There are some things that are assumed to exist in the collective cultural consciousness. Elements from a source so familiar, that if somebody makes a reference to it that person assumes that the audience will recognize the source material and any connotations associated with it. However, if a person is not familiar with the source material, but grows to love some derivative of it, and then goes back and encounters the original, there is a much larger shock, especially if the person does not realize that the offshoot was a derivative at all. This has been my experience, at least lately.
Let me explain. Most people know the story of Romeo and Juliet, so when West Side Story was written the writers assumed that most audience members would recognize the connections. But let’s say a person grew to know West Side Story very well without knowing about Romeo and Juliet at all. If such a person later sat down and read or saw Romeo and Juliet without any prior preparation, such a person may suddenly start making connections. “Wait a minute! Romeo’s just like Tony! These Montagues are like the Jets if they wore tights and couldn’t dance as well!” It would be moment after moment of amazing coincidences!
Not being intimately familiar with Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, or any other offshoots, let me continue this explanation with my own experience, which hasn’t been precisely the same as this unnamed protagonist in our Shakespearean/Sondheimian example. I’m a giant sci-fi fan, and I always have been. However, there have been some movies that I hadn’t got around to seeing yet. Such a movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most famous and influential films of the 20th century, especially in the sci-fi genre, which I finally got around to seeing about a month or so ago. Previously, I was familiar enough with various pop-culture references and parodies of it to know basically the big moments (apes learning how to beat other apes with bones thanks to a black rectangular slab, the psycho computer Hal, the “I’m sorry Dave, but I can’t do that” line, the 20-minute acid trip that closes out the movie, etc.) and recognize them if they came up in an episode of The Simpsons or whatever. But imagine when I saw this segment, with an astronaut jogging in a circle:
Why, that’s almost exactly the same as the opening credits of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie, where Mike Nelson jogs in a hamster wheel! (I tried and tried to find a video of this, but to no avail; the best I found was about fifteen seconds — from 0:10 to 0:25 — from a collection of clips that it won’t even let me embed in WordPress for some reason, so follow the link!) That wasn’t just another “Oh yeah, I heard about this part where they play the entirety of the Blue Danube Waltz twice!” but it was something entirely unexpected and therefore much more satisfying.
Not obscure enough for you? Well, consider this next example. In preparation for the new Star Trek movie coming out on May 8th I’ve been familiarizing myself with old TOS Star Trek episodes. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a Trekkie through and through. I’ve never been to a convention nor dressed like a Klingon, but I do own a few uniform shirts, the entire DVD sets of Next Gen and DS9, and even wrote an a capella song of Data’s “Ode to Spot.” But I was weaned on the later generations (pardon the pun) and series of Star Trek, and therefore never really got around to watching the original series that started it all. Maybe it was never on reruns at the right time, I dunno. In any case, with the advent of hulu.com I’ve been able to watch those old classic episodes for the first time ever! And while I could make a list as long as my arm and then some about the cool references in later series that I finally understand, perhaps the most surprising to me came in the episode “Mirror, Mirror.” It wasn’t a scene, or a famous piece of dialogue, or even some sort of conceptual idea in the storyline that stood out to me, but something in the soundtrack that made me get excited!
Follow that link and fast forward to about 44:10. There’s a musical sting that plays there and in other various spots in the episode that is a good, ominous, foreboding clip, sure. But now compare it to “The Landing Bay”, a piece of background music from the Sierra game Space Quest IV (about 25 seconds into the clip).
It’s the exact same theme!
It makes sense! The Space Quest series is all about parody. At this point the protagonist Roger Wilco has made it back to his home planet of Xenon, only to find it in a post-apocalyptic ruin, where killer cyborgs roam the once-friendly streets. What better way to evoke a feeling of familiar-yet-unfamiliar, where what once was good has now turned dark, than to crib a riff out of the classic Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror”, a story where Kirk and his landing party find themselves in a parallel universe, where the ship is the same yet dark and brutal. In a game series known for some pretty broad humor, this is one homage that has probably gone unnoticed by a gigantic amount of players, and even those who may have recognized the theme from SQIV as a piece of incidental music from Star Trek probably wouldn’t have thought much of it other than, “Oh, Space Quest is parodying Star Trek. That makes sense.” But for someone who grew up playing Space Quest (a relatively obscure series nowadays) to hear the same thing later in life in an episode of Star Trek felt to me like watching, say, American Idol, when suddenly the ultimate winner in the last show breaks into a song that your next-door-neighbor wrote.
I may be the only person in the world who finds this interesting. But by gum, I thought it was awesome! Who knows what other gems I may uncover as I watch the rest of the series and geek out?