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The Story Behind the Songs

DORA! was written because I can’t bicycle to work without listening to something. It happened one day that I was listening to a recorded course on World War I. There are many interesting things to say about World War I, but what impressed me the most about World War I was how similar this patently unnecessary war of the past was to the wars of my own experience, Vietnam and Iraq. Maybe people would stop coming up with new modern wars if they understood that they were simply replaying the calls to arms of all the unnecessary wars of history. And so I invented Victoria, a gypsy fortune teller who can see the past and the future as a continuous flow, where the same events play themselves out over and over.


Act 1
The Colors Are Gay
Dora
Be A Man
Letter To Leah
Protect Our Way Of Life
The Future
My Boy
Society And Community
A Real American Girl
Your Country
Terrible Catastrophe

Act 2
Letter To Leah - Reprise
Death To Us
A Boy Named Roger
Sisters
Land Of The Savage
Your Little Boy
A Girl Named Hilda
Dora - Reprise
A Land of Peace
 
 

The story takes place in 1916, starting with an introduction of some of the characters in The Colors Are Gay. This song uses a calliope-like tune in minor with plenty of dissonance to evoke the discomfort of this little dislocated circus, which now has only women performers (the men have gone to war). The Ringmaster gives a little history of the fight, laying the blame for the war on the family that couldn’t get on together—the king of England, the German Kaiser, and the Russian Tsar were related to one another. Kaiser Wilhelm is particularly singled out for blame and called a Satan. The name Satan is a borrowing from modern times, when leaders on all sides of the America-Islam wars have characterized one another in this manner.

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Dora is sung as an explanation of the show’s title. DORA, the Defense of the Realm Act, was an amazing piece of legislation enacted in Britain shortly after hostilities began in 1914. The law made it unlawful to give assistance to the enemy. Saying discouraging things about the war was included as assisting the enemy, and a number of war objectors were jailed under the act. Restriction of civil liberties in the name of “homeland security” is common enough in our own day.

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In Be A Man, Roger the Pacifist sings of how he is showed with white feathers, referring to a World War I practice in Britain in which young women would pin a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, on any apparently fit young man not in uniform. Just as government legislation can be used to make the population behave, public opinion can also change behaviors. The trick is to convince the public that they are in danger from the foreign enemy and that dissenters at home are part of the problem. This principle was best explained by Reichmarshall Hermann Goering who testified in Nuremberg in 1946, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of their leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to dangers. It works the same in any country.” In our own day, manipulation of public opinion resulted in general blessing of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after Saudi attacks on the Twin Towers were creatively morphed into an extremist movement to destroy America. A page right out of Goering’s book.

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Lucas, the only soldier in the show, expresses his ambivalence about being at the front. On the one hand, his fiancée Leah has exhorted him to do his duty but, on the other hand, he is frankly afraid. By the way, the Leah-Luke naming was an intentional homage to Star Wars.

In Protect Our Way of Life, I poke fun at the comfortable people back home who exhort their solders to die in the protection of cricket and cucumber sandwiches. We think of Vietnam and Iraq as wars to protect American economic hegemony, trading the deaths of non-white foreigners and lower income Americans for our comfortable life style, but other countries in other times have used professional solders to advance the well-being of citizens safe at home. This song features a Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter line with a Bach-like chorale in which the enemy is characterized as being out to replace refined British foods with heavy Germanic foods. I am reminded of the episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye questions what the US troops are doing in Korea. He is told that the North Koreans want to steal our way of life, that they covet American flush toilets.

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The Future is Victoria’s explanation of her gift for seeing the future and her frustration in not being able to convince anyone about the problems to come. The future is a river, she explains, that begins in the past and goes on forever. If you put your face in the river and open your eyes, you can see things that make you look clever. How hard is it to predict the next war? Some of the details might not be clear, but in broad outlines, the next war will look a lot like the last one. As the modern day slogan puts it, Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.

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Enter Theodore Roosevelt, the former American president. Poor Teddy represents here all American presidents. Roosevelt was a critic of then-President Woodrow Wilson, who kept America out of World War I until 1917. Roosevelt insisted that US involvement against the central powers was important for the nation’s security, particularly for its economic security. Teddy was known for his military exploits in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. That war, which started only 18 years before the action in Dora!, may be the first clear example of American economic imperialism being backed by troops. Spain’s ownership of Cuba was offensive to the US, and the news media was used to fan public sentiment for war. President McKinley was reluctant in following public sentiment into war, but follow it he did. The US stripped Spain of its overseas possessions, including the Philippines and Guam as well as Cuba, and set the stage for a new era of policing the world. In My Boy, Teddy sings lyrics that will be used to encourage women to send their sons to war in defense of the country. The lyrics were taken from a poem that was read during the intermission in movie houses in the US after entry into World War I. The poem is voiced by a woman whose father and father-in-law died during the American Civil War and whose husband died on San Juan Hill. She now tells her son that she would rather he, too, die fighting for his country than remain with her at home, a coward: “I’d rather you had died at birth/ Or not been born at all/ Than know that I had raised a son/ Who cannot hear the call.” The poem ends with the statement that God gave his only son and now is asking for her to give her son. The use of religion as a prop for war-making resonates today.

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My Boy is set to a rock beat and features Teddy playing air guitar. The characters in 1916 are taken aback by this modern performance. One of them asks, “What is that?” Victoria answers, “The future.” This theme is repeated with other Teddy songs: his is the voice of the future. A sad commentary.

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Society and Community expresses the sentiment that the war has had a good influence on society, bringing people together against a common foe and making a community of them. This sentiment was explicitly expressed at the beginning of the war in Germany, where Gesellschaft, or society, was said to have been replaced by Gemeinschaft, or community. The song is a propaganda peace, sung by the woman who turns out to be a German spy. The song is largely in syncopated 5/4 time, which gives it a rhythmic rootlessness.

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Teddy falls for Hilda, who expresses the same jingoistic sentiments he finds so dear, and the Rogers fall for Victoria, who has a calm certainty about her dismissal of the excuses for war. They sing against one another in A Real American Girl. Teddy here expresses that self-righteousness often associated with Americans: anything good must be from the USA.

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Your Country is Victoria’s indictment of the country America will become. In 1916, the US was just starting to be an international power, largely due to its wealth and ability to supply the Allied war effort. The prospect that this economic power would transform the country into an international bully is impossible for Teddy to accept, just as it is impossible for modern Americans to accept. Victoria understands that the US will put itself in the position of protecting the world, but asks who will protect the world from the US.

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Terrible Catastrophe is the first act finale, based conceptually on Mozart’s technique of long drama-packed first act finales in which multiple characters sing at the same time. The driving 13/4 time gives the Policeman’s announcement a breathlessness set against the more rhythmically stable 12/4 time of the anti-war sentiments, as Victoria and Roger the Pacifist wonder what the tragedy is of one less bomb plant.

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Act 2 opens with Lucas singing a reprise of Letter to Leah, this time a bitter complain in minor of how he will be killed through the lies of politicians and the war-mongering of people who are not at risk.

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Death To Us is a drinking song in which the Rogers liberate Victoria by getting the Policemen to drink toasts to various patriotic sentiments. It is yet another anthem to how people can be manipulated by appealing to love of king and country.

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Victoria’s love song, A Boy Named Roger, is a take off on the eternal problem of choosing between two lovers. I am reminded of Neil Diamond’s Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow or Peter Yarrow’s Torn Between Two Lovers. My twist is that both lovers have the same name, allowing Victoria to sing, “I love a boy named Roger.” This line was the first line to come to me for this show. Roger, by the way, was the name of my best friend in second grade. He is now an ophthalmologist.

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Men are aggressive and territorial. Are women kinder and less violent? If women were in charge, would there be no more wars? Sisters expresses the kinship of the show’s kinder and less violent women, Victoria who can see the future and Leah who has been sobered by the prospect of the death of her Lucas. The last line, “being sisters is enough” ends with the accompaniment playing the theme of “It’s Enough,” one of my favorite tunes from my first musical, Dragon Slayer.

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Land of the Savage is Teddy’s rap song about how unwelcome foreigners are in the US. The song is in response to Roger the Pacifist’s plans to immigrate to the US disguised as an American Indian. Teddy explains that Americans consider Indians to be foreigners, too, saying, “You don't think we would make war on Americans, force Americans out of their homes, march them 2000 miles across wilderness and desert, do you? What do you think we are, savages?”

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Your Little Boy is sung in response to Lucas’ last letter home. In the last letter, he explains that he is dictating to a nurse, because much of his body has been blown away. He dies as he is dictating the letter. The nurse, whose voice has been reading the letter as she writes, sings to mothers whose sons have died. This song contrasts with the harsh, “My Boy.” I am intrigued by the staging possibilities for this song. Although the nurse is cast as a woman, I also envision casting the actor who plays Lucas as the nurse. Lucas has no lines in the scene and could be played by a bandaged dummy on a cot. I think the song would sound great sung by an Irish tenor!

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A Girl Named Hilda is A Boy Named Roger set to a rock beat for use by Teddy. It is a short reprise in which Teddy declares his love for Hilda, asking if he can speak to her softly of his big stick—a play on TR’s best-known saying that I just couldn’t avoid. Hilda at the end restores the original scoring with her frank dismissal of Teddy’s admiration.

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Dora (Reprise) is a typical Broadway reprise. I really like reprises. I start this one in the middle. I got the idea many years ago from Meredith Wilson’s Music Man. The reprise of 76 Trombones starts very effectively in the middle.

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Land of Peace is initially Roger the Socialist’s response to Victoria telling him that his prospective new home, the US, would become as belligerent as all other countries. Roger tells Victoria that in spite of reality, he needs to nurture his dream of a land of peace. Don’t we all. In Land of Peace, the company joins in, two by two. I envision everyone on the stage for the chorale at the end of the piece. Land of Peace includes a quotation from Beethoven’s 9th symphony Ode to Joy. In response to the Rogers, Victoria, and Hilda singing “all men are brothers,” Teddy and Hilda sing the German equivalent, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.”

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The Ode to Joy (An die Freude) was written by the German poet Friedrich Schiller in 1785. Beethoven used it in his Ninth symphony, finished in 1824. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” was added to the text by Beethoven; it does not appear in the Schiller poem. It was a powerful addition and was set powerfully by the composer. The sentiment does equally well in any language. In Dora!, the English and the Germans are enemies. Today they are friends, more or less, and the English have other enemies. And so it goes, on and on. The players change, but the story is always the same. And all men are still brothers.

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All text and music copyright © 2008 by Tony Scialli.