Twenty years ago only a quarter of U.S. homes had a PC and the biggest media decision facing a child was Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo. Now, media and the Internet are experienced in a million different ways by a million different people—but can you sum up its essence? Blake Harris thinks he can: with musical theatre.
Harris, author of the video game history Console Wars, grapples with defining the Internet experience and its ever-changing landscapes in a new show called WikiMusical, playing until Saturday as part of the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Harris wrote the lyrics and book for the musical, which is a meandering journey through the sites, memes, and trends that make up the Web. It’s silly and surreal, and hidden inside is an exploration of the ways we’re making the Internet our home.
“For musical theatre, there’s something that’s almost communal about the experience,” says Harris, “and the story of the tech age is such an interconnected story. It touches upon a lot of different threads—one of the great things about the Internet is that there’s a seemingly infinite number of rabbit holes you can go down. The story is an attempt to make a narrative out of all of it.”
The show starts in a simpler time, with siblings based on Harris and his brother getting a Gateway computer from an eccentric Santa Claus. It quickly jumps to the present: the grown brothers are pulled bodily into the modern Internet where they must defeat the sinister and seductive Spam King to save the Web and return home, mending their relationship along the way. On their journey they meet a blogger on a quest and a cast of unlikely online characters—including the cats that (evidently) invented the Internet, Mario and Luigi, and Morgan Freeman.
The show has strong acting and the songs are often catchy, although the narrative thread can sometimes get lost among the different encounters and gags. In fact, narrative is one of the challenges this show takes on: how to pull the universal tropes of a hero’s journey from the nebulous, multi-faceted, constantly evolving Internet.
According to Harris: “We live in such a niche age, whether it is websites or television channels, that having flagship websites or central hubs is more important than ever to have those shared communal experiences.” Using these well-known sites along with familiar memes and web personalities as landmarks, Harris takes the audience on a State of the Internet tour: an attempt to capture the zeitgeist of what we all experience when we experience the Internet, and the communities we’ve created.
The show is at its strongest when it explores the Internet’s collaborative nature and makes us stop and think about what we’re building. Harris sees Wikipedia as a window into that world under construction, which is why he kept the title even as the plot ballooned beyond just the editable encyclopedia.
“Wikipedia is basically this giant Ouija board that we all put our hands on and try to create an information network together,” he says. “It represents the best and worst of the technological age.”