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American Capitalism, A Song And Dance Story

Heather Christian performs in the musical <em>Mission Drift</em>, an exploration of American capitalism explained through history and the growth of Las Vegas.
Rachel Chavkin
Heather Christian performs in the musical Mission Drift, an exploration of American capitalism explained through history and the growth of Las Vegas.

It's hard to write a musical about capitalism. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill gave it a shot with The Threepenny Opera. The musical Urinetown took a crack at it. Now comes Mission Drift, a two-hour experimental work created by a group called the Theater of the Emerging American Moment. The musical attempts to probe the love and ambivalence Americans have for endless growth.

Mission Drift's director, Rachel Chavkin, wondered what defines American capitalism compared to capitalism in the rest of the world. She went to composer Heather Christian.

"Rachel approached me and said, 'I think we should write a musical about capitalism,' to which I said, 'That's impossible,'" Christian remembers.

The members of the Theater of the Emerging American Moment, or "the TEAM," as they call themselves, began reading about Wall Street and teaching themselves economics. They read Milton Friedman and listened to podcasts of NPR's Planet Money. Chavkin says she got her best answer to the question of what defines American capitalism from an Australian.

"She said, 'Well, everywhere has capitalism — it's just you're more religious about it here than anywhere else,'" Chavkin says. "Ultimately, what I think the show is getting at is that there is something both thrilling and unsustainable about capitalism as it is lived and practiced here in America."

The idea for Mission Drift began in early 2008 before the economy imploded, with the real story of two teenagers the TEAM found in a history book by Russell Shorto. Joris and Catalina came to New Amsterdam — what is now called New York City — in the 17th century. In the musical, they mythically live through the entire history of American westward expansion.

The TEAM became obsessed with Las Vegas. The musical's gospel song, Burning Down Las Vegas, functions as a symbol of the city's constant creation and destruction.

Chavkin says the TEAM spent a long time in Las Vegas and it really opened them up to the themes they were exploring.

"Not actually so much because of the gambling metaphor, because that seemed sort of easy, but actually because it was the fastest growing city in America at the turn of the millennium and then had become an epicenter of the housing collapse," Chavkin says. "And so there seemed to be something in there in terms of how we shape our expectations of growth, as Americans, and how our very landscape is altered, built and destroyed by this expectation of growth."

Las Vegas also seemed an appropriate symbol because it was historically tied to atomic testing. The explosion of bombs coincides with the implosion of old casinos to make way for the new.

Joris, one of the main characters, is almost giddy when he contemplates the bomb. "There is so much we're going to do out here," he says. "The folks up at the proving grounds say that what they dropped on Hiroshima is just the beginning; they're going to be doing tests like this almost every month, and I think we should celebrate each one here."

Chavkin says the TEAM was influenced by images they saw at the National Atomic Testing Museum. "People having parties in casinos and drinking their atomic cocktails, and wearing sunglasses and looking through the windows as these mushrooms clouds shoot up in the desert," Chavkin says, describing the photos. "It is the oasis in the desert that Las Vegas was, combined with the Mojave as wasteland, combined with these incredible celebrated displays of both American ingenuity and American violence."

By the end of the two hours, other characters have lost their jobs, and their houses are foreclosed upon. A song with a haunting phrase, "This house is empty," expresses sadness and longing.

The New York Times said the production could have used an editor, and accused it of suffering from "mission overkill," but its creators say they are trying to deal with large themes. Americans are thinking: Should we tax the rich? Should we punish prosperity? Christian says ambivalence over these questions exists in many of us.

"[We are] born and descended of these people who came here for growth and for expansion, and it's kind of a holy thing, it's in our DNA," she says.

"When we were in Las Vegas, actually, we talked with so many people who said 'We love growth, we just grew too fast,'" Chavkin says.

By the end of the show, the two teenage immigrants are exhausted. You hear the strains of another song by Christian, with the chorus, "We walk, we walk, we tire."

"I think we're at this moment where there really is this sense of exhaustion and this question of how do we find a new narrative that is as satisfying as this narrative of continued growth," Chavkin says.

Mission Drift has played in New York and in Europe. It is on tour until 2014 with stops in Australia, London and definite plans to go to Las Vegas.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career