Monday, April 11, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs

Watched the new Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS Masterpiece last night and was reminded why a billion people worldwide watched the original.

Yes, there are all the details about British class structure and repressed "stiff-upper-lip" feelings that fascinate me (and attracted me to adapt A Room with a View as a musical) And the Long-Suffering Floyd and I totally geeked out on the historical setting (Wallis Simpson coming to dinner - tell me more!)

But what made it great was its nuanced view of human nature, how each of the characters is fully rounded with both flaws and virtues. A story about servants and masters could easily fall into the trap of making it about duality. The title alone invites it: Upstairs, Downstairs. Up, down. Yes, no. Good, bad.

While I think the balance of yin and yang is one of the great universal truths, it’s not as simple as good guys and bad guys, black hats, white hats. That kind of oversimplification doesn’t just bore me, I think it’s dishonest. It's why my favorite part of the Lord of the Rings movies was Gollum, whose central conflict was his own internal battle between selfishness and selflessness. (I say the movies because I couldn't wade through the books, which feel like work to me.)

This balanced view of humanity is also what attracted me and Broadway composer Jeffrey Stock to E.M. Forster's A Room with a View. No matter how mercilessly Forster skewers Edwardian behavior, he always digs deep into his characters’ hearts, the very place from which music springs. The impassioned pleas of the Emersons, the inner turmoil of Lucy and Charlotte, the comic foibles as cultures and morals collide—the song opportunities seem to leap off the page.

The takeaway for the writer, then, is this: Are my characters well-rounded? Is my hero flawed? Does my villain have a heart? Do the supporting characters have more than one dimension?

Okay, back to work...

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