A Theory of Justice: The Musical is a 2013 musical by Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, Tommy Peto and Toby Huelin. Billed as "an all-singing, all-dancing romp through 2,500 years of political philosophy", the musical tells a fictionalised account of the writing of American political philosopher John Rawls's classic philosophical treatise, A Theory of Justice (1971). It premièred in Oxford's Keble O'Reilly Theatre in January 2013 and was revived for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2013.
The musical follows John Rawls on a journey through time to gain inspiration for A Theory of Justice from political philosophers, including Plato, Locke, Rousseau and Mill. As he pursues his love interest, a beautiful student named Fairness, Rawls is menaced by villainous libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick and Objectivist Ayn Rand, who plot to stop Rawls writing his liberal theory of justice.
The musical was described by John Rawls's daughter Liz as "amazing and witty", saying it "surpassed any expectations".
The musical was written by Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, Tommy Peto—undergraduate students of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford—and Oxford music student Toby Huelin. Initially conceived as a revision method the musical became a serious project. The book and lyrics were written by Aslan-Levy, Sabi and Peto; the music was written by Sabi and Huelin together with Aslan-Levy and Peto. Additional music was written by Illias Thoms for the Utilitarian Barbershop Quartet.
Co-writer Eylon Aslan-Levy has revealed that the music "very often sprang out of the philosophy itself", and that the writers used the rhythm of lines of philosophical texts, such as The Social Contract, for inspiration. The script was completed in December 2012.
The writers have described "A Theory of Justice: The Musical!" as a "light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek, camp and intellectually profound addition to the musical theatre canon”, as well as "irreverent and self-deprecating". Commenting that it is "very much based on traditional Broadway, Disney-style musicals" and "satirise[s] all of those tropes", they have said they wrote the musical for a general audience: "it’s not a rhyming philosophy lecture, but a good old-fashioned Broadway-style show with an utterly unconventional subject matter". They hope that it will "reconstruct that sense of wonder and inspiration [for the audience] that so many philosophy students feel when they are introduced to the Veil of Ignorance for the first time".
A Theory of Justice: The Musical! enjoyed its world première in Oxford's 180-seater Keble O'Reilly Theatre, 30 January - 2 February 2013. It was produced by writers Sabi and Aslan-Levy for DEM Productions, directed by Esmé Hicks and choreographed by Dana Mills, with musical direction by co-composer Toby Huelin. The run sold out over a week before opening night. To create the time vortex, the Oxford production used the "biggest lighting budget ever" for a show in the O'Reilly Theatre. The Oxford production received considerable attention from local Oxfordshire media and from philosophical circles, including in the Leiter Report and Philosophy Now magazine.
The trailer was released online in January 2013, with a preview of the theme song ("I Need a Theory").
A Theory of Justice: The Musical! was revived for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, running from 31 July - 26 August 2013 at C Venues. The revival was produced by DEM Productions using the same cast and crew, with minor changes: most notably, Alex Wickens replaced Ollie Nicholls as John Rawls, owing to scheduling conflicts. The writers made several changes for the Edinburgh revival, including the addition of a new song: "My Philosopher-King", a solo love ballad for Fairness.
The musical was nominated for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Lyrics and Best Music at the Musical Theatre Network Awards.
A Theory of Justice: The Musical! was revived at the University of Cardiff, Wales, in Spring 2015.
The musical opens in Harvard University in 1971. Professor John Rawls laments that his students have lost interest in political philosophy and have sunk into a slough of moral relativism ("Harvard Quad"). Rawls determines to shake things up with his own theory of justice ("I Need a Theory"). He quickly becomes enamoured of a beautiful student, Fairness, who gives him a spark of inspiration ("I Shall Call You Fairness"); she spurns his advances. Robert Nozick, head of Harvard Philosophy, decides to write his own libertarian theory, to Rawls's horror, because their views are diametrically opposed. Suddenly, a time vortex is accidentally opened in the Quad by the university's physicists; Fairness falls down it and Rawls jumps in to save her, win her love and meet the great philosophers along the way for inspiration for his theory ("I'll Have a Theory"). When Nozick visits his mistress, the Objectivist seductress Ayn Rand, he realises that Rawls is trying to write a theory of justice that would justify wealth redistribution, which he abhors - so he jumps down the vortex to stop him.
Rawls arrives at the Piraeus, an Ancient Athenian nightclub, in time to catch the ventriloquist Plato and his dummy Socrates sing about justice ("Hungry for Philosophy"). Rawls tries in vain to impress Fairness by criticising the Republic ("What Plato's Overlooking"/"What I Love about His Theory"), and she leaves; Nozick arrives, having just missed them. Fairness laments that the only men she falls in love with are intimidated by her own intellectual abilities, but she won't stop looking ("My Philosopher-King").
In Civil War-era England, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke compete for control of their "'hood" through a rap battle ("The State of Nature"), which Rawls attempts to mediate ("Attack on Hobbes and Locke"). Fairness begins to fall for Rawls after he saves her from being robbed by the gangs ("The Fairest Girl"), but the time is not right. Again, Nozick arrives on the scene late, so he steals Locke's ideas instead. Fairness wonders whether Rawls is the man she has been looking for ("My Philosopher-King (reprise)"), and she agrees to give him a chance.
Rawls and Fairness arrive in eighteenth-century Switzerland. Fairness is immediately seduced by the louche lothario Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his rock anthem ("Man Was Born Free") as Rawls is surprised by the sudden appearance of Nozick. Fairness is unimpressed by Rawls's increasingly desperate attempts to refute Rousseau's arguments, as Nozick deliberately undermines Rawls. Fairness and Rousseau elope, leaving Rawls alone.
Nozick, proud to have undermined Rawls, sketches the outlines of his own libertarian theory to his mistress Ayn Rand ("Nozick's Theory of Justice"). Rand is unimpressed that Nozick, despite opposing wealth redistribution, still believes in charity: instead, she extols the moral virtues of selfishness to him in an aggressive tango ("A Selfish Kind of Love") and urges him to finally destroy John Rawls.
Rawls tries to piece together his theory, when he is interrupted by the Utilitarian Barbershop Quartet of J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and Henry Sidgwick, who sing to make Rawls happy - as happiness is their top priority. Fairness returns, having left Rousseau because he cheated on her; she agrees to help Rawls on his theory, but when he rejects her ideas, she complains that he is overlooking the contribution of women to philosophy. Mary Wollstonecraft arrives with her back-up singers, Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett, to give Fairness moral support with a jazzy number ("Girls Must Be Strong"). Rawls runs off after Fairness. The Quartet tries to cheer Nozick up when he arrives, but he responds viciously.
Rawls encounters Karl Marx, a crazy homeless man who manages to depress Rawls further. Rawls prepares to give up ("I Dreamt of a Theory"), when he is stopped by Immanuel Kant, his fabulous "deontological fairy Gottmutter". Kant launches into a power ballad to urge Rawls not to give up, providing clues on how to complete his theory ("You're a Rational Being").
Inspired by Kant, Rawls devises the Veil of Ignorance: justice is the set of rules we would agree on if we did not know who we would be in society ("The Veil of Ignorance"). He finds Fairness behind the Veil, which just happens to be behind him; she refuses to leave with him until he finally explains what justice is. Nozick threatens to shoot Rawls but allows him to present his ideas ("The Principles of Justice"); Ayn Rand to finish Rawls off with the other philosophers in tow, having persuaded them that Rawls opposes their ideas. Rawls convinces the philosophers that he has taken the best of their work and synthesised it ("Historical Synthesis"). After the philosophers are tricked into falling behind the Veil of Ignorance, they forget their own interests and converge on Rawls's principles of justice, vindicating his theory ("The Formal Principles of Justice"). Fairness pushes Ayn Rand behind the Veil, and she disappears, because having forgotten her own interests, "there was nothing left of her". Nozick storms off, promising to return in three years with his own theory. Fairness and Rawls finally embrace, and all is well ("We Have a Theory").
‡ = My Philosopher-King and its reprise were added for the Edinburgh revival.