The Holy and the Broken Hallelujah Or How I learned to stop worrying and love the Acadian-Cajun Revels
by Nicole Galland (novelist and alto)
It’s been a rough year for music lovers; the music died too often in 2016. The recent passing of Leonard Cohen hit me especially hard, in part because of my exceeding attachment to his song “Hallelujah” (I even incorporated a line from it into a recent novel). His original recording contains a powerful verse that’s rarely included when the song is covered:
You say I took the Name in vain, but I don’t even know the Name,
And if I did, well really, what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard:
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.
There’s something a little uncomfortable in the notion that Hallelujah – an exclamation of spiritual rejoicing, after all! – can be “broken.” The obviously-holy hallelujah of (say) Handel’s Messiah has been in fashion for 275 years. But Cohen is right: some of our most moving and powerful celebrations reveal their “blaze of light” in not-so-obvious ways. Sometimes it takes a great Darkness to realize how brightly the Light can blaze.
There’s a strong element of that in this year’s Christmas Revels. The Acadian/Cajun story hinges on Le Grand Derangement – The Great Disturbance. It’s a story of diaspora, of an entire society of unwilling migrants, displaced and pushed into exile by political forces beyond their control. This seems very unlikely material for a Christmas show!
But look closer: this people, united, could never be defeated. The Acadians did not simply survive their Great Disturbance; they triumphed over it. To go on that journey with them, in Sanders Theatre, is – literally – amazing. You will be amazed. Theirs is a broken hallelujah – but what a blaze of light!
That light is both brilliant and timely. The Revels is an apolitical organization, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When Paddy, George, and Megan chose to tell the story of the Acadians becoming Cajuns, they were mindful of the refugee crises around the globe. The resonance is incredibly powerful. I used to think I loved Revels for its whimsical escapism but I find the contemporary resonances of the 2016 Christmas show transport me every bit as much as last year’s stunning Welsh Taliesin myth. (Spoiler: there’s also plenty of whimsical escapism in Act II!)
Over the course of 10 Tuesdays this autumn, the Chorus learned and finessed some dozen songs to perform in the Christmas show at Sanders Theatre. During that period, there were 3 all-day Saturday rehearsals, at which the musical and non-musical elements of the show were woven together. In the course of these rehearsals, the chorus got to watch the actors work their scenes. There’s a short scene in which 12-year-old Lola May Williamson asks actress Noni Lewis why the Acadians must emigrate. Paddy crafted the dialogue such that it could be applied to any story of displacement. Each time I’ve witnessed the simple, brief exchange between them, I get choked up – just for a moment, but it’s a very vital moment.
That is not escapism. That is humanity. Hallelujah!