In the Tony-nominated new musical Kimberly Akimbo, the character Aunt Debra (played, to acclaim, by Bonnie Milligan) belts out to the back row about how you’ve “gotta make your shitty life better.” Solid advice in this day and age. If critic and audience reaction is any indication, though, Kimberly Akimbo seems to be doing just that. The New York Times called it the “season’s most moving new musical,” while Vulture noted that the show’s Off-Broadway run “felt like a glimmer of sunlight breaking through the winter of Omicron,” and that “in the Broadway run, [the] sun shines brighter and clearer.” Audiences on Show-Score make sure to point out that it’s “delightful, “heartfelt,” and “something truly different on Broadway.”
But, while it’s currently leading in many predictions to win the coveted Best Musical Tony Award on Sunday, June 11(including Show-Score's Predict the Tonys), Kimberly seems decidedly different from past winners of the distinction. Take, for example, the 2017 winner for Best Musical, Dear Evan Hansen – a show about, among other things, teen suicide, social anxiety, and how lies can spiral out of control. Or even the 2015 Best Musical winner, Fun Home (with music by Kimberly’s composer, Jeanine Tesori), which deals largely with an adult queer woman reconciling with the memory of her deceased, closeted father, and the toll his secrets took on their family and the funeral home they ran. Or perhaps the 2019, 2018, and even 2011 winners for Best Musical (Hadestown, The Band’s Visit, and Once, respectively) which all end with the show’s main love interests losing one another. When compared to previous Best Musical winners, Kimberly Akimbo seems much more optimistic, especially for a show about a young girl with a rare disorder that is cutting her life short.
But Kimberly Akimbo isn’t alone in this sentiment. Many of the other nominees for Best Musical also deal in some form of optimism in one way or another. & Juliet, for example, sees the previously tragic character, Juliet (of Shakespeare’s Romeo &...), reclaim her life and find power in surviving and having agency. The main characters in Some Like it Hot, while on the run from the mob, still manage to find themselves – as well as love – along the way (and nobody even gets hurt!). How decidedly… nice?
Optimism might be “in” in more ways than we realize - not just in the theatre. The popular Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso, now in its third season, made waves for being what Inside Hook’s Scarlett Harris called “a balm for humanity,” notable for a sense of kindness and positivity that many other shows on the airwaves didn’t possess. Even the most recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Everything Everywhere All at Once, still found time to underscore that, even though things may not “matter” in the grand scheme, there’s still beauty and fulfillment to be found in the love we have for one another. This movie, especially, but I’d argue many of these stories, are indicative of a more recent movement in art, culture, and philosophy – metamodernism.
Metamodernism, as defined by Luke Turner, is a response to the postmodernism that defined the late 20th century. He writes that:
“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.”
I’d add to this that it isn’t surprising that, following the uncertainty and tumult of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the political unrest that followed, audiences would be keen to seek out some more positivity in the shows and movies they watch (while not completely ignoring the hard realities of life). After all, the Pew Research Center recently published that “The coronavirus pandemic has been associated with worsening mental health among people in the United States and around the world.” This is sure to have an effect on how we engage with media.
And, there’s already an existing basis for this, whether we realize it or not. Cinema therapy, a form of expressive therapy (like art or music therapy) is already being practiced and has seen success in using film and video as a tool to help treat a wide array of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. One overview of cinema therapy, “Through the Looking Glass: A Scoping Review of Cinema and Video Therapy” found that “exposure to comic films can reduce stress effects and improve the symptoms of the pathology connected with it.” It may stand to reason, then, that audiences seek out plays and TV shows and movies that make them feel better. Additionally, this may motivate artists, consciously or otherwise, to approach their work through a metamodernist lens – reflecting the world they see around them, while also pairing that with their hopes for the future.
So, are musicals like Kimberly Akimbo metamodernist, or even therapeutic? Potentially so. Even in the face of her debilitating disorder – one that will see her life ending early – Kimberly, the character, looks ahead with determination to live her life to the fullest and embark on a “Great Adventure” while she can. And I’d bet that the trend of a more optimistic kind of art might be here to stay for quite some time if these shows are any indication.
To that, I say: “bring it on.” I’m not one to scoff at a bit of hope. Especially in our fiction, who wouldn’t want a little something to make our shitty lives… just a tad bit better?