Filed under: art, Gender politics, musicals, theatre | Tags: Broadway, Feminist, His Girl Friday, Lea DeLaria, Legally Blonde, Musical Theatre, nostalgia, old movies, old-fashioned, On the Town, sexist, sexuality, Shakespeare, the Broad Experience, The Thin Man
When I first moved to NYC, I saw a production of On the Town on Broadway, directed by George C. Wolfe and featuring Lea DeLaria. I was skeptical about it but found myself delighted and uplifted by what felt like a very old fashioned musical. Earlier this year, I got to see a new production of the show and this time I found the old-fashioned sexism completely alienating and frustrating. I was baffled by this difference in my responses to the same musical and have been trying to understand how these two productions could have such different effects.
First, of course, I’m different than I was. A lot has happened since I arrived in NYC in 1998. But I’m not significantly MORE a-tuned to my feminist lens than I used to be. I’m more public about it now, sure, but I was closer to those women’s studies classes, then. So – I don’t think it’s my feminism that’s changed.
I have always had some (seemingly) contradictory impulses – the feminist and the nostalgic. It’s not all bell hooks and Gloria Steinem over here with me. I love old movies. I could watch The Thin Man series again and again. Give me a Katherine Hepburn film or His Girl Friday for the 100th time – yes please. And while some of those films feature really ballsy gutsy women – they are still dated. Myrna Loy isn’t the detective in The Thin Man, her husband is. But I’m fully able to set aside the old fashioned ideas and enjoy myself for movies like The Philadelphia Story. I even loved the film of On the Town. (I mean, come on – Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra?!)
But I just could not get over the sexism in this production in On the Town. Perhaps it’s because they updated some things for a contemporary audience. There was much more frank acknowledgement of sexuality, for example. We got hip thrusts and dick jokes. Homosexuality was acknowledged and enjoyed – but the gender roles did not get an update. In fact, it felt like we got a reinforcement, a revival of some 50s style ideals.
Is it in the text that the Miss Turnstyles pageant features the lead dancer donning an apron and preparing a meal for her future husband? Maybe but I don’t recall it from before. The production I saw in 1998 didn’t take anything it did too seriously. While it was very earnest – it did nothing in earnest. This is a fine line, I acknowledge, but I think it’s an important one in this sort of gender roles throw-back situation.
The thing I remembered most about the 1998 production was Lea DeLaria’s portrayal of Hildy, the taxi driver. I found some clips of her performance and it gave me an opportunity to compare the two productions. The song “I Can Cook, Too” is some sexist shit if you look at it earnestly. Its lyrics advertise a woman’s worth solely as a home-maker and cook. You take it seriously at your peril.
Oh, I can cook, too, on top of the rest,
My seafood’s the best in the town.
And I can cook, too.
My fish can’t be beat,
My sugar’s the sweetest around.
I’m a man’s ideal of a perfect meal
Right down to the demi-tasse.
I’m a pot of joy for a hungry boy,
Baby, I’m cookin’ with gas.
Oh, I’m a gumdrop,
A sweet lollipop,
A brook trout right out of the brook,
And what’s more, baby, I can cook!
Some girls make magazine covers,
Some girls keep house on a dime,
Some girls make wonderful lovers,
But what a lucky find I’m.
I’d make a magazine cover,
I do keep house on a dime,
I make a wonderful lover,
I should be paid overtime!
DeLaria’s 1998 version has nothing to do with cooking. At all. It’s almost as if the lyrics are incidental. You can hear and understand them but it is 100% about the subtext. The character knows she’s hot stuff and she’s going to let us (and her conquest) know. The extra layer of this performance was that Lea DeLaria has a very public persona as a lesbian. We (most of us) know how much DeLaria is NOT going to be “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” Watching her subvert both the song and her persona is what makes it all the more subversive and fun.
Alysha Umphress who played Hildy in the recent Broadway production has an extraordinary voice and is a stellar performer. But when she sang this song, many aspects of the production turned her into “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” The musical arrangements encourage us to see her as a sweet, harmless ingenue with some sexy decorations. The tempo is much slower. It’s nice! Pretty!
There’s nothing “nice” about the arrangements of DeLaria’s song. It blares. It drives forward. The Nancy Walker version (the original Hildy here in Bernstein’s recording) drives even more quickly. It’s like a city street. It’s noisier and more energetic than either of the revivals. It’s all edges. Umphress’ version is all curves.
The choreography, too, gave Umphress some Betty Boop style demonstrations of how she is “a man’s ideal of a perfect meal.” She seemed like she had to genuinely convince this sailor to sleep with her. (Jesse Tyler Ferguson who played the sailor in 1998 looked convinced by DeLaria’s Hildy and delighted from the start.) This 2015 Hildy was choreographed to bend over to show off her ass in a coy “Oh, is that my ass?” way.
Now, let me pause for a moment to discuss this particular bit of choreography. In the film Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon pulls it off with self-awareness and aplomb. (Although this same character does not so fare so well in the extremely sexist stage version of this show. Skip it, my fellow feminists. It’s a horror show.). Aside from the ladies in Legally Blonde, I’ve almost never seen this move look good. And almost every woman had to do it this production.
Why does it look awkward? Because in real life almost every woman learns from an early age how to be extremely conscious of bending over. On the Broad Experience podcast, a woman who works in construction talked about her hard and fast rule for herself to never bend over to look at something at work. She always squats or sits. She says it would make her “too vulnerable” to bend over. Any character who does it “by accident” is clearly not doing it by accident and if they’re doing it on purpose, it signals to most women that she is offering herself up as an object. Not a person to have sex with – just an object, to ogle.
This is fundamentally the difference for me between these two performances of “I Can Cook, Too.” Lea DeLaria is nobody’s object and still signals very clearly that whoever sleeps with her is going to have some sexy fun. Umphress has to negotiate a very tricky switch between being object and subject, between expressing her own desire – and somehow advertising herself as desirable.
This confusion between subject and object was all magnified by the set up they gave her for the number. The production made it clear that she cannot, in fact, cook. She doesn’t know how to work the oven and her frying pan is dusty. The effect of this is to make it seem that Hildy is lying about everything and it makes it seem like she’s probably not so great in the sack either when it comes to it. So a song that for DeLaria was an empowering sexy showstopper, in this newer production, while the skill and musicality of the performer earns lots of applause for its performer, it ultimately disempowers the character. It was weirdly uncomfortable applause.
Fundamentally, the style of the production seems to be the key whether it’s a fun old-fashioned romp or a discomforting throw-back. When everything is snappy and just a tiny bit self-aware, the sexism is just old fashioned amusement. When it seems like its all meant to be taken seriously, it dies.
I don’t mean to flog a dead horse by talking about this newer production, it’s already closed and looked due to close when I saw it. But as we continue to revive the old stories, there are things I think it makes sense to pay attention to and make adjustments for. We already do this with classics like Shakespeare. You can’t stage The Taming of the Shrew without thinking through how you’re going to deal with the problem of a play that celebrates a woman’s subjugation. You have to have a perspective on it.
I think the same is true of the old standards in musical theatre. You have to give it a little think before you do it or over half of your audience is going to think it’s just old fashioned instead of fun nostalgia. And those audiences might not come back for the next one.
In its way, On the Town could be seen as super progressive. Two of the three female leads are frank in their desire and do not hesitate to pursue it. The show doesn’t punish them for this as so many stories (even now) will. The other female lead, while she isn’t the pursuer, does have a job as a “Cooch dancer” which makes all three of the women in the show not your usual ingénues. I think it could be possible to do feminist On the Town. The female characters are BOSS but they weren’t this time. Maybe for the next go round.
I look forward to a time when Broadway starts to get with the current moment, when more women can direct there – even the feminist ones – ones who can update our old fashioned catchy musicals with some contemporary smarts.
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