It just feels way too soon for Coronavirus, The Musical

Novelist Jodi Picoult and playwright Timothy Allen McDonald teamed up to write a musical, chronicling the pandemic experience from five couples’ perspectives

Breathe is borne out of an unholy combination: a writer devoted to depicting personal trauma; a respiratory virus that has killed people in their millions; and show tunes.

Breathe is borne out of an unholy combination: a writer devoted to depicting personal trauma; a respiratory virus that has killed people in their millions; and show tunes.

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After a year of immense tragedy and loss, isolation, fear and news of impending economic crisis, perhaps there is little that could surprise us. But one phrase has cropped up recently, capable of generating nightmares as potent as ever: Coronavirus, The Musical. Never has the question “haven’t we suffered enough?” been more resonant.

Novelist Jodi Picoult (who brought us such riotous hits as My Sister’s Keeper) and playwright Timothy Allen McDonald teamed up to write a musical, chronicling the pandemic experience from five couples’ perspectives. It is called, and I wish I were joking, Breathe. If the art of subtlety and inference were not torn within an inch of their life yet, the five acts of the production are named after symptoms of Covid-19: Fever, Aches, Fatigue, Swelling and Irritation, and Shortness of Breath.

Were we to ascribe Picoult’s work to date with a specific genre, it might be called “terrible tragedies that befall children”. My Sister’s Keeper dealt with a young girl suffering acute promyelocytic leukaemia; another novel focuses on a school shooting; Handle With Care tells the story of a couple struggling with their daughter’s rare deforming bone disorder. No matter the command Picoult may have over her craft, it is not one that transfers to Broadway so easily.

Breathe, then, is borne out of an unholy combination: a writer devoted to depicting personal trauma; a respiratory virus that has killed people in their millions; and show tunes. It is a staggeringly moribund premise for a medium that ought to be everything the opposite.

Because the one thing a musical cannot be is self-effacing. It cannot be fearful of gaudiness, and it certainly cannot lack conviction. But a jazz-handed, turbo-camp musical celebration of a disease that has wreaked untold havoc across the world might engender a few allegations of tone-deafness. I am sure you see the problem. And the question that Breathe’s viewers may not be able to shake is this: who on earth is this for?

Death toll

Picoult told the New York Times it is the writer’s job to tell important stories, “and this is one that needs telling”. Perhaps. But if there is any truth in the adage that the medium is the message, something has gone disastrously wrong here. In between musical numbers, Breathe updates the pandemic death toll. Tonally confused is nothing if not an understatement.

It seems that anyone seeking to be the great literary chronicler of the pandemic ought to exercise serious caution this early on in the game: as countries still struggle with vast death counts, and the economic reverberations are yet to be felt in full, it is a taste minefield. One that has already claimed a victim.

This speaks to a more foundational question about what we want from culture during moments like these. It may be the job of the artist to hold up a mirror to the times we live in, providing us with a vehicle to understand difficult and hard-to-swallow realities. But as we navigate this crisis in real time – one that is far from over – we may be forgiven for not wanting to see that crisis reflected straight back at us with such immediacy. Songs or no songs. Dancing in the aisles or not.

Historically, real-life pandemics have not been a fertile topic for literature. In fact, outside the bounds of sci-fi there is very little of it to go around. Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald lived through the Spanish Flu of 1918. But when it comes to their literary output, the pandemic that claimed up to 50 million lives is conspicuous in its absence.

Emotional damage

Writing in the Guardian, Laura Spinney posited that the lack of literature about contagion – compared to, say, war – may be thanks to these writers lacking distance from the theme. Just as we may not be eager to watch a musical about coronavirus, those who lived through the Spanish Flu may not be keen to dwell on the topic artistically. Who can blame them?

Ezra Pound once contended that literature is news that stays news. And after a year of headlines dominated by lockdowns and variants and travel bans and closed businesses maybe we have earned ourselves a welcome break from this type of news. After some time, there may be an artistic obligation for writers and artists to document the experience of a pandemic – to inform future generations on the emotional toll it bore and the means of negotiating its impacts – but there is certainly no need to rush.

Attempts to render the disease’s impacts on society have been made. But explicit references to the virus (something as on the nose as the ceramicist from Yorkshire who makes pots that directly resemble the virus, protein spikes and all) have been less successful than art informed by, and subliminally influenced by, Covid-19. Takes David Hockney’s iPad paintings of spring in Normandy – a “respite” from the news he explains, some daffodils he titled Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring.

Perhaps there will be space for great coronavirus literature. And hopefully it will be a therapeutic vehicle to understand and reflect on the horror of the past year. It is, however, unlikely that this will be achieved while set to rousing choruses. Though it is always nice to be surprised.

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