Yesterday, an Off-Broadway musical closed that I launched on its remarkable run nearly 12 years ago. The show had productions in four states, D.C. and London; it had over 450 performances; it became the cornerstone of one very talented (and very nice) actor’s career, and an important opportunity for several others. It gave a dear friend immense pleasure, satisfaction and recognition in the final decade of his life, and probably saved my theater company from bankruptcy. Most important of all, perhaps, is that it entertained thousands of people. If I got bopped by a trolley tomorrow, the show would undoubtedly stand as one of the major accomplishments of my entire strange, eclectic, under-achieving life.
And yet…feeling good about the unlikely saga of the show, now that it has finally (probably—it has risen from the dead before) seen its last audience, takes considerable effort for me, and has from the beginning. My satisfaction is more intellectual than emotional, because I know that I personally benefited less from the show in tangible ways in proportion to my contribution to it than anyone else involved. Although I restructured the script, re-wrote, added and cut lines, wrote new lyrics to one song and added two others to the show, including the finale, I’m not credited as a co-auther. I own no part of the property, and never received a dime in compensation. Those closely connected with the original production know all of this, but the extent of my role in the creation and success of the show has been invisible to audiences for over a decade.
For that, I have no one to blame but myself. I undertook the project as a favor to my elderly friend, who wrote the book and lyrics. I heard the songs on a CD, and was unimpressed; I read the script, and was even less impressed: it seemed to me to be a very sentimental, old-fashioned musical that would be ripped to shreds by critics and would bore audiences stiff. Nonetheless, I agreed to direct it for my friend, if I could convince my theater company’s board to allow it to be produced under its auspices. I said I would take no fee, since my friend would be underwriting most costs, and I considered my participation a gift to him. I persuaded three long-time theater collaborators and friends to take on the musical direction, arrangements, and choreography, also gratis: they also substantially made-over the show during the course of rehearsals. When the author left the room as we rehearsed the show, or skipped a rehearsal, I changed the script. The musical director and the arranger altered tempos, musical transitions and mood. We looked at the task of making a weak show passable as a challenge, and still, above all, an act of kindness. The actors we cast in the show’s two roles proved to be dedicated and impressively skilled; they certainly made the most of the material they were given. Still, when we opened the production for what was, we all believed, a two-week run that would surely be the show’s last, none of us felt we had done enough to make it a viable stage property.
We were so wrong. The audience loved it; critics loved it. Sometimes this happens in the arts: magic appears out of nowhere. I could only see the problems in the show that I hadn’t been able to solve, but the audience didn’t notice them, or didn’t care. It was a complete, unequivocal smash, a cash cow for the company, and a career-maker for the struggling young actor I had hand-picked to be the star. For my friend, it was the high-point of his writing career, and the show itself had become valuable and in demand.
Meanwhile, I. a lawyer, had taken on the job of re-making and directing the show without negotiating for anything in return. I felt like a sucker, and many people were not shy in telling me so. One reason I had not looked at the project from a business perspective was that I didn’t suspect, in a million years, that the lame script and derivative songs I had been given could ever possibly be worth anything. The main reason, however, was that I didn’t do the show for profit. I did it as a favor.
At the climax of “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), the baseball-loving farmer who risks everything to build a magic field in his corn, setting off a chain of events that restores a love of life to an angry writer, brings redemption to a dead ballplayer and allows a country doctor to achieve his fondest wish, becomes angry when the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson invites the writer, but not the farmer, to see what cosmic answers lie beyond the mystical corn field. Now Ray feels exploited and mistreated, and says,
“I did it all…and not once did I ask what’s in it for me…. I’m saying…what’s in it for me?
To which the spectral ballplayer responds, pointedly,
“Is that why you did this, Ray? For you?”
No, Ray didn’t do it for himself. Ethical acts are performed for the benefit of others, and for our communities, societies, civilization and the human race. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to shed the human but essentially non-ethical feeling that we deserve to be rewarded when we sacrifice to do something altruistic or kind. Ray got his reward in the end, of course: he reconciled his guilt and bitterness over his relationship with his father. I got my reward too. An act of friendship that I never expected to achieve much beyond that set in motion an amazing wave of good that benefited thousands of people in great and small ways for more than a decade. That is what ethical living is supposed to do. Credit, recognition, accolades, fame, monetary rewards—all of these are pleasurable, and human beings crave them to give their lives some glitter and the illusion of distinction and success. If that’s all we live for, however, we will achieve only empty and superficial lives.
My act of kindness twelve years ago made the lives of a lot of people a little richer, to an extent I never could have planned. It also gave me an invaluable lesson about the power of ethics. That was reward enough…more than enough.
And one of these days, I hope I feel like it.
Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at firstname.lastname@example.org.