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Spotlight On ANONYMOUS: Top Ten Theatrical Deceptions

Today we are completing BroadwayWorld's seven part analysis of Shakespeare's works, all with an eye towards the new movie ANONYMOUS - which questions the authorship of William Shakespeare's greatest works - with a look at the greatest moments of deception in theatre taken from the last few decades. While deception and betrayal are both tried and true tactics of creating some tense, terse, taut drama by playwrights and filmmakers the world 'round - both onstage and onscreen - and it is certainly as much a hackneyed trope used today as it was used nearly five hundred years ago in Shakespeare's time - the acts themselves that we will be focusing on today are the most surprising, effective and entertaining examples of them all. Analyzing moments from entities as diverse as SWEENEY TODD, CARRIE, WICKED, GYPSY, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, THE MUSIC MAN, SISTER ACT, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, ENRON, HAMLET and more - split into three categories: musical tragedies, musical comedies and straight plays - it becomes quite clear over the course of dissecting these double-crosses that Shakespeare was not the only dramatist who could make the drama's biggest twist also be the moment that stays with us long after the curtain has come down or the screen has gone black. Note: given the nature of today's topic, be forewarned that spoilers copiously abound from here on out!

A little bit AMADEUS, with a touch of TIMON OF ATHENS; a dash of DANGEROUS LIASONS and a heaping of HENRY IV: Parts 1 and 2; a generous helping of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE with a wink to MERCHANT OF VENICE; a bit of BARRY LYNDON and a hint at HAMLET; romance and jealousy ala Romeo & Juliet; Iago-ian sexual intrigue evocative of OTHELLO; maybe even a malicious, macabre moment of murderous violence or two reminiscent of MACBETH; then, all of it collectively taken, shaken, stirred and whipped up into a visual feast only the man behind THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW could possibly conjure up - like THE TEMPEST's Trinculo himself. That is only some of what ANONYMOUS can and could very well turn out to be. Find out for yourself now or when ANONYMOUS opens in even more theaters on November 4!

The Play's The Thing

The most crucial moment in all of the twisty and sordid travails of the title character in Shakespeare's most treasured play, HAMLET, occurs when Hamlet decides that he must catch his stepfather Claudius in the act of admittance to the slaying of Hamlet's father (and brother of Claudius), Polonius, by way of presenting a play - with the help of clowns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - in which the dastardly acts of ultimate fraternal betrayal - that is, fratricide - are enacted in full view of the royal court and attendant audience. The moment of Hamlet's realization of this is dramatized by Shakespeare in one of Hamlet's most intriguing and oft-quoted monologues, in which Hamlet states, "The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King". As we have learned since HAMLET in an innumerable amount of plays and musicals, putting the facts of a deception directly - and, preferably, publicly - in the faces of those who committed said act is a sure way to, A, either inspire further ire from the intended; or, B, to actually succeed in making them realize the wrong of their ways. The twist that comes in many of these moments of admittance and reconciliation is that the act of goodness has come after far too many acts of badness for many of these characters - and, ultimately, karma wins the day. Look no further than the reveal and the title character's heartbreaking realization of the Beggar Woman's true identity in the final moments of SWEENEY TODD for perhaps the finest example of a rouse gone rouge, leaving Sweeney left with nothing left but dead bodies and buckets of blood to comfort him in the wake of his madness and sadness. Sure, Mrs. Lovett lies - or, should I say, implies - but it is Sweeney who actually commits the murderous acts in the first place. Yet, was not some moral justice somehow served by his actions over the course of the tragedy up until then? Did not some indeed deserve to die? Such are the complexities and richness of SWEENEY TODD, a work by the twenty-first century Shakespeare himself, Stephen Sondheim. So, too does Sondheim's ANYONE CAN WHISTLE have a moment of blatant audience mockery - coming at the calamitous end of Act One (of three) - but more on that later.

Yet another depiction of betrayal and deception in a dark musical tragedy that would be pertinent to our discussion - especially given the Halloween season - would be the vile acts committed by the highschoolers in CARRIE at the prom. While Carrie White takes the stage believing somehow she has rightfully taken the crown for prom queen, she is soon brought to her lowest possible point when the ousted enemies of hers out for revenge christen the new prom queen with an elaborately rigged bucket of pig's blood - the plan all along. Needless to say, horror ensues. Yet, in both SWEENEY TODD and CARRIE - and HAMLET, too - we most certainly relate to the victims who become the predators. We empathize with them. Perhaps that is the feature of betrayal and acts of deception that make their use in drama so unbelievably effective - that in order to seek revenge (even if "To seek revenge may lead to Hell / But, everyone does it / And seldom as well / As Sweeney"), vengeance comes with its own high price, often at the cost of morals, standards and sanity. The fates of Hamlet, Sweeney Todd and Carrie are spelled out in the stars the moment they commit to retaliation - which is, incidentally, the same fate as their intended targets: death. Death settles all scores, after all - or, at least, most. Except for ghosts, of course - like Hamlet's father.

So, too, are the acts of betrayal and deception copiously located in musical comedy. Believe it or not, some of the most family-friendly and beloved musicals of all time have some major dramatic coups related to ugly, even evil, twists of character and plot - and the example that may first immediately leap to mind for many Broadway babies is undoubtedly THE MUSIC MAN. Clearly, Harold Hill is a huckster - pure and simple - yet, he even manages to woo the stuffy town librarian as he whips the entire town into a heady frenzy big enough to pull off his act of treachery, so he is skilled. The brilliantinely shining, truthful beauty of Meredith Willson's musical fable is that, even in spite of the fact that though the way they discovered the joys of playing instruments came from a bad place and a bad man, Harold Hill's act of deception on an entire town ultimately results in goodness because the people of the town realize the joy that music has brought them - even if they are not very good at it (but, then again, they have not been instructed well, either - which is sort of the point). Sure, that may be simplifying MUSIC MAN a bit - but, not a lot, really. After all, the essence of drama - and life itself - is good versus evil and how we deal with what life throws at is.

For further examples of musical comedy betrayal and acts of deception, it may be instructive to look at another Stephen Sondheim musical - this one a musical comedy; his first full-fledged score on Broadway after A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, co-written with GYPSY and WEST SIDE STORY collaborator Arthur Laurents - ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. The many moments of said acts in this controversial 60s musical satire are too many to list, recount or dissect here, but Mayoress Cora is basically the physical embodiment of deception - dare I say, the personification. Everything she does has an agenda to satisfy her - and only her - selfish ends; not the town's - and, most certainly, not the residents of the Cookie Jar's (the town's insane asylum). One of Sondheim's most intricate and fascinating musical numbers is the twelve-minute "Simple" sequence in the show in which Sondheim paints the most simple, sane and perfect picture of completely, utterly chaotic insanity imaginable. Even so sweet and so good Nurse Fay Apple initially deceives Hapgood, in the form of her faux-Francais in the lovingly, deceptively coy and hilarious "Come Play Wiz Me". Sure, it's laugh-out-loud funny - but, it's also a big, fat lie. Yet another example of musical theatre tomfoolery with the hoodwinked characters eventually coming to embrace the hoodwinker is the currently-running Broadway and West End screen-to-stage transfer of SISTER ACT. The conceit of a Vegas nightclub singer posing as a nun is nothing new to film or stage, really, but the ingenious way in which the story is told through the songs by multi-Oscar-winner Alan Menken and Glen Slater in the superb score of the show, consistently and subtly referencing the hot disco fever of Deloris Van Cartier - even when she is swathed in a habit and a rosary - consistently clues us into the master act of wool-pulling that Deloris is doing over those dear nuns' eyes. Sure, THE MUSIC MAN and SISTER ACT both have everything work out for mostly everyone in the end, but the bottom line is that in all three examples of musical comedy deception, it is the protagonists who commit the acts, so it is much easier to take for the audience. Were a secondary character to do the same, they would certainly not meet such a happy fate as these - even in bright and breezy Broadway musical comedy land.

Last season on Broadway, we were treated to possibly the first entirely deception- and betrayal-based musical ever - CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, based on the life of master thief Frank Abignale, Jr.; composed by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with a book by Terrence McNally. As played by persuasive star-on-the-rise Aaron Tveit, Abignale takes on the guise of an airline pilot and a doctor - as well as adopting many other tricks and thieving tactics - and suavely ensconces himself in a series of seemingly impossible-to-pull-off schemes. Yet, almost to a man - one man; Detective Hanratty (portrayed by two-time Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz, who won for this show) - none of it brings him happiness. It is surely somewhat fun for him while it lasts, but the journey of the character from crook to Christian - 60s-style crooning and a Christmas song included - is about filling the void that the dissemination of his family unit has wrought. I suppose some hucksters do have hearts of gold - it's bound to happen sooner or later. Like fate - or a song; especially in a musical.

Now, while musical theatre may have many of the most flashy and unforgettable moments of betrayal and deception, some straight plays have some seriously considerable acts to peruse for our countdown, as well - John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION and ENRON being two examples from recent decades that perhaps possess the strongest evidence for inclusion of all. Guare's SIX DEGREES centers largely on the effect that we have on one another - whether we know it or not - and how all acts are universally interrelated. Thus, flim-flam man Paul takes an entire social group to the cleaners - and, in many ways, too, takes them to task for their snooty, arrogant thinly veiled racism and pretentious nature. He manipulates them and their circumstance and the heartbreaking moment when he realizes the jig is up is just when he starts lying even more. That is truly tragic - Paul cannot stop the lie. The lie has consumed him and his life and it is now all he is. As for ENRON, who are bigger thieves now in these dark Depression days more than modern-day corporate businessmen and bankers who brought this upon us all with their greed? Indeed, for ENRON, that is more than enough said. Evil always finds a way in, but that does not mean it has to win out against good. Actually, as most of these examples cite, the order is always restored one way or another - whether an entire Maine high school has to be engulfed by telekinetic flames or Frank Abignale has to be finally caught red-handed with no way out or Sweeney has to hold his wife's cold corpse to finally realize the miscalculation of his all-too-understandable, decades-long brewing malice.

As all of these illustrative examples clearly evidence, sometimes truly great acts and wonderful circumstances can come out of characters committing to enacting deception and betrayal in order to get their way. Even in a musical obstensibly all about witches - Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's WICKED - the titular Wicked Witch of the West isn't really so, well, wicked, in the end - especially after all is said and done and we see how selfishly short-sighted G(a)linda can be in her own ways - and we eventually come to understand Elphaba's plight and her journey's arc becomes clear. And, we learn to love her for it all, all the more. Maybe that is the great dramatic hat-trick; the act of deception the author tries to pull off on us - if we learn to love the deceiver and betrayer as a character we will forgive their transgressions. Most of them, at least. Maybe. After all, not all shows are equal and not all creators equally successful in their ventures.

All of this being said, one of the greatest musicals ever written, GYPSY, presents perhaps the most stunningly sad and desperate act of betrayal and deception of all - the moment when Rose forces her increasingly showbiz savvy daughter Louise onto the stage of a burlesque house and entices her to strip. That's real, black and white betrayal - but, so, too, in the same way: that's show business. Isn't it? In the end, though, Louise has the last laugh - but, Rose has the last line. And, whether in theatre or film, the last word matters most of all. The rest? Silence. But, still - if we are lucky - then comes applause.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)