I am a weeper. I cry when I’m sad, of course, but also when I’m angry or stressed or overwhelmed. I cry at weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, toasts to friends and family, and most of the time when I find myself at odds with someone. I’m not bad at conflict just because I fear it directly (though I kind of do); I’m bad at conflict because I cry and I get mad at myself for crying.
I’m the person who wells up at those corny, heartwarming Olympic athletes ads, especially the thanks-to-parents ones from companies like Johnson & Johnson. I get emotional over pretty much every death of a sympathetic character on screen or on the page, and I definitely get weepy over most series finale episodes.
In the past month or two, I’ve been working through the archives of the NPR podcast “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” which is great fun. One I listened to earlier this week, however, got me thinking about my own reactions.
The panelists took a look at pop culture things that make them cry, from simply thinking about the first ten minutes of Pixar’s animated film UP to singing along with Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus from the “Messiah” oratorio.
It’s easy to think of sad things in pop culture that make us cry. One of my first memories of witnessing someone getting emotional over a story comes from a family tradition of reading aloud after dinner. I must have been about eight or nine years old, and the current read-aloud book was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I remember that we got to the point in the book when Beth is really starting to fail, and my mom just couldn’t get through it. I remember that she put her head down on the book and cried.
Being who I am, it’s very likely I got emotional over characters and stories as a little kid, but the first time I remember it is the first time I read Anne of Green Gables. I had a flashlight, I was reading under the covers, and sobbing over the death of Matthew. Even thinking about that scene now makes me feel sad.
It’s harder to think about things that aren’t necessarily sad that make me cry. Though music often makes me feel intense emotions, I am very, very rarely moved to tears. Musicals are more likely to do it than operas, I find – the finale to Ragtime when the little boy runs out to Sarah and Coalhouse, with the swelling music, always gets me, and the entire second half of Rent is brutal.
Two that come to mind that are not sad, though, are pretty reliable.
There’s an episode of The Muppet Show that features Bernadette Peters, for instance. One of the subplots of the episode is that Kermit’s little nephew, the tiny frog Robin, feels under-appreciated and wants to run away. There’s a scene where he goes into the dressing rooms and talks to Bernadette Peters, and she starts singing “Just One Person.” The song apparently originally comes from “Snoopy! The Musical,” and has the wonderful message that if just one person believes in you, others will start to as well, and eventually you’ll believe in yourself, too. It’s kind of in the vein of “Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I, but more syrupy and heartwarming. In the Bernadette Peters episode, they stage it in a way that always gets me – it starts off with just Bernadette singing, and one by one several other Muppets join in. I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing about it. This song has appeared on several Muppet productions, and even was a part of Jim Henson’s memorial service.
The other example of a non-sad Thing That Makes Me Cry is from the film Finding Neverland. Yes, the death of Kate Winslet’s character is sad and beautifully staged. But I’m crying long before that in this film.
The part that always sets me off is the series of scenes around the opening night of the “Peter Pan” play. The producer, played by Dustin Hoffman, is skeptical about the play’s appeal to the usual middle-class adult audiences. He gets more confused when the playwright, J.M. Barrie, reserves a couple dozen seats scattered in ones and twos around the audience. In a move that has become legendary among those of us who love Peter Pan, Barrie saves those seats for children from a nearby orphanage. Their delight and full-hearted belief in the story unfolding onstage captures the audience, helping the adults return to a mindset in which they can believe in the pure fantasy and nostalgia for childhood innocence lost that is Peter Pan.
It’s the moment when, just before the curtain is supposed to go up and the play’s producer is threatening to release the reserved seats for sale, the children appear from around the corner, walking towards the theater. That’s when I start to blubber. There’s just something about it, and I’m not sure I can pinpoint it in words, but it gets me. Every time.