Yesterday (practically, earlier today, but it’s past midnight now and I imagine that the few people who might be reading this will be doing so at a more reasonable hour), someone who had just seen Spring Awakening for the first time the previous night, described it to me as “life changing”. Actually, a handful of people told me it was life changing, but for the sake of story let’s just say it was one. Now I have a hard time swallowing this, because saying something is life changing is a pretty big deal. Or at least it seems to me that it should be. I don’t apply the label a lot, and the only thing I regularly describe as life changing in recommendation is Donald Norman’s book The Design Of Everyday Things. And I say that this book changed my life because I can honestly say that it actually did. I find myself applying what I learned from that book all the time. It’s become part of how I view design, and I can therefore say with complete confidence that it has changed my life.
This is the primary case where something may be said to be life changing, and probably the best. A piece of work that presents new information, or presents old information in a new way, and such that it changes your way of thinking. In this way, I might say that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro changed my life, because in analyzing Allegro, I found a new lens through which to view theater. This is not the same as the work itself changing my life, however, and therefore by extension I might say that Sondheim’s book Finishing The Hat, and his musical Merrily We Roll Along changed my life, because it was through those that I first came upon Allegro, and provided me the context for analyzing Allegro that then gave me that new lens. Now Finishing The Hat had already changed my life much in the way The Design Of Everyday Things did, and I apply its teachings to analyzing theater and lyrics regularly, but you can see where this sort of thing gets complicated.
On another level, I might say that Turandot changed my life, in so far as it was my first exposure to opera. But while I still do have a soft spot for Turandot, there’s nothing so special about it that I might not have ended up the same had my first opera been La Traviata or Tosca or maybe something a little more kid friendly that I can't think of off the top of my head right now because I'm tired. By the same token, I am currently involved in a production of Patience, which I may say is changing my life simply from the experience of being in it. But then being in it has also gotten me to study it more, and appreciate it more, and find more in it, and also find more out of Gilbert and Sullivan in general. Now it could be that the opera itself, separate from the experience of being in it, will change my life some years after being first introduced to it.
This is a point in itself, as when something is described as “life changing” it is usually meant to have hit you like a wall the first time you come across it. But I see no reason why this has to be so, and considering this, I might describe a technical or reference book such as a thesaurus or dictionary as “life changing” -- although perhaps it’s best to leave technical aides to a separate category from works of art, and I will not get into the debate of whether or not the dictionary is art at this juncture.
All in all, whether or not something is life changing is very much dependent on context and preference, and above all, it is not an endorsement of quality. If Turandot changed my life, that is not because of anything in the work itself, but because of how it came into my life. The Design Of Everyday Things did change my life, but may not have if I had been introduced to its ideas in some other book, which I would then be touting as having changed my life. Really all it means is that this particular work got its ideas to me first. If a work is the only one of its kind that has those ideas, that just makes it a more likely candidate to be life changing. And that’s the cause of what I have just now decided to call the Oklahoma effect. It probably already exists as a thing under a different name, but I know Oklahoma!. Oklahoma! was groundbreaking when it premiered, because no musical before it had integrated the songs into the plot so thoroughly. And even more thoroughly in Carousel. But now songs integrated thoroughly into the plot is the norm. Many musicals now are even entirely sung through, and have gone all the way back around to blurring the line between musical and opera! And because of this, Oklahoma! no longer seems like a game changer. Frankly, it seems a little silly. Oklahoma! would have been called life changing by the theater people at the time, but now when so many people are introduced to so many other integrated musicals first, Oklahoma! is hardly a blip on the map. I think that Carousel is ten times better than Oklahoma!, and between all of Rodgers and Hammerstein's other major works, I'm sure most people rate Oklahoma! fairly low (although it is by no means bad -- simply less impressive to me). But it was first, and so Carousel will never get the honor of being said to have changed the face of musical theater. To say something is life changing is not an endorsement of quality.
There was another reason hearing this person from the first paragraph describe Spring Awakening as life changing after seeing it the previous night bothered me. I mean aside from making me analyse what that phrase really means and stay up way too late writing a blog post. But for the phrase to really mean something, the work has to actually have changed your life. Am I expected to believe that you know within twelve hours of seeing a show that it has changed you as a person? Might you not relapse the next day? Give it some time to digest. If it twelve months you are still considering it as life changing, then I’ll believe you. None of what I listed above as having changed my life did I expect to. It’s only realized on looking back and saying “hey, I apply what I drew from X an awful lot. That must have made an impact on me.” And really, maybe I’m still too young to be talking about things being life changing. Allegro might seem important to me now, but maybe a few years down the line I’ll realize that it was actually just Sunday In The Park With George all along. I mean, I recognize Sunday In The Park With George as a great musical right now, but I don’t think it’s changed my life. Heck, there’s a good chance that I’ll wake up tomorrow (well, later today -- it’s past midnight at the time of writing, remember?) and say “you know what? That was a stupid blog post.” And then delete it and you’ll never actually read this. Unless you’re already reading this, in which case good for you! I didn’t delete this yet!
...I really need to get to bed. Please excuse any typos or other wrong sayings of things. I’m tired.