Best Bets: Razzle-dazzle, art and war

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

So, it is Tuesday when I am writing this and you will be reading it on Thursday. By Thursday, we will probably be shelling Baghdad, and you might not remember what the world was like today.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

Here's the outlook: As I write this it is almost midnight in Iraq - it is exactly 12 hours ahead of Juneau - and the temperature there is about 58 degrees and it's cloudy. Maybe most of the 22 million people who live there and many of the 250,000 U.S. troops stationed at the borders are asleep. In Juneau the weather is gray and slushy, and you can't see the tops of the mountains because of hazy clouds. Most of us in the newsroom, and probably many of you out there, are checking the Internet every half hour or so to see if the United States has made a move yet.

It was just one of those coincidental things that as I did my arts reporting this week, the subject of war kept coming up. First, on Saturday I interviewed Cynthia Rhys, a soprano from the East Coast who is coming up here with her husband pianist Joel Revzen to give a concert of music from movie musicals through the decades. "Award Winning Music from the Silver Screen" will be at the Baranof as a fund-raiser for the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council.

Rhys has interesting theories about how the desires of our American "cultural consciousness" manifest in movie musicals. During World War II, when our boys were dying by the thousands, Rhys argued as a country we wanted comfort and distraction. That is why movies like Disney's "Song of the South" with that cherry anthem "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" became so popular.

As we talked, I asked Rhys if she thought that the recent resurgence of flashy musicals like "Moulin Rouge!" and "Chicago" could be an indication of a national mood like we had during World War II. She suggested that America, with dark political and economic times, might need the distraction delivered by musicals with their song and dance and razzle-dazzle. And I can only imagine by next week we will need razzle-dazzle all the more.

You might go see Rhys and Revzen play next Tuesday, March 25. The event costs $50, which goes to the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. It is worth the cash if you have it. JAHC is like the United Way of the arts in this town, supporting everything from gallery shows to the Pelican Boardwalk Boogie.

So, here is the new question of the week: "What is the purpose of art at wartime?"

Distraction, for certain. It can also serve to educate people. I went to a rehearsal of "Number the Stars," a children's play based on a book by Lois Lowry being put on by Northern Light Junior Theatre. The play is about a Christian family that smuggles a Jewish family out of Denmark during World War II. The play is the third in a series the kids have done about war.

I asked J. Althea, who directs the theater company, if she thought that the young actors were drawing any comparisons between World War II and the impending war in the Persian Gulf. Althea thought about it and said she wasn't sure, she hadn't made any comparisons in rehearsal, preferring that students draw their own conclusions.

"They ask me, 'How could this have happened?' " she said, referring to the slaughter of Jews. "And some people have compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. ... I'm sure at least some of them have thought about it and I hope they talk to their parents."

What is cool about "Number the Stars" is how much the young actors think about history, and what it means to do the right thing, even if the right thing seems difficult. The play also makes war seem less like a concept from textbooks and TV and more like what it is, something that terrifies children, destroys families, and devastates communities. If you have kids, it might be worth it to take them to the play, especially if you plan on having a conversation with them about war.

I have mixed feelings about the whole arts-as-destraction-from-bad-news concept. I think it is our job as voters and taxpayers to know just what our tax dollars are paying for, and what kind of damage is being done by us and to us 12 time zones away. This means we should know, for example, that Osama bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein, was responsible for the World Trade Center attacks. I only mention this because I read recently that a scary number of Americans can't make that distinction. My developing policy on the subject is that as long as I stay informed, I can still enjoy at least a movie now and then.

This weekend I might see "Far From Heaven," a movie about a 1950s housewife who thinks she is living the perfect life, until she discovers her husband is not who she thought he was. I won't tell you any more, you'll have to go. It's playing at the Nickelodeon. That's it for the week. Thanks for reading.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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