Travels to find the place I’ve never been
According to WordPress, this is the 200th blog post on this blog! Neat!
So I’ve decided to post a plot summary of Travels, the musical written by Nate Winder that I orchestrated back in high school in the year 2000, mostly in case I need to reference it, and to give all my readers an idea of what an actually pretty good plot the show had, especially for being written by a high-schooler. The bold phrases in parentheses are the names of the songs that accompany that particular part of the plot.
The story opens in the year 1298. A 40-ish Marco Polo is seen in a Genoese prison along with an old scribe named Rustichello. Marco begins dictating the fantastic tales of his youth to Rustichello, warning him to tell the tales from a non-biased viewpoint. Rustichello ask why, pointing out that it would make a good story if told with Marco’s feelings included. Marco says that there are certain details that he’d rather not share with the world, as we shall soon see(1.Prologue/Overture). As he begins his tale we flashback to the city of Venice in the year 1271. Young 17-year-old Marco(played by a different actor), sitting on a rooftop, expresses his desires to see the world(2.Day After Day). During and after his song the townspeople of Venice start milling about below, starting the work and/or theft and/or clerical duties of the day(3. Venice to Stay). Marco gets off his rooftop and begins his merchant work as his Aunt Flora observes. Flora and Marco have a conversation, revealing that Flora had raised Marco ever since his father Niccolo Polo and uncle Maffeo Polo had gone east in search of riches. Flora tries to cheer Marco up by telling him that “he will go far.” Coincidentally, as she finishes, Niccolo and Maffeo enter the city, after an absence of sixteen years(4. You Will Go Far). The entire Polo family cheers and celebrates their homecoming, and Niccolo begins to weave the tale of their adventures. They had planned to come home from Constantinople after two or three years, but wars had driven them further and further east until they reached the mythical land of China. They met the emperor, one Kublai Khan, and had gotten him interested in Christianity. The pair was sent home with orders to bring back 100 monks to preach to the Chinese. As Niccolo finishes his story, he requests that Marco travels with them on their return journey(5.Celebration/Our Journey Goes On). Marco marvels at his good fortune and determines to pursue his dream and leave with his father and uncle. Soon he is packed and the trio says their good-byes to the Polo family once again(6. Travels).
The first stop on the journey is Palestine, where the new Pope has been installed. Maffeo relates their plight to the Pope and requests 100 monks. The Pope, being newly installed and therefore without much power, decides to deny their request on the basis that the Easterners are “barbarians.” He finally does grant them two missionaries, who profess their bravery and unwavering loyalty(7.As You Can See). The steadfastness of these two monks quickly evaporates as the group travels farther east, and soon they abandon the Polos in fear of being killed by bandits. The Polos are left with no choice but to return to China empty-handed(8. Don’t Turn Your Back On Us Now).
Now begins a montage of traveling songs. Niccolo wonders why Marco spends all his time writing instead of helping him and Maffeo, and Marco replies by stating how beautiful the land is that they’re traveling through, and how he wants to capture it in his journal(9. Pages of White). In various towns along the way, Niccolo and Maffeo are revealed to be very cunning merchants as they con and cheat the townspeople out of their possessions, money, and jewels. This disappoints Marco and gets them thrown out of a few towns as well(10. Town to Town). As their journeys continue, Marco grows from a boy into a man(shown on stage by the young actor being replaced by the old actor who played Marco in the prologue) and he sings about how, out in the wilderness, he has been able to “find himself” at last(11. Walk Upon the Sky). The cheating and swindling of Marco’s father and uncle displease him more as time goes on, and he laments on how he has nobody to talk to about the wonders he is seeing, since all Niccolo and Maffeo talk about is money(12. In These Mountain Tops). The lamenting turns in a different direction as the Polos come to the end of their supplies in the Gobi Desert. Hunger-stricken and thirsty, the Polos are almost done for, when Maffeo spots a group in the distance. Arming themselves to fight off marauders, they find instead an escort from the great Kublai Khan himself. The Polos are greatly relieved and, after four long years since they left Venice, the trio enters China(13. Lonely, Lost, and Losing).
Marco, Maffeo, and Niccolo pass through the streets of Xanadu, where the summer palace of the Khan sits. The townspeople marvel at these strange visitors with their white skin and travel-worn clothes(14. Who Is This Stranger?). They enter the presence of the Khan, and Maffeo relates the tale of how the monks ran away. Although the Khan is dismayed by this bit of news, he is nevertheless quite pleased to see him and Niccolo once again. He then inquires as to the identity of the third traveler, and Niccolo introduces Marco. Marco tells the Khan about how he’s kept record of the lands that they journeyed through and the Khan is impressed(15. Stately Pleasure). As Marco and the Khan continue talking, the Khan’s jealous court astrologers enter and tell the audience about their “discoveries” in the sky that spell doom for the empire if the Polos are allowed to stay and live(16. A Dangerous Sign). Meanwhile, Marco has been regaling Kublai Khan with anecdotes from his four-year journey. The Khan is very impressed and appoints Marco to be an exclusive field reporter and go throughout the Empire, writing down all that he sees so the Khan will know the state of the land. As Marco muses on this new calling, the astrologers advise the Khan of their findings. However, he dismisses their findings, saying that three Europeans will never cause the fall of the Mongol Empire(17. Hunting).
A few days later, Marco is packed and ready to go. Kublai Khan’s majordomo introduces Marco to his traveling entourage of servants, and the Khan, Niccolo, and Maffeo bid Marco farewell as the townspeople look on. Soon after leaving Xanadu, the party forms camp. One of the servants, a young girl named Mei Hwa, develops a crush on Marco(18. Go Where You Go). As they travel through the countryside, Marco admits that he is having the time of his life. To his surprise, Mei Hwa is as interested in the wonderful sights as he is, which is a welcome change from the greediness of his father and uncle(19. Journey of a Lifetime). One night on the trip, while doing laundry, Mei Hwa expresses her feelings about Marco and how she is not sure what to do, since she is just a servant girl and inexperienced(20. When It All Comes Down to Love). Later, after Mei Hwa brings Marco some tea, Marco is hit in the face by the realization that not only is Mei Hwa a beautiful girl, she is as interested in the experience of traveling as he is, and he falls in love with her. She returns with more tea and the two suddenly fall into a passionate embrace(21. In This Mystic Land).
Life is good for Marco. He’s living out his desires with the girl of his dreams. However, the party has now traveled far away from the Chinese capital, and entering newly conquered territory. The governors are cruel to the citizens and human rights have all but disappeared. Marco sees these horrible acts but does not write any of it, for he does not wish to anger the Khan, since he is an outsider(22. What’s Going On?). As he wrestles with this moral dilemma, he grows distant from Mei Hwa, and she, being still very inexperienced in the ways of love, takes this as a sign that he is lo longer interested in her(23. When It All Comes Down to Love (reprise)). By this time the group has reached the very outskirts of the Empire and witness the Mongol horde conquering a village. Marco observes the battle from a distance, but in the melee one of the villagers mistakes Marco for a member of the horde and attacks him. Marco, in self-defense, kills the man(24. The Battle). Realizing the terrible thing he’s just done, killing on behalf of the Mongol horde, he vows to convince the Khan to change what’s happening. As he sings in determination, the townspeople rise and plead to be remembered, so that their deaths will not have been in vain(25. To Come Forth).
END OF ACT ONE
It is the Chinese New Year back at the capital of the Empire. Marco’s travel party has arrived from their trip, and Mei Hwa vows to break off the relationship. The only problem is that she is still her servant. Her monologue is cut short as the New Year Parade begins. In the middle of the festivities, however, a member of the parade sneaks to Marco’s box and stabs him. Although the wound is not mortal, the culprit runs away and is not caught(26. The Parade). Back in Marco’s room, Mei Hwa tends to his wounds. Marco realizes that he’s been neglecting Mei Hwa and vows to make it up to her. She, however, will have none of it. She says he’s been too caught up in changing a world he does not understand, and that it will never work. Marco, offended, kicks Mei Hwa out of his service, and she joins the household of the governor of a local town(27. Time For Me to Go). Marco vows to finally inform Kublai Khan of his real findings and requests an audience with him. Before he can speak, however, the Khan praises him for his reports and gives him a post as the governor of one of the most prosperous cities in China, the city of Kinsay. Marco, flattered and humbled, can only thank the Khan for his generosity. Meanwhile, the astrologers berate the assassin responsible for stabbing Marco instead of killing him. They warn the assassin that next time there had better be no mistake, and Marco must die(28. You Are the One).
Marco journeys to Kinsay with a heavy heart, having lost both Mei Hwa and the guts to tell the Khan what was on his mind. He is determined, however, to rule by example and be the best governor he can be. The townsfolk of Kinsay are first a bit wary of his motives, but soon Marco puts their fears to rest as he rules quite peacefully and give the people a large amount of freedom while still keeping order. After three years, the townspeople admit that they’ve never had a better governor than Marco, and the city is booming(29. No Better Timing). The nearby governors, however, are less impressed by the prosperity of Kinsay under Marco’s government. Most of them wanted the city of Kinsay for themselves, and the jealous rulers accuse Marco of obtaining the position because he is the Khan’s pet(30. Who Do You Think You Are?). Marco once again laments his position as the brunt of so much jealousy. He misses his love, and he still hasn’t talked to the Khan about the sad state of the fringes of the Empire. The governors and the townspeople have a figurative verbal spar. The townspeople want Marco to stay, while the governors want him to go away. Marco admits that all he really wants to do is go back home to Venice(31. Still On My Own).
Suddenly, unexpected visitors arrive at Marco’s door. They are Niccolo and Maffeo, Marco’s father and uncle. They explain that they also desire to return home. The Khan is getting old, they say, and his power over the Empire is diminishing. They want to get out before the Empire collapses into anarchy, with governors vying for power in the vacuum left by the Khan’s death. So the trio requests an audience with the Khan and Niccolo explains that they want to get home, in order to see their families that they had left behind so many years ago. Kublai Khan, however, denies their request. These three are his favorite advisors, and he is not letting them go just out of the blue. Marco finally snaps and tells the Khan off. He outlines how the governors mistreat the citizens and the army murders innocent townsfolk, all so the Khan can enrich himself for “the good of the Empire”(32. Got to Go). The Khan listens, then silences Marco. He begins to tell the tale of the Mongolian Empire, founded by his grandfather, Genghis Khan. Genghis had built up a grand empire through conquest, but then had died. Kublai realized that the only way to preserve what had already been built up was to assume the throne as its rightful heir and continue in the ways of his grandfather. If this did not happen, more killings and chaos would ensue as a result of the collapsing Empire. Was what he was doing wrong or right? Neither, but it had to happen. The Khan drives this point home to Marco with the line, “You can make a wrong, you can make a right, it’s not always black and white.” Then he orders Marco to go back to his duties(33. The Ballad of Kublai Khan).
Back in Kinsay, Marco reflects on his situation. He realizes that he cannot change anything. The only true happiness he had was when he was traveling with Mei Hwa. He sends a servant to find her. In another governor’s palace, Mei Hwa ponders the mistakes that she’s made and realizes that she truly does love him and she “would go with him anywhere.” The servant arrives at the palace, and brings Mei Hwa back to Kinsay, where she and Marco reaffirm how they truly feel about each other, ending in another passionate embrace(34. Anywhere). Marco suggests to Mei Hwa that she run away to Venice with him. She agrees, but first they must ask leave of her current master. Unfortunately, the governor in charge of her is also the head of the jealous governors that want to see Marco miserable, and he refuses Marco’s request(35. Venice Someday).
The elder two Polos arrive at Marco’s palace with a plan to get home. They have with them some Persians who have a request from the Persian king for a gift of goodwill. The Khan is planning to give one of his daughters to him, but she and the Persian envoys need an escort to take them back to Persia, and the Polos are the only ones who know the route well. The three Polos approach Kublai Khan with this plan, and the Khan, facing no alternative, reluctantly agrees to let them go. After Niccolo and Maffeo leave the palace, Marco asks the Khan to let Mei Hwa go. He refuses, stating that he needs to keep the governors in his good graces, lest they rise up and overthrow the Empire. Marco then accuses the Khan of going back on his own philosophy, and the Khan chastises Marco for his presumptuousness on telling the Khan how to run the Empire. He then orders Marco to leave or go to jail. Marco leaves(36. Got to Go (reprise)). Meanwhile, the astrologers and the jealous governors have formed an alliance to murder Marco once and for all. Mei Hwa’s employer knows that Marco will not leave without her, so they plan to ambush him when he tries to steal her away(37. The Time Is Right).
Nighttime. Niccolo tries to convince Marco to leave Mei Hwa behind, but he is determined. Marco sneaks into the governor’s palace, incapacitates a guard, and sneaks out again with Mei Hwa. Before they can get very far, the assassin that stabbed Marco earlier emerges from the shadows. He and Marco have a brief fight, which Marco loses. Just before the assassin can run him through, however, Mei Hwa jumps him from behind, ineffectively. The assassin quickly stabs her through the chest and turns his attention back to Marco. Suddenly, a mysterious cloaked figure appears and slits the throat of the assassin before he has time to react. Marco rushes to the side of Mei Hwa and urges her to get up and come with him. She, however, simply whispers, “I will go with you anywh–…” and dies. Grief-stricken, Marco becomes aware of the hooded figure still standing near. Through tears, he demands to know who this figure is. The figure removes his hood and reveals himself to be none other than the Khan. He explains that he knew Marco would not leave Mei Hwa, despite being forbidden to do so. The Khan then advises Marco to let go of the past and go back home. After a long glance back, Marco dashes away. The entire scene has been watched by the head astrologer and the governor in charge of Mei Hwa, and after Marco runs away he swears silently and stalks off(38. The Escape).
The scene now returns to 1298, in the Genoese prison. Marco finishes his tale, explaining that, after they dropped the princess off in Persia, they headed home. Nobody recognized them for they had thought to have been long dead. Having not much to live for, Marco signed up to join the Venetian Army and was captured by the Genoans, who threw them into prison. (39. Epilogue) As Rustichello completes writing, Marco begins to ponder his youth. On stage, the Young Marco appears upstage and sings of his life’s dreams and ambitions while the Old Marco downstage sings about how each of those were dashed hopelessly. However, as the young one tells of the people he saw, the old one realizes that it’s not about him, it’s about the experience. He then vows to live life to the fullest, no matter what happens. Marco reaffirms this as the entire cast joins with him to live and love live, wondrously(40. Walk Upon the Sky/Travels).
END OF ACT TWO
END OF SHOW
If you’d like my thoughts about the show, music, and the whole experience, read my Travels memoirs (skip ahead to the overview if reading about each song is too tedious).