A Theory of Justice: the Musical!

I saw A Theory of Justice: The Musical! on its last run at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a show bound to appeal to debaters on the title alone; though I weep for the state of modern LD that one of my stronger junior debaters asked “What’s that a reference to?” in response. LD was derailed a little from it’s usual ground a few years ago, not by the influx of policy debate styles I think, but because we had a slate of resolutions focused on individual moral choices, not state functions. When that happened, the basic prep work of a lot of debaters shifted from the concepts of justice and liberty, focused on the state, to deontology and personal morality, which is different literature altogether. Rawls and his ilk were left behind; we have LD debaters who don’t know what the social contract is. Someday, someone will “discover” it anew and present it excitedly to a bemused coaching staff as the Next Big Thing.

Until then, the Musical!. It chronicles the struggle of philosopher John Rawls to either invent the next big theory that both synthesizes and revives political philosophy, or get laid, depending on your point of view. There’s this girl, you see, a student he names Fairness, that he pursues by trying to concoct a Grand Theory of political philosophy. To do so, he travels through a Time Vortex that the physics department conveniently opened in Harvard Quad, whatever that is. He then consults with the various surprisingly musically inclined philosophers of the past.

The production values were, shall we say gently, collegiate. The vortex was a rotating gel, and the set was simply blank with two large veils hung from the back. Yes, veils. The lighting was full of holes; actors’ faces were often in the dark, overzealous use of spotlights, that sort of thing. But I’m sure the lighting hang was just a standard one common to six shows in the same venue, so there’s only so much you can do. The singing was one of those shows attempting to make up in volume what it lacked in other qualities, and the dancing looked exactly like a bunch of painfully white Oxford students trying to dance.

Rawls was a bit too hamfisted in his delivery. Sure, suspension of disbelief wasn’t exactly on the agenda anyway, but Rawls just was flat and kind of broke the veneer of believability sometimes with overdoing some lines. Nozick was written as his archnemesis, chasing Rawls through time to prevent the creation of a theory that might reconcile Americans to income redistribution and taxes. He’s marching at the orders of his dominatrix mistress, Ayn Rand. That character was more fun, by nature; he was played by an emaciated Robert Pattinson stunt double with good comic timing and great Sinister Looks™.  Nozick was fun as a classic cartoon villain: he cackled a lot but was ultimately harmless.

The rest of the cast was ensemble. The utilitarians were a barbershop quartet, a cute idea, though their song didn’t sound at all like barbershop, though maybe only Americans could tell? The best song was Rousseau, in the guise of an aggressive French ladies’ man who steals Rawls’ love interest away for a scene or two. And the show stealer, of course, was Immanuel Kant, whose entrance late in the show as the six foot tall Deontological Fairy Godmother with a baritone voice as powerful as a howitzer helps Rawls cut through the crap and reach his final a-HA! moment.

But this ain’t Rent. Technical brilliance and magnificent music would have been wasted on the idea. It was supposed to be funny and cute, and it was. The humor was all in-jokes, given in full grand elitism without any hints or clues for the civilians who may be in the audience. It dropped little hints and jokes about how terribly long and unreadable Rawls’ great book was going to be. “I know! I’ll put all the conclusions in the first three chapters!” he says at one point to Fairness, who expresses doubt about the idea. Socrates is a live marionette sitting on Plato’s lap, saying whatever he wants, in front of a crowd of philosopher students who are collectively gayer than the Bronx Science coaching staff. Towards the end, the Veil of Ignorance is revealed as a device that removes your personal selfish motivations; when Ayn Rand is pulled behind it she promptly disappears as there’s nothing else to her.

If you get these jokes, the show is fun. If you don’t, I have no idea what you’d think just happened. So it’s not for everyone, but it was hilarious enough for me.