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So it's brilliant. So what?

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

We as a civilized culture love to laud great works of art, whether it’s a classical symphony, a painting, or a play. There is a cult-following of work that is considered “brilliant”. People line up for hours to behold it, or fill packed-out stadiums to watch it, or spend a pretty penny for a live performance.

But why? What is it that makes a work “brilliant”? Having been a music major in undergrad and studied Musical Theater Writing for grad school, I spent many years of my life studying and analyzing works of music and theater that are considered brilliant, and writing papers on why. Oftentimes it involved the way a composer developed the themes in a certain work. Sometimes it was the way the scenes were structured. In other cases, it was the perfect confluence of poetic dialogue, musical expression, and movement. These structural elements came together exquisitely to achieve some specific emotional response in the audience. It could be tragic, comedic, dramatic, or even horrifying, but as long as it struck the emotional and oft-times thought-provoking chord that the writers were intending, whatever that chord was, in a way that was original and surprising-yet-satisfying through a weaving together of the elements mentioned above, then it was most likely a celebrated achievement.

What is it that makes a work "brilliant"?

From a Christian perspective, another word we often hear bandied about is “excellent”, often used as something to aspire to, especially in the arts. But similar to the word brilliant, what makes something “excellent”? If you do a quick search on the word “excellent” in the New King James version of the Bible, you will find it is almost always associated with majesty, character, or virtue of some kind, often of God Almighty Himself (Psalm 8:1, Job 37:23, Psalm 150:2, just to cite a few examples). In fact, in Psalm 141:5 a rebuke from a righteous person is considered an “excellent oil”. Biblically, you can’t divorce “excellence” from godliness. There are a few instances when excellence is associated with the majesty of a secular king, but it is still a God-like trait that kings can have. Kings are modeled after the True King. But it is never merely describing the quality of a thing on worldly terms - format, structure, giftedness, intelligence, etc. So why do we tend to use it this way when assessing works of art and entertainment?

I would suggest we factor in an additional question when debating over the “brilliance” or “excellence” of a work of art or entertainment. In addition to a work’s effectiveness at causing us to experience some specific emotional and perhaps intellectual experience, what effect is this emotional/intellectual experience having on my heart, imagination, and even belief system? What fruit is it bearing in my life?

What fruit is it bearing in my life?

For instance, does it increase faith, hope and love in me? Or is it sowing doubt and fear, causing myself to question things I know are true? Is it causing me to wallow in sadness? Do I find myself feeling angry and unforgiving towards certain people? Is the result that I glory in my own victimhood? Probably most importantly, is it affecting my belief system, and if so, how? If I am someone who is not already standing firm in my own belief system, then it is likely that a compelling work of art could influence what I believe. And even if I am standing firm in my beliefs, I need to also have discernment to know if the effect this work is having on me is a good or bad thing. And that is a spiritual gift, not an emotional or intellectual ability.

Oftentimes we refer to something as brilliant because it locates an emotion we couldn’t put words to before. There’s merit in that. But what is that emotion? What if it’s a product of our fallen nature? Is our interaction with this work affirming an ungodly emotion or desire, even if it feels good to my soul? Is it making us feel justified in emotions or desires we know are fleshly because at least someone else has them as well? (We have all been there!) Are these questions we are even asking?

Is it affecting my belief system, and if so, how?

Now I’m about to make some enemies. But to clearly illustrate my point, I have to call out some examples. And let it be known that the works I’m calling out are works I labeled “brilliant” in my formative years, so no judgment here if you have done the same. But hopefully this will provide some food for thought.

My first example is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a highly celebrated orchestral work written for ballet, lauded for its groundbreaking use of primal rhythms and dissonances, formerly not heard in classical music. The music and dance relate the story of a pagan ritual honoring Spring in which a young girl is chosen to be a human sacrifice and dances herself to death. It’s very affecting on a level that’s emotional and perhaps even spiritual, which has caused most music lovers, Christians and non-Christians alike, to praise the work.
The Rite of Spring
Sketch of a scene from the ballet The Rite of Spring by the work's original scenarist, Nicolas Roerich
But why aren’t we considering what it’s about? Just because we’re easily affected by a work doesn’t mean it’s great - it means it’s effective. At what, though? Getting us to enjoy a pagan ritual? Think about it: we are applauding a depiction of a young girl being chosen as a sacrifice. That thought should be reprehensible to our minds, so why allow our emotions to agree to it?

My next example is considered a seminal work of drama, perhaps the greatest ever written by an American playwright: Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. There’s a very intricate plot which I don’t have time to explain. But the premise of the play, set amidst the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, is that God abandoned Heaven and Earth and so the angels, now in distress, had to come to earth to try to fix things so He would come back. The reason given is that God Almighty couldn’t handle the level of human progress being made on earth, human progress including the rise of homosexuality. In the end, the Almighty Creator of the Universe is found guilty of abandonment and hires a sleazy lawyer to try to get Him off. There’s much more that happens, but those are the main points I feel to highlight.
I think what’s most stirring about this play is that there’s a genuine heart-breaking cry from the gay community to attempt to understand the AIDS crisis. I have great compassion for that desire to find healing and answers. But for me to celebrate this work is to applaud its theory, fantastical though it is, that human suffering gives us the right to accuse God. I’m sorry, but that’s blasphemy.
Andrew Garfield and Beth Malone in Angels in America on Broadway
Andrew Garfield and Beth Malone in Angels in America on Broadway
There has never been anyone more compassionate towards human suffering than Jesus Christ. And even if one is not a person of faith, trying to find comfort in a lie will never last. It may cause people to feel “heard” or “understood” for a moment, but no long-term healing or answers will come from it. Turning TO God, not away from Him, is the only way to receive true comfort, healing and wholeness. Maybe someone could write that play.

I’m bracing for my last example because it hits close to home, having been written by one of my faves, the late great Stephen Sondheim. But yes, I’m coming after Sweeney Todd, currently playing on Broadway starring Josh Groban. Sweeney is a story about a barber who seeks revenge against the people who killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter. His vengeful fervor overtakes him such that he goes on a murder spree and turns his victims into meat pies, which are then sold to unsuspecting customers. As ridiculous as it sounds, it is a highly acclaimed work of musical theater, partly because of it’s super sophisticated musical voice, but also because Sondheim writes even the wildest characters in ways that we almost empathize with them. And for what it’s worth, justice is served in the end. But I guess my question is, why go on this ride? To feel shocked, horrified, repulsed? Part of the problem with the show is that the meat pie thing is presented as humorous (“have a little priest” quips Mrs. Lovett to a jaunty melody when presenting the meat pie idea to Sweeney). Pardon me if I can’t laugh. If we can joke about that, what else can we joke about? Child sacrifice? Where do you draw the line?
Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford currently star in Sweeney Todd on Broadway.
And here’s the most dangerous problem with Sweeney Todd, and probably all of the works mentioned: there is some truth he uses to justify his actions, as extreme as they are. It is so brilliantly (oops, see, it’s tempting) expertly written, that the human side of us almost understands Sweeney. When he sings, “We all deserve to die, Even you, Mrs. Lovett, Even I,” he’s right! That right there is a Biblical truth. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), and we all sin. But see, when a creative work is so effective, so successful at making it’s point, that’s when we need to be the most discerning. Because if we get that point that Sondheim was making, if we really start to understand that there is so much evil in the world that we all deserve to die, then unless we have the hope of salvation through the intervention of a loving God, we are left with a justification of Sweeney’s actions. Even if he’s not justified, it’s understandable. Even if it’s not understandable, the show makes a darn strong argument for it. And just a reminder, we’re talking about turning people into meat pies here.

Part of the problem is that there is not enough representation of the hopeful, redemptive, truth and grace-filled Christian worldview in the canon of “brilliant” works for the theater, dance, and concert stage. Where are they? I could name a few, but there is clearly a very wide gap that needs to be filled. Shouldn’t work inspired by God be more brilliant than work inspired by a pagan ritual? Shouldn’t the Church have provided some answers to the gay community when they were being ravaged by the AIDS crisis (and not just answers that pointed judgment at them)? Even in the relatively wholesome genre of musical theatre, where are the contemporary works that cut to the human heart only to usher in truth and love? And not just Bible stories, but those that can be received by today’s audience without non-Christians feeling like it’s not for them. Perhaps because so many Christians and audiences in general have accepted the definitions of “brilliant” that the scholars have provided, they haven’t paved the way for artistic works of true excellence, meaning, godliness. Let’s start by agreeing that we can do better. And then let’s do better.

Photo at top: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd.

Virginia Hart Pike is the Artistic Director of REGA Arts, as well as a voice teacher, and composer/lyricist/bookwriter.

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