craftsman, not an artist, to churn out serviceable songs on a weekly basis for a kiddie TV show, not to leave something of worth behind for future generations. Imagine being Bungee, needing songs each week, not caring if they’re great works of art, and having to deal with the continual whining of this guy who believes his job is beneath him, who wants to be anywhere else and who thinks he’s meant to be a Great Artist. How annoying would that be? Of course Bungee is mean to Gordon – Gordon would be a nightmare to work with. But we have to ask, do we ever see the real Bungee or do we just see Gordon’s perception of him through Gordon’s fantasies? Is it a clue that we never learn Bungee’s real name? Has Gordon melded Bungee the man into Bungee the character? And when we’re seeing Bungee through the filter of Gordon’s mind, we may get a lot of insight into how Gordon sees him and how he deals with him – again, with all that hostility, is it any wonder Bungee hates him? – but can we really get any idea what the man playing Bungee is like?
Bungee is arguably a father figure for Gordon, though a clearly screwed up father figure. Is this how Gordon sees father figures, as abusive, abandoning, impossible to please? Don’t forget the other male authority figure in the show – the doctor – who’s also cold, impatient, a little weird – and also abandoning the night before Gordon’s surgery when the doctor ducks out because he has tickets to Chicago. In fact, it’s both funny and disturbing how condescending the doctor and the nurse Nancy are to Gordon, how much they treat him like a child (or is that just his perception because he knows he’s acting like a child?). In one of the funnier fantasy moments, Nancy begins explaining his arterial venous malformation and segues into a weird children’s song about veins in brains bursting. Has Gordon melded together all the authority figures in his life into some collective Super Bungee, all singing to him in condescending children’s songs?
Or perhaps Gordon is feeling the tables turned on him. Just like a doctor who becomes a patient, now after years of writing (what he considers to be) simplistic, condescending songs for kids, Gordon finds himself in a position in which things have to be explained to him, in which he is the one without knowledge, in which he is vulnerable and has to trust strangers. Maybe, in his dysfunctional, misfiring brain, all the brainless songs he wrote for Bungee’s shows are coming back to torture him.
We have to ask, since Gordon lost his own father, is Bungee a (creepy, twisted) replacement? Gordon keeps looking for Bungee’s approval, but also constantly fighting with him, challenging him, rebelling against him, just like a real, adolescent son. Is this one more clue that Gordon has a lot of growing up to do (like Finn’s other famous character, Marvin, in the Falsettos trilogy)? It’s funny (and typical) that Gordon says he hates Bungee but is then distressed to hear from Rhoda that Bungee hates him too. And what does it mean when Bungee threatens to replace Gordon with his own son? Is this one of Gordon’s fantasy sequences, and if so, what does this tell us about Gordon, Bungee (or at least, Gordon’s perception of Bungee), and their relationship? It’s interesting to compare this dysfunctional father-son relationship to the one that takes center stage in Finn’s one-act musical March of the Falsettos, where the central character is the father instead of the son.
Not only is Bungee a father figure, but Gordon writes children’s songs for him. Is this another metaphor suggesting that Gordon is still a child and needs to grow up? Is his job is a metaphor for his life, trapped in childhood, as represented by Mr. Bungee’s Lily Pad? Bungee says to Gordon early in the show, “Why don’t you grow up before you die?” but it’s not the real Bungee – it’s Gordon’s hallucination of Bungee, in other words, Gordon is saying this to himself. He knows he’s childish. He knows he treats his mother and Roger badly. Gordon seems to have more self-knowledge than most people, but at this point, only in his hallucinations.
Bungee mocks Gordon throughout the show. In his very first appearance, Bungee makes fun of Gordon’s image of him as thoroughly evil. Bungee verbalizes Gordon’s misguided vision of him, in what is probably a skewed version of Bungee’s real life TV theme song:
Mr. Bungee is aquatic and despotic.
Mr. Bungee’s oceanic and satanic.
Mr. Bungee’s said to be tyrannical at times,
And Mr. Bungee always rhymes!
In other words, he’s pointing out the ridiculous notion that someone who does a kiddie TV show could also be the Hitler Gordon imagines him to be. Bungee is making the point to Gordon (and Finn is making the point to us) that perhaps Gordon’s self-hatred, his disappointment at being a theatre composer who’s writing kiddie TV songs, is being unfairly directed at Bungee. We don’t know what Bungee is like in real life, but we do know that Gordon is pretty unhappy and pretty difficult to deal with. Bungee’s song “Be Polite” also comes in the form of a children’s song, but again, instead of teaching it mocks Gordon, treating him like a naughty child, and making fun of the fact that Gordon treats strangers respectfully but is consistently rude to his own mother and husband. Bungee parodies Gordon’s behavior, singing:
Be polite to everybody
Everybody except all your nearest
And your dearest.
They love too much and earn your spite,
So never be polite.
But again, this is not the real Bungee; this is the fantasy Bungee inside Gordon’s head. Is this fantasy Bungee Gordon’s conscience, his own warped Jiminy Cricket?
But the biggest question is this: Why is Bungee Gordon’s savior at the end, the only one who can wake him from his coma? Why does Gordon’s subconscious choose Bungee as the carrier of the life giving message to fight to wake up? Have Gordon and Bungee finally connected in some way? Has Gordon finally seen the value in Bungee and his show, the value in Bungee’s messages to children? Or is “Don’t Give In” one of Gordon’s songs he wrote for Bungee, so that Bungee can’t really get credit for it? Or is it maybe a song Gordon will write, one of the songs that will come “spewing” out of him in the coming days and weeks? (In fact, we know it is one of the songs that will come “spewing” out of Gordon’s alter-ego, William Finn.)
the show ends, one question is left unanswered. Will Gordon go back to writing
for Bungee? Or has the “child” finally severed ties with the “father”?
Is Gordon leaving the show the equivalent of a child leaving home? Did he
only need to be there while he, himself, was growing up? Now that he has become
an adult, leaving the childish Gordon behind, is it time for him to leave the
children’s show behind as well?
Killing Him Softly With His Songs
Gordon’s first “Spring” song opens the show because that tune in its two incarnations bookends the show. In the beginning, we see a banal, painfully soulless version, and in the end, once Gordon has made the journey he had to make, we see the song in its fully formed, mature, emotional version, no longer about a fictional frog but now about Gordon’s own journey. Early in the show, Gordon says repeatedly that he’s lost his talent, that writing for the Mr. Bungee has killed his talent. Of course, we know that Gordon hasn’t lost his talent – just look how interesting his musical hallucinations are! So much of the show happens in Gordon’s head as either fantasy (which he controls) or hallucination (which he can’t). The amazing, quirky, surprising rhymes that pour forth out of his crazy brain, even unconsciously, prove that he’s overflowing with talent and creativity.
It’s not that Gordon has lost his talent; it’s that he can’t write well about things that don’t matter to him. He doesn’t “write well for frogs” because he hates Mr. Bungee, and he has no interest in writing insipid kids’ songs. And he sabotages himself the night before his surgery, when he tries to write one last song, something he can be remembered by, and chooses to write the “Yes” song for Mr. Bungee rather than writing about something that matters to him. Of course it’s going to come out badly and of course Bungee is going to hate it. Gordon says it himself early in the show: “Heart and music make a song.” Without heart, you can’t make a song, and Gordon’s songs for Bungee are terrible because his heart isn’t in them.
It’s only at the end of the show, when Gordon gets his second chance at life, he sits down to write about his rebirth, and that is something about which he cares, so he writes a beautiful, honest, heartfelt song. And the story can’t end until Gordon writes that song; it is the end toward which his entire journey has led. That song, “I Feel So Much Spring,” is an example of the songs “spewing” out of Finn’s head after his recovery. Once Gordon learns his lesson and truly starts off on his “new” life (in the song “Time”), that new life is celebrated with the up-tempo, raucously jazzy “Time and Music,” a redux of “Heart and Music.” All the people in his life – the “so many songs” he has in him waiting to come out – come together to celebrate. But Gordon stops the song half way through; that’s not the kind of joy Gordon is feeling. It’s not a raucous, crazy kind of joy. It’s a deeper, more profound, more peaceful, contented kind of joy. So Gordon changes the tone and leads his friends – the “songs” of his life – into the truer, more sincere expression of his joy, “I Feel So Much Spring.” This is who Gordon is now, a guy who might no longer mind sitting becalmed in the lee of Cutty Hunk.
Finn told interviewer Charlie Rose that New Brain, above all, is about gratitude and resurrection, and “I Feel So Much Spring” certainly illustrates those ideas. And like all great art, it can be understood on so many levels. The title refers not only to the season, to rebirth and renewal, but also to the verb spring – to the energy, the momentum, and propelling forward that Gordon feels as he embarks upon his new life.
let’s not forget that we know Gordon Schwinn is the alter-ego of composer
William Finn. And we know that after Finn came out of his coma, he went home and
wrote A New Brain.
He Has So Many Songs
One of the strangest things (among many) about A New Brain is that it’s not traditionally linear. The story doesn’t unfold in a logical progression of scenes because that’s not how Gordon’s brain is working right now, and we’re hearing and seeing everything through Gordon. Throughout the show we constantly move in and out of Gordon’s fantasies. More than half the show takes place either in Gordon’s fantasies, dreams, or hallucinations. One of the most important questions directors and actors doing the show have to decide is exactly when are we in his head and when are we out? Finn gives us clues.
In the second half of the show, when Gordon is in his coma, he has an extended hallucination, and as befitting a theatre composer he dreams in the form of a mini-musical, encompassing the songs, “Brain Dead” (a dance number), “Whenever I Dream” (a ventriloquist act), “Eating Myself Up Alive” (the show-stopper), “The Music Still Plays On” (the “eleven o’clock number”) and “Don’t Give In.” That last song acts as a finale to Gordon’s hallucination-coma-musical, and once this musical within the musical ends, Gordon can wake up. He has, through his hallucination-coma-musical, examined his crazy life and learned something important.
This extended musical sequence tells actors and directors working on the show something very important – Finn has used musical styles to clue us in to when we’re inside Gordon’s head and when we’re in the real world. Inside Gordon’s head, we hear big pop power ballads and jazz numbers, production numbers, and specialty numbers (not to mention back-up singers), in songs like “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” “Cutty Hunk,” “And They’re Off,” and the hallucination-coma sequence already mentioned. These are the songs that Gordon describes in the intro to “Heart and Music”:
All the songs I did not write,
All the rhymes I never made,
All the stories I delayed
Up inside my brain.
I should explain –
I have so many songs…
And then we transition into the very music he’s talking about, with “Heart and Music,” and we meet his “songs” – the people in his life, those he cares about and those who are affecting his life, including the hospital staff. All these people are the music of Gordon’s life, and the lyric to “Heart and Music” (and its reprise late in the show) even lists for us the songs that are welling up inside his brain, that will soon come pouring out: stories of passion (“Invitation to Sleep in My Arms,” “You Boys Are Gonna Get Me in Such Trouble”), stories of friendship (“Just Go”), tales of how romance survives (“Time”), stories of yes’s and frogs making messes (the “Yes” song), stories of poor, unsuccessful and fat people’s lives (“Poor, Unsuccessful, and Fat,” “Eating Myself Up Alive”), stories of living (“Don’t Give In”), stories of dying (“Brain Dead”), ways we can deal with our fears (“Throw It Out,” “A Really Lousy Day”), stories of horses and parental divorces (“And They’re Off”), stories of mothers (“The Music Still Plays On”), stories of boyfriends (“Sailing”).
In “Heart and Music,” Gordon acclimates himself to the musical fantasy world inside his head and he starts to have fun with it. Up until this point in the show, the fantasies have been disorienting, unnerving, but Gordon takes tentative control of this world for a moment with “Heart and Music” and for the first time in a his fantasies, he sings lead. This fantasy world will move in and out of his control over the course of the show, just as we’ll be moving in and out of his fantasy world. But the imagery in the lyric quoted above is particularly interesting because he makes it sound like his brain is about to explode with the songs that can’t get out, that this arterial venous malformation which has burst is the result of an accumulation of songs that are trapped in his brain. The problem is that he can’t write in his waking life, only in his fantasy world, and so the songs can’t come out. As he’ll sing later (through Rhoda, as his ventriloquist dummy), in “Whenever I Dream”:
The world is a confusing place to live in.
But out there no one understands –
In my dreams I’m all composed, composing
At the keys,
Drip from these two hands.
But when I wake, it’s gone.
In contrast to “Heart and Music,” when we’re in the real world, the music is less conventionally melodic, less ornamented, less stylized, less rhymed, and usually in a very conversational rhythm and tempo – songs like the first “Spring” song, “Specials,” “911 Emergency,” “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine,” “Just Go,” “MRI Day,” “Craniotomy,” “On the Street,” and others. Finn even creates a relentless bass line accompaniment motif for the doctor and nurses whenever they talk about medical issues. We hear it the first time in “911” but it shows up again and again throughout the show, especially in several sequences that didn’t make it onto the cast album (“MRI Day,” “Craniotomy,” etc.). At the end of the show, the kind of music we’ve only heard inside Gordon’s head finally blends over into the real world, with “Time and Music” and “I Feel So Much Spring.” Gordon has had this music inside of him all this time, and finally he’s able to express it now that his brain is fixed, finally able to integrate it into his real life. He has “a new brain” – a new way of thinking – and for the first time, his real life sings just as beautifully as his fantasy life.
interesting to notice how Gordon sees – or, more accurately, how he hears
– each of the people in his life. In Gordon’s head, in his ears, the doctor,
and Nancy the nurse get that driving, relentless, dissonant, staccato sound (as
in “911 Emergency”). The hospital minister shares that “medical” music
but also gets his share of a big, dramatic pop ballad sound (as in
“Craniotomy”), which the doctor also gets a couple times (is this a clue
that the doctor isn’t very good at being a doctor?). Gordon’s mother and
Rhoda both get frantic, disjointed, dissonant music (“Throw It Out,” for
example). Mr. Bungee gets music with playful but bizarre rhythms, unusual
intervals in the melody line, and an almost circus-like sound, a kind of music
that is somewhat child-like but also “wrong” in subtle ways. In contrast,
Richard, the other nurse, and Lisa the homeless woman, get a warmer, funkier,
jazz sound and Roger gets the mellowest sound of all, a full, rich, romantic
sound that no one else in the show shares – until the end of the show, when
Gordon finds his real musical voice. And once Gordon is singing in the same
style as Roger, we know that they’ll be okay, that they’re back on the same
wavelength. Throughout the show, Gordon navigates among all these sounds and all
these various musical sounds show us subtly how Gordon perceives of each of the
characters in the show, how each of his “songs” sound to a composer who
perceives the world through music.
I Need a New Brain
So why is the show called A New Brain? Well, the obvious answer is that it’s about a man whose brain isn’t working right. But as Finn will readily acknowledge, the show isn’t really about the medical stuff. Earlier drafts of the show spelled out all the medical issues and procedures in tremendous detail. Finn called those versions musical documentaries, but as he soon found out, the very real form of documentary doesn’t work all that well in the very artificial language of musical theatre. And really, that’s not the story that’s important. The real story is in the journey – the resurrection of Gordon Michael Schwinn, his brush with death, his “rebirth,” and his opportunity to start life over and live it better. And that’s where the title becomes metaphor. Gordon needs a new way of thinking – a metaphorical new brain – because when the story begins, he’s miserable. He hates his job, he feels he’s losing his talent, he doubts he’ll ever realize his dream and get a show on Broadway. He doesn’t just need his physical brain fixed, he needs his outlook on his life changed. And the AVM and the operation deliver both things. It’s worth noting that the last time Mr. Bungee sings a song in the show, he’s no longer the nasty curmudgeon we’ve known all evening. Finally, Bungee’s words are kind, supportive, and are just what Gordon needs to hear at that moment – life is worth living. A new beginning, a new outlook – a new brain – is a gift that few people ever receive.
And Gordon’s new outlook, his new brain, is illustrated by the twin “Spring” songs that bookend the show. The first “Spring” song is the old Gordon, cynical, apathetic, disjointed, dissonant, illogical, unable to finish. The last “Spring” song is warm, melodious, flowing, passionate, grateful, and full of life. Same melody, same writer, new brain.
This excerpt is from Scott Miller’s upcoming book on musical theatre. 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.