Breathing in Brittania


There’s a particular anguish about being an American. The stubborn mythology of American exceptionalism, “the pursuit of happiness,” the promise of “unalienable rights” — they are rather less like political maxims than national evangelisms. Rarely, if ever, has a nation possessed such dazzling charisma in its convictions. Only apostates dare lambaste our civil religion, since it so subversively reveals that our historically vaunted “American dream” is just that. America without hope would be a country without a vernacular, an experiment without an impetus. Hope sustains us, even as it regularly deceives us. Doubting America’s invincibility is akin to blaspheming our national soul. In case there was any doubt, the Greeks weren’t the only culture to excel at myth-making.

It’s not for nothing that the feeling of being anguished in America proves to be a paradoxical mix of elation and despair. The expected happy endings of tomorrow more often result in the mundane, often sobering reality that you aren’t any more exceptional than the inhabitants of any other continents or nations, even if your delusions have you thinking otherwise. It’s hard to live in an endless fantasy, particularly in the U.S. Even the most “cockeyed optimists” who upon the realization that truth is more painful than fiction, have little use for self-introspection or disappointment. To borrow from Norman Mailer, Superman will surely come to the supermarket again.

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Still, America, so perversely gifted at carnival barker humbug, insists that you dream, wish, will, manifest and actualize what you want your nation to be, and by extension, how your own life can reflect the art of the possible. Without a whit of irony, many a politician and preacher has alluded to a “city upon a hill” so imaginatively and persuasively (and frequently), since our cleavage from the England of King George III, so why wouldn’t we think we have a patent on the possible? We are all in the same reverie, but so few of us ever wish to wake up, while others never know that we have been dreaming all along.

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I suppose it’s churlish of me to complain about my homeland, given that three generations of my family were spared living through the despotic, anti-Semitic regimes of 20th century Eastern Europe. As my maternal grandmother has reminded me on several occasions, my great-grandparents took that seductive dictum about “the streets being paved with gold,” less as propaganda and more as a collective promise.

My name is Adam Epstein, and I am best known as a producer of the Tony-winning musical Hairspray on Broadway, along with an assortment of other lauded plays and musicals. Although my colleagues and I are often derisively referred to as “management,” I consider myself part of a rare breed of risk-takers, foolish enough yet feverishly passionate about making a “business” of the arts. If these two ideas seem both fanciful and incongruous, well, that’s because they are. I am an expatriate now, having recently relocated to London. And as I contemplate questions of identity, self, and what it means to examine America from the shores of the Old World, the core question is not just about economics and politics; my contemplation is not the by-product of the inherent narcissism that accompanies “finding oneself.” Henry James famously remarked that “it’s a complex fate to be an American.” No matter where I may live, I am and always will be an American, which is another way of saying I’ll always have to restrain myself from reducing complex ideas to peppy, optimistic affirmations. But I can probe the complexity of my motherland without living there — indeed, by living without its tensions and stresses, with the luxury of tranquil detachment. In other words, because I am an expatriate, I can begin to breathe.

My memory of leaving Miami Beach for New York to attend NYU just days before my 18th birthday is one of existential terror. Sixteen years later, I moved to Los Angeles, exhausted by my life as a Broadway producer, but deeply ambivalent about leaving behind the textured, vibrant life I enjoyed in Manhattan. These were my homes in America, but I don’t live there anymore.

Perhaps it was in L.A., the land that invented artifice, where I began to relinquish what I thought was my need to live in America. (L.A. could probably do that to anybody.) Or maybe it was my aversion to moving back to New York. Nonetheless, what I once thought was professionally attainable no longer was. Independent producers like myself are as beholden to our balance sheets as we are married to our artistic inspirations. Theatrical producing has always been precarious, to be sure, but for most of my career it seemed worth the agita, despite the still-overstuffed collaboration which characterized my time on the Rialto.

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The American theatre was once the province of florid showmen whose extravagant personalities were as fabled as their long-running hits (think David Merrick). Different than the bureaucratic malaise that has long stifled Hollywood, the independent Broadway producer is now, more than ever, answerable, if not enslaved, to a multitude of investors for average production budgets that can eclipse a staggering $13 million for a musical. Producing was once its own rarefied sanctum before it morphed into an unwieldy shareholders meeting. Long gone are the days where one producer shared an intimate collaboration with their artistic team and, with that, the much-earned cachet of singular billing above the title, and, in the rare instance of a gusher, a hefty chunk of the profits to boot. I once romanticized the status of being a Broadway producer and credited the “freedom” of my nation for allowing me the opportunity to earn my impresario epaulets, a feat I achieved before I was 30.  At 39, however, I’ve finally given up flag-waving, and I’m happy to give myself a bit more credit. America too often hoodwinks its population into believing that freedom and liberty are synonymous with status and financial prosperity. Pity the poor soul who tries to disabuse them of that notion.

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That word — “status” — is curious: America has technically never had the rigid class stratifications of England, or Europe, for that matter. But as Americans we purge ourselves daily, often a few times a day, wherever our “status” records and transmits every move, whim, and flicker of our imagination via social media. Yes, we are now all free to be me and me. As James Baldwin perceptively observed,

Where everyone has status, it is also perfectly possible, after all, that no one has. It seems inevitable, in any case, that a man may become uneasy as to just what his status is.

England certainly has its share of woes, with it’s London-centric economic recovery and the proliferation of food banks all new phenomena jangling the nerves of its ordinarily unflappable populace. The potential privatization of the National Health Service, the cornerstone of Britain’s postwar social welfare state, has even been frighteningly bandied about by an increasingly vocal gang of plutocrats wistful for the halcyon days of the British Empire. Take that, Clement Atlee.

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But England remains a reticent, unquestionably sturdy nation, one that understands that limitation isn’t necessarily the enemy of expectation. Rather, happiness may simply occupy its proper perspective, which is to say that my fellow Brits spend considerably less energy on “making it” than on just being. As Americans, we would be hard pressed to give up our neurotic myths, I am sure of that. Suffice it to say, it would be un-American to do so.

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