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The new musical Emojiland is deeply concerned with emoji angst

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Why do people want their emoji existential?

Jordon Bolden as Skull in the new musical Emojiland
Photo: Jeremy Daniels

If you were going to see an emoji musical, would you expect to see anthropomorphized emoji dying onstage? Would you expect to be asked angsty questions like “What if none of this matters?” by a woman in a Mountain Dew-colored wig? It doesn’t matter what you expect, since you can’t control what happens to you, and neither can I. Emojiland, a new stage musical written by Keith and Laura Nicole Harrison, is written to make this perfectly clear.

Emojiland is being staged through July 22nd as part of the New York Musical Festival. People in the New York area who love death or appreciate spectacle, no matter the form, can walk through Times Square past the Port Authority Bus Terminal, past 9th Avenue and its somewhat fake-looking rectories, and wind up at the Acorn Theatre, which is basically a series of well-kept stairwells and a 200-seat auditorium. There, you can pay $13.75 to experience two and a half hours of existential terror.

To be fair, Emojiland’s tagline is “a textistential new musical,” which I should have taken more seriously. I was honestly too busy listening to the woman behind me sound it out, then explain to her seat partner what the real word was. She pronounced it “exit-sensual.” Who can blame her?

Much like The Emoji Movie, which came out in July 2017 and nearly ended my life, the action of Emojiland takes place inside a smartphone where many of the emoji feel cognitive dissonance brought about by the conflict between their perpetually sunny exteriors and their raging internal conflicts. Unlike in The Emoji Movie, some of the conflicts in Emojiland have to do with sex. But most of them have to do with resolving the “exit-sensual” question of how anyone can bother to live when they know that they’re going to die. If you’re already making a musical about tiny digital icons that are generally used to suggest only the barest approximation of a human emotion, you might as well also ask why any of us are breathing. I do not like or endorse this as a personal value system, but I understand its logic: this is what we call “leaning into it.”

But why are people so concerned with the troubled inner lives of simple emotional symbols? The Emoji Movie wasn’t the first film to engage with that idea. Pixar’s Inside Out took on the bizarre task of having representations of emotions express their own deep emotional struggles back in summer 2015. It posited the question of what happens when “Sadness” feels happy or “Joy” feels sadness. It didn’t address why that convoluted question is suddenly important. Maybe stories about stressed-out emoji are just trying to tap into Pixar’s success, or maybe the people behind these stories just assume every emotion we have or try to express is stressful. Either way, Emojiland gets pretty sad about exploring the inner lives of symbols that aren’t inherently sad.

Emojiland’s opening number, “It’s Just So Great To Be Alive,” is truly remarkable. It introduces the cast of emoji: Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes (“Smize” for short), Man in Business Suit Levitating (he’s on Heelies!), Smiling Face with Sunglasses (“Sunny,” a narcissist obsessed with hip-thrusting), Pile of Poo (who has a light Southern accent), Princess, Lady Construction Worker, Lady Police Officer, and Information Desk. Everyone is wearing metallic high-tops and sparkly eyeliner and jumping around. The song’s chorus is “Peace, thumbs up, pound, okay, high five!” which isn’t a sentiment so much as a list of hand gestures.

Keith Harrison (Nerd Face) and Laura Nicole Harrison (Smize) in the musical Emojiland
Photo: Jeremy Daniels

For the first 30 minutes or so, the show is genuinely fun, especially because it’s supplemented with projected animations that look like the Kim Possible browser game or when local news anchors try to explain hackers to their viewers. Also, “The Progress Bar” is the name of the local bar in Emojiland, and all the emoji are heavy drinkers. (I loved it. It made me want a cocktail.) There’s a great scene where Lady Cop and Lady Construction Worker sing a steamy love duet with lines like “I love it how you text me, baby, just to say hey,” and “It doesn’t hurt that we’re both gainfully employed.”

If I’m to recommend Emojiland (which I might, given that the tickets cost less than the average movie in New York City), it would be on the basis of the smart, funny song “Princess is a Bitch.” Princess is costumed as some combination of post-Hannah Montana Miley Cyrus and a professional cyclist with padded shorts, lime green fishnets, hot pink clip-in extensions, and a dress made out of scuba material. She has metallic acrylic nails and a flat, nasally affect, which, paired with the glaring industrial backing track, gives the song the feeling of a Blackout-era Britney Spears parody. She declares everyone who questions her power “dick-tator haters,” and refers to herself as “hashtag freakin’ blessed.” I was close enough to the stage to see the sweat washing away her eyeliner, and I was absolutely in awe of her. Brunette Britney-on-the-edge is a specific, pretty smart embodiment of the modern definition of the word “princess,” and I was physically furious each time a song did not involve her. She was so mean and beautiful!

Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and dick jokes in Emojiland. There are a lot of conflicts swirling around, mostly pertaining to the ritual of software updates and the air of existential dread. “Tonight is an update, do you know what that means?” Sunny asks the crew. “The end of the world?” someone pipes up. “Pretty much nothing?” someone else guesses. (It’s a nice summary of the way bloggers treat each round of iOS.) For Sunny, an update means the possibility of new male emoji who might threaten his burgeoning sex cult. For Princess, it means a threat to her power. For Smize, it means another disappointment, as she (yet again) fails to be updated into a more complex representation of varied human emotion.

Because everyone’s worst fears come true, the emotions spiral from there. Princess and the newly introduced Prince decide to build a Firewall around Emojiland to keep out any additional updates — for example, a King or Queen — under the guise of protecting everyone from malware. Everyone becomes xenophobic, and Lady Cop starts acting like a cop. In a largely unrelated plot, Nerd Face, a new emoji who uses big words and has a crush on Smize, gets conned by his new friend Skull into making a virus that will murder everyone in Emojiland. He only meant to help Skull kill himself!

By the way, Skull is gross. He talks in “freshman comp lit major reading Hamlet aloud to the class” voice, and he keeps saying “cross my bones and hope to die,” which doesn’t even make sense. He wears an elegant knee-length hoodie and dramatic contouring makeup which turns his cheeks into deep green holes. Every time he sings, he’s accompanied by absolutely offensive computerized Spanish guitar riffs. He’s central to my main beef with Emojiland, which is that when the firewall and mass-murder plots are introduced, the story gets way too serious. Shortly after these plot twists, Construction Worker sings a barn-burner called “Stand For,” which is about her principled refusal to build a wall around her city. Later, she builds a wall around her city because her cop girlfriend forces her to. Then she dies!

In response, her cop girlfriend sings a song called “1,000 Words,” in which she says “People say a picture’s worth a thousand words / but I don’t need a picture to remember you.” This emoji musical, if you are keeping up, is pro-words and anti-pictures. It’s also pro-assisted suicide and anti-kissing, as demonstrated by the fact that Smize dies moments after she realizes she would like to make out with Nerd Face. Before she “gets deleted,” she tells him, “I can think therefore I am / I’m part of the universe, not just RAM,” a lyric that’s hard to think about for too long.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody criticized Inside Out for its “deformation of children, and of mental life,” which he argued was the result of a cynical, stupid obsession with simplicity. “In lieu of the mysteries and wonders of life, instead of big dreams and big fears,” he wrote, “Inside Out offers problems to be solved, a narrow range of a narrow life of narrow prospects and narrow experiences, narrow fantasies and narrow desires[.]” He also said that the movie made him hate all children, including his own.

That response seems disproportionate, but the common thread between all creative works that use emotions as characters is that they ask you to sympathize with the interior life of a symbol that wishes it could represent more than one thing. Because even the worst people are complicated, mysterious, and full of contradictions from the day they’re born, this is an existential crisis that it isn’t possible for a person to have, which makes it probably the only inherently worthless question for art to dwell on. The emotions and emoji in Inside Out, The Emoji Movie, and Emojiland are played by people, and they’re meant to represent people. But it’s hard to relate to a symbol’s suffering when it’s so specifically tied to the experience of being a symbol.

Besides, human ingenuity means most emoji do symbolize more than one thing. An upside-down face meant literally nothing at all until social media users imbued it with a “lol, nothing matters” connotation a couple of years ago, and an eggplant emoji meant an eggplant for only the briefest period of its life. There are words (and words are also symbols) that only mean one thing and can’t achieve complexity until someone uses them in a meaningful sequence. Where is the musical or animated film about the plight of the word “sparrow,” which wishes it meant “sandwich?” It probably doesn’t exist because there’s a point where investigating abstractions feels meaningless. It’s worth considering why emoji exist, why so many platforms feel it’s necessary to let their users express emotions without words or effort, and why users have embraced the creative challenge of turning simple symbols into complex, meaningful ones. It’s less important to wonder how the emoji feel about their future.

The temptation to write a film or musical around embodied emotions is understandable. It’s part sales gimmick, part coy humor. There may be a little paranoia involved. (“What if that phone you’re using all the time hated you for the way you use it?”) And, at least in part, it’s the laziness that comes with wanting to jump into a story where the audience is already invested in existing characters and concepts. What “character” is more recognizable than the flattest reductions of common human states of feeling? What IP is more recognizable than Unicode, a foundational part of modern human expression?

But the real reason people keep doing it is, I think, a little stupider. “Deciding what matters is deciding what matters,” Emojiland hero Nerd Face yells at Skull as he reaches for the Factory Reset button, which will bring all the dead emoji back to life. “It’s beautiful in its simplicity!” It sure is, but since the Factory Reset wipes the memory of all of the emoji and returns them to a state of smiling confusion, what, exactly, is he saying matters? Abstractions? Existence? Deciding to act even if the act itself is destructive? He’s definitely not arguing for personal growth or enlightenment or even a nice love story. It’s more like a bare minimum, dressed up with glitter and show tunes.

The finale number of Emojiland features the refrain “it’s just so great to be alive!” That’s generally true, but it isn’t asking much, either for the emoji characters on the stage or for the audience watching. If we’re going to stay alive, we might as well do it for a reason — like the joy of sharing the total banger “Princess is a Bitch” and the sometimes-fun struggle of asking our own, more complicated existential questions.