“When Children Rule the World”: Andrew Lloyd Webber Revisits the Gospel in _Whistle Down the Wind_

It has been years since I’ve listened to Baron Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Jim Steinman‘s _Whistle Down the Wind_, though I like several of the songs (I read somewhere that the Boyzone single of “No Matter What” is ALW’s most commercially successful song of all time, at least by a particular performer; and “When Children Rule the World” was an instant Christmas standard, and performed at the 1998 Olympics). Anyway, the story is *very* powerful. Based upon the Hayley Mills movie which, in turn, was based upon a novel by Hayley Mills’ mother, ALW & Steinman (king of the “power ballad”) change the setting to Louisiana in the 1950s (ALW’s favorite decade–I often think of a possible crossover between characters from all his shows set in the 50s).
The story tells of a family of 3 children (Swallow, Brat and Poor Baby) who find a convict (“the Man”) in their barn. He has cuts in his hands and feet. When they ask who’s there, he exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” taking Our Lord’s name in vain, and then faints. They think he’s answering them, and are convinced he’s Jesus. The children of the town spread the news among themselves but keep it secret from the adults (“When Children Rule the World” and “No Matter What”), who are on the prowl for the escaped killer. Meanwhile, a group of snake handling preachers come to town for a revival (“Wrestle with the Devil”). There is a clear contrast between the snake handlers “putting God to the test” and the children, who are exemplifying what Jesus *really* meant when He talked about handling snakes. And by believing that The Man is literally Jesus, the children are exemplifying the teaching of “Whatever you do to the Least of my brothers.”

At the climax, Swallow, who has developed feelings for “Jesus,” has a Phantom of the Opera-esque moment with “The Man” (“The Nature of the Beast”). He tells her there’s no hope for him. He tries to tell her the truth of who he is. He tells her that he stabbed his own feet with a pitchfork to go to the infirmary and escape, and that he cut his hands on barbed wire. She refuses to believe him. “You’re lying!” “Would Jesus lie?” “He were if he were pretending to be a man!”

Meanwhile, outside, the angry townsfolk and police surround the barn. The children form a wall around it to protect “Jesus.” The children sing the third reprise of “When Children Rule the World,” over and over, in protest as the adults scream and sing about “protecting the children” and “wrestling with the Devil.”

Meanwhile, inside, both Swallow and The Man truly wrestle with the Devil regarding the possibility of the Man’s salvation, their feelings for each other, and Swallow’s faith in “Jesus.”

The Man is Jean Valjean before the bishop. He’s Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit. Indeed, I wonder if ALW and Steinman set it in the American South because they recognized the similarity to O’Connor’s themes.

Early in the story, the children lament that “I Never Get What I Pray For,” complaining about their childlike “Santa” prayers, in conjunction with their real sorrow over their mother’s death. The little boy, “Poor Baby” (his “real name” is Robin, though that’s not used, and he’s “Charles” in the original story), keeps saying he wants a Christmas bonfire, because without a bonfire, Santa can’t see their house, but they’re so poor, his father cautions that they can’t afford a bonfire, and therefore Santa probably won’t bring any presents.

After repeatedly asking them why “he” let their mother die, and why “he” let Poor Baby’s new kitten die, the Man repeatedly tries to explain, in his nihilistic way, that everyone dies (through the stories of “Annie Christmas” and “Charlie Christmas,” which, he says, will be in the “Next Testament”). Both “stories” end with the children chanting, “And the moral is? And the moral is?” “I DON’T KNOW”

Finally, the children accept that “Jesus” has been trying to teach them to figure things out for themselves. They reason that their mother died because she’d been so sick for so long, and it was the only way to release her from her suffering.

I don’t know Steinman’s religious background, though his collaborations with “Meat Loaf” tend to be of a rather dark, nihilistic sort. There is a challenge in dealing with the musical, that the composer is given primary credit but the lyricist really writes the “story,” and we often never hear of the person who writes the “book,” if different. For example, most people associate _West Side Story_ with Leonard Bernstein, not Stephen Sondheim.

Lloyd Webber considers himself a believer–I’m not sure how devout the thrice married Anglican can be, but he has written at least two very good liturgical pieces–his award-winning _Requiem_ and the setting of the “Benedicite” he wrote for his third wedding (the melody of which he reused in _Sunset Boulevard_ in several tempos). His famous collaborations with Tim Rice–though he’s actually worked more with Don Black and Richard Stilgoe–worked because of their differences in views. Lloyd Webber despised Eva Peron; Rice loved her. When it came to _Jesus Christ Superstar_, Rice was an agnostic; ALW was a believer.

_Whistle Down the Wind_ deals with several of Lloyd Webber’s favorite dramatic themes (and reuses a few musical themes): the importance of believing in oneself in spite of society’s disapproval; the dangers of going along with the crowd; finding the beauty or goodness in those society despises.

Again, though I’ve never seen it (other than a few YouTube clips), nor studied a detailed libretto, listening to it the other day, I had vivid ideas of the scenes. I could see The Man and Swallow, in their great moment like the Phantom and Christine or even Norma and Joe.

In any case, the Man escapes, but the barn catches fire. Swallow comes out. The authorities go in. They come back and are astonished that the man has vanished with no sign.

Swallow’s father says that she must realize he wasn’t who she thought. “He wasn’t Jesus.” “How can you be sure?” she asks. For, indeed, he *was* Jesus.

If _Superstar_ is about seeing the humanity of Our Lord, and seeing the Gospel from Judas’s perspective, then _Whistle Down the Wind_ is about seeing Our Lord in humanity, and seeing the sinner from God’s perspective. For to the Father, every human being is His child, and therefore Jesus, and that’s how Jesus asks us to see each other.

In O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandmother’s ability to see the killer as her son, to consider the possibility that she could love him unconditionally, leads the Misfit to shoot her, in part because he recognizes such perfect goodness in her in that instant that he knows he’ll send her to Heaven: “She’d have been a good woman if it’d been someone there to shoot her every moment of her life.”

Something similar is at work here, though not the same, for The Man is confronted with childlike innocence.

I have quoted before the words of a wonderful priest, the late Fr. Gregory Kirsch, JCL, VF, whom I wish I had been able to know better in this life: “I get so sick and tired of answering the door to another drunk wanting money, but I know the time I don’t answer, it’s going to be Jesus.”

It’s always Jesus. One of the challenges of our lives is to learn to see Jesus in everyone, particularly if that person is baptized (note that in one of Our Lord’s teaching on charity, He mentions giving a cup of water to a *brother*), but even if the person is *not*. We are called, after all, to love our enemies. The children in _Whistle Down the Wind_ do all that and exemplify the Gospel in its entirety while the “good adults” of the town, in the name of “protecting” the children and promoting Christian virtue, seek out to destroy the very person Our Lord says they should love and embrace.

In the end, in a profound recognition of Providence, “Poor Baby” points to the burning barn and says, “Look! I prayed for a Christmas bonfire, and we got the biggest bonfire of all!”

“You gotta wrestle, wrestle with the Devil in a heart beat”–but you don’t do it by handling snakes or hunting down wicked men to kill them. You wrestle with the devil by confronting the wicked face to face and daring to see that they are God’s children, that they are your own family, and daring to love them in spite of whatever horrors they’ve committed.

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One response to ““When Children Rule the World”: Andrew Lloyd Webber Revisits the Gospel in _Whistle Down the Wind_

  1. To me a thrice-married ANGLICAN seems very high catholic indeed; devout in all things including the sin that started his sect.

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