Songs for the Struggling Artist



In which I Turn my Feminist Lens on Legally Blonde, the Musical

After referencing Legally Blonde the Musical in numerous posts, I will, finally, at my readers’ request, give you a full on Songs for the Struggling Artist review of my least favorite musical.

I will begin by saying that I loved the film of Legally Blonde. I didn’t expect to, but I did. The film is surprisingly feminist. I say surprising because the lead, Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) is not your typical feminist heroine. At the start, she’s the kind of woman most of us feminists steer clear of. She’s shallow and boy crazy and her main interest seems to be shopping. She’s an ultra femme icon. She goes to law school in order to win her boyfriend back, for crying out loud. But we love her and she grows and deepens and she’s one of the few heroines I’ve ever seen who wins by leaning into her femininity. Elle Woods doesn’t transform who she is or what she loves, she just comes to value herself and her substance more.

I’m interested in learning how something I love can become something I hate, so l re-watched both the film and the musical to see what possibly could have gone wrong.

The musical’s Elle Woods is similarly obsessed with pink, similarly ultra femme – though a lot less human. In the film, her break up truly breaks her up. She cries. Spends a week in bed. In the musical, her devastation is about 10 seconds long and is represented by the wearing of a bathrobe.

In the film, other characters reflect the way we, the audience, might feel about her. They think that she’s making terrible decisions. They think she’s shallow and superficial. This helps us root for Elle. She becomes an underdog in a climate of naysayers. In the musical, everyone is on Elle’s side. They all think she’s neat and that she always does the right thing. This helps make me think they’re all pretty dumb.

The music in the film is mostly empowering indie lady rock-pop of the era. The musical’s songs are bland bubble gummy musical. It’s like a tween wrote a “rock” musical in the 80s without any pop hooks. It has the pink without the depth or the irony.

Fundamentally, though, none of that made me hate the musical as much as I do until the scene where her colleague (and ultimately her new love interest) makes her throw away all of her pink stuff. He essentially comes in, kills the characters’ identity so she can buckle down and be the serious person he wants her to become. He sings a song about how she needs to change.

This is the crux of where the musical veers away from the film. The musical has Elle replace one man’s agenda (her ex boyfriend Warner) with another’s (Emmett.) She moves from being Warner’s ideal woman to following Emmett’s instructions. The film is about self-determination – about Elle becoming herself. The musical is about a lady who gets the guy by becoming a lawyer.

There is a moment early on in the film in which we see Elle fully understand that she was never going to be able to bend herself into the woman Warner wanted her to be. She gets it. She says so. (“I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?”) And then she decides to become a good lawyer for herself. It is step one to finding her self. Step two is when Elle gets the news that she’s gotten the prestigious internship. She sees her name on the list and the responds with the gloriously simple line, “Me!” The camera pulls in, the music swells.

 

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This is Elle getting a sense of herself, seizing it and enjoying it. The film’s story kicks into gear here. Elle builds on the moment by going up to Warner and his new girlfriend and saying, “Do you remember when we spent those four amazing hours in the hot tub after winter formal?” He stammers, “Yea…No.” and she replies with, “This is so much better than that!” That is, the excitement of succeeding in her new career has suddenly surpassed the thing that was driving her life before. She’s experiencing self-fulfillment in a brand new way.

Neither of these moments appears in the musical. There is no moment of “Me!”

In both the musical and the film, Elle goes with her friend, Paulette, to retrieve Paulette’s dog from her ex-boyfriend’s trailer. But in the musical, Elle brings Emmett along. And instead of Elle getting the idea to use her new lawyering skills herself, she gets a little helpful hint from Emmett. Which once again undercut’s Elle’s sense of self-agency and discovery.

It’s not as if the film version of Emmett doesn’t help Elle. He does. But he’s helpful in a very particular way. He mostly just reminds her of who she is. And he recommends channeling the “power of the blonde.” (Blonde here being a symbol of Elle’s Elle-ness, her pink-ness, her femininity.)

In the musical, after Emmett’s “Get Serious, Throw Away All This Pink Shit” number, he sings that “maybe some wise man told her” to do the things he’s proud of her for. What he’s proud of, by the way, is her doing what he told her to do. So his pride in her is essentially pride in himself. Gross.

The film walks the line with some stereotypes but the musical just steps right over the line and leans on in to them. On stage, we get rich princes from the Far East, a sassy black judge, Latin lovers and jokes about women going to the bathroom together. In the film, there is a women’s studies PhD student. She makes suggestions like changing the “semester” to “ovester” for feminist reasons. The character is a stereotype but she is amusing in her specificity. As a feminist, I recognize that I am the target of this joke and I think it’s funny. In the musical, this character just becomes a generic lesbian who is there to become the butt of many jokes. I do not find them funny. There is one joke I liked in the musical. (“Subtext” by Calvin Klein) That’s it. But you know. . .okay…stuff gets broader in a musical. Shit happens. I know.

But a major theme from the film that I really miss in the musical is Elle’s commitment to sisterhood. She’s a sorority sister, yes. But she’s committed to helping women in the broader sense. She’s explicit about honoring her bond with her fellow women. And Warner pushes her to abandon it. He says, “Who cares about the sisterhood? Think about yourself.” She doesn’t though. She stays committed to her community. In a story about self-determination, this development points to a way of thinking about the self that includes caring for others. I love that she eventually includes a woman in that sisterhood who has been nothing but mean to her throughout the movie. Those two women, who come from opposing corners and become allies, have a really compelling relationship. This development is not in the musical.

Also cut from the musical is the one female mentor that Elle has in the film. (Hmm, vanishing older women? Nothing sexist to see here, move along please!) The mentor (played by Holland Taylor) is a pivotal figure. She is the woman Elle fears at the beginning and is saved by at the end. There is no older woman to learn from in the musical. The sisterhood is reduced to a one joke idea of Elle’s “Greek Chorus” – a concept that seems to only exist for the fun of saying that they’re a Greek Chorus. Get it? They’re sorority sisters? So they’re Greek? Like Ancient Greek drama? Get it? Anyway.

I don’t want to imply that Legally Blonde, the Film is a beacon of feminist thought. It does include the cringe worthy “Bend and snap” moment. But the musical takes that uncomfortable minute of the film and milks it so as to induce a week’s worth of cringe.

I don’t imagine the creators of the musical set out to create an insufferable sexist mess. The women who made it must have felt they were being true to the source material; a lot of the dialogue in the musical comes straight out of the film. But something happened in that act of translation.

Partly, I think, it is the medium. It is very difficult to get the complex emotion of a film close-up in a musical. A musical encourages a broadness that can kill any sense of irony. But I also imagine that a lot of this happened on the way to the Broadway stage. I have heard enough stories about Broadway development  to be able to imagine producer meetings wherein, bit by bit, the heart of the original story got cut away. (“What about the male lead? What does he want? Let’s get a song where he gets involved! Give her some advice! Women love when men give them advice!”) With no one with a PhD in Women’s Studies to keep them honest, a fun feminist romp of a film about self-determination got turned into a sexist sitcom show with songs.

What I love about the movie is the way it makes me examine my own prejudices. It helps me see the depth in a character I would usually dismiss. The musical does the opposite. It takes people I think of as shallow and superficial and shows me how shallow superficial people become shallow superficial lawyers. Who also sing and dance. And while this may be realistic (there are shallow, superficial lawyers out there) it doesn’t really make for a meaningful night in the theatre. At least not for this Women’s Studies geek.

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On the Town: Old Fashioned Fun or Old Fashioned Sexism

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.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lea DeLaria in the 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production of On The Town at the Delacorte Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Photo credit: Michal Daniel

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Lea DeLaria in the 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production of On The Town at the Delacorte Theater, directed by George C. Wolfe. Photo credit: Michal Daniel

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