Songs for the Struggling Artist


Hello Little Girl Culture and #MeAt14

The horrifying Roy Moore stuff has sparked a campaign of people posting photos of #MeAt14 to bring home, for those who are dismissing the severity of the charges, how young 14 really is.

When I was 14, I saw the Broadway production of Into the Woods and I heavily identified with the child in the show, Little Red Riding Hood. I was very interested in the other women but I saw myself as Little Red. And in seeing a production of the show recently, I started to think about how my 14 year old brain processed the play.

See, I thought I’d seen this show when I was 17 because of how clearly I understood that the wolf was as sexual predator and that getting eaten by the wolf was a sexual awakening for the little girl. But I was not 17, I was 14. And I got it. Totally. And it “made me feel excited, well, excited and scared.” (*This is a lyric from Little Red’s song “I know things now.”)

And while I still love this show, my adult feminist brain sees this storyline, as well as many others, as particularly problematic for my developing brain.

The thing is – the wolf is a bad guy. He is seductive and charming and he eats a grandmother and child whole. He is a literal predator. He sings “Hello, Little Girl” and the lyrics are not vague on the subject. “Think of that flesh, pink and plump,” he sings. And this show makes the confusing overlap between sex and predation. Like – the wolf has stolen Little Red’s innocence but she likes it a little bit. She knows things now, things like “scary is exciting” and “nice is different than good.”

But meanwhile, the audience has also been seduced by the wolf. We laugh at the double entendre of wolf’s sense of her as “tender and fresh.” And that crosses our wires. We learn to be attracted to predators through stories like this. Which, I know, I know, wasn’t the intention. The work is complex and Sondheim points us toward something that does, in fact, happen in the world. But –

In thinking about #MeAt14 – I find it disturbing that at 14, I had already worked out the feeling of being prey for predators when I saw this show. I knew how that felt and had known for some time. But I was also interested in a sexual awakening and every story I saw about this seemed to suggest that the way to an awakening was to get seduced by a predator. You couldn’t have your own sexual awakening, you had to be overpowered by some dark force.

I keep thinking about a tweet I saw from Anna Paquin about growing up in a victim grooming business. And the movie business isn’t the only one doing that grooming. Sometimes it feels as though most of the culture is a victim grooming business.

As I grew up, I kept listening to the soundtrack from Into the Woods and I moved from identifying with Little Red to Cinderella. I really understood Cinderella’s indecision about whether to be caught by her stalker or keep running. The Prince has a lot in common with the wolf – especially when he’s played by the same actor – and his relationships are similarly predatory. And similarly attractive. What I learned was that it was a predatory “prince” who will awaken your sleeping sexuality – not a man who is your peer.

I understood that these princes were ridiculous but also that they were the only way forward for a sexual life, not just for Cinderella but also for the Baker’s Wife – who I also learned to identify with as I got older. The Baker’s Wife gets her post-baby sexuality awakened by this predatory prince and then promptly gets killed for it. (She also technically gets fridged.)

I mean, it’s like, from this plot point, I learned that sex you enjoy is punishable by death. The Baker’s Wife is set free sexually and then she dies. (Also she has no identity of her own. She belongs to the Baker.) Little Red is seduced by the wolf and then consumed by him. Cinderella is transformed/rescued by the prince but ultimately betrayed by him. The only man who isn’t a predator in Into the Woods is bossy as hell and is always telling his wife to go home.

And I’m not trying to be a jerk about Into the Woods. This show has meant something to me since I was 14. The women in this show are complex and multi-dimensional and that is nothing to sneeze at in this world. But I am troubled by the messages I took in from this show and troubled by the way they continue to fly through the culture.

Stephen Sondheim’s complex and poignant work points to something that can be real. But then that realness goes on to perpetuate itself as the work becomes canon and every young musical theatre fan goes to see it. The wolves of the world, the Roy Moores of the world, not to mention so many others, continue to think they’re doing young girls a favor by pursuing them and then young girls convince themselves that being overcome, being doggedly pursued, being seduced, consumed, betrayed are an inevitable part of a sexual awakening. Most of us found the wolf singing “Hello Little Girl” funny and charming and not deeply disturbing the first time we heard it. But I find myself deeply disturbed by it now, every time I think about it.

And I try to imagine a production of Into the Woods where a fourteen year old me wouldn’t be charmed by the wolf, where #MeAt14 wouldn’t start dreaming of being stalked or hunted like prey after watching it, where I didn’t learn to be attracted to predators. If you are a person who finds men attractive, this is a thing you have to reckon with. (See also, Kevin Spacey’s predation on a 14 year old boy.)

The production I saw most recently tried to deal with some of the tricky gender dynamics of the show with some feminist flair. The director tried to make the Baker’s Wife the hero (hard, because she gets fridged.) The costume designer gave Jack’s mom a hammer and made her a kind of Rosie the Riveter single mom. But it takes more than a hammer to solve this problem at the heart of the piece. You can’t solve a “Hello, Little Girl” culture with a sexy wolf. I think you may actually perpetuate it.

And, of course, I got these messages long before I ever saw Into the Woods. This programming is not the fault of this show. I couldn’t have understood it if I hadn’t seen it multiple times before. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do about this sort of thing. Never do Into the Woods again? Only do dark expressionistic productions? I don’t know. My hope is that we find a way to tell stories that eventually drown out these predatory stories, to let these stories of predation become the outliers and watch other stories take center stage.

We have to take a hard look at the way our culture grooms men to be predators and women to be victimized, even in our most beloved stories and shows. We have to address this stuff in the senate and in our theatres. It’s time. I don’t want the next generation of girls to grow up as prey for the wolves and Roy Moores of the world. I want them to find their awakenings on their own, with their own agency, with people who are their peers, not their predators.

Also, people of Alabama, please, please, please vote for Doug Jones on Tuesday. For all of us.

#MeAt14, in my Rizzo costume, trying to look grown-up

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Another Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

Previously, I wrote about a show that inspired me to make a list of stories I never want to see onstage again. I have now seen another show and discovered another story I have had my definitive fill of. Can we please call a moratorium on the fallen woman plot?

You get a pass if your name is Jane Austen or Charles Dickens and you were writing social commentary about this shit in the 1800s but if you are a writer in 2017, do us all a favor and leave this tired old horse alone.

I mean, I know a lot of you loved this Great Comet situation. And I agree that the design was very cool and there’s some accomplished performances in it. I give it a lot of points for its hodge-podge red curtain, fishnet, Russian tchotcke from any old period, aesthetic. But goddamn it, please, my dear writers and creators, please never ever again make me watch a story about a girl who wants to kill herself because she felt desire one time. I mean – sure, I get it, 19th Century source material and all that but can someone please explain to me why a story that hinges on the purity of some ingénue is worth adapting in 2017? (Actually, don’t. I don’t want to hear it.) If you like the old dusty classics (and I do, too! Lots!) you’d better give us something besides the old patterns of the patriarchy to grapple with. And making this story cool doesn’t do it. By making it cool, you’re reinforcing that shit. You’re saying, “Isn’t the patriarchy cool? Look how fun the patriarchy can be! It’s like 19th century patriarchy dressed up with twentieth century fishnets. This story is Dusty and Sexy!”

Now, all over goddamn America, little theatre girls are going to be singing about how they should take poison because they fell in love with the wrong guy for a minute. All over America, little theatre boys will be singing about how ennobling loving a fallen woman can be. This goddamn story. I can’t.

Updating the classics is dodgy business, y’all, because the classics are full of stuff that tells women that our only value is our beauty and if we sell beauty to the wrong bidder, we are lost forever. If you update the classics and you don’t update the gender politics, you are essentially putting a 21st century stamp of approval on 19th century ideas.

If you’re simply staging the classics maybe you can get away with telling these stories. I would happily watch a production of Sense and Sensibility onstage. But I’d need some Regency costumes and some damn harpsichords or something to make that okay. If you set Sense and Sensibility in a disco, with your own contemporary dialogue, I’m gonna be skipping that shit. And I love me some Jane Austen but I’m pretty sure that if Jane Austen were alive today, she would not write this kind of story. She was a social satirist. She showed us what was ticking away under the Regency veneer. I think she would show us something true and cutting about ourselves now if she were still kicking. If Tolstoy were alive, I don’t think he’d be writing this marriage plot shit either. Given that he was essentially writing about rich Russians who owned people, I’m gonna guess he’d have a lot to say about the current moment. I don’t think he’d be wasting his time with more fallen women.

I mean, we don’t know, obviously, what our old writers would do. But romanticizing these old stories is doing women in 2017 no favors. I don’t want to see one more woman punished for having desire. Not one more time. I’m hungry for stories about woman’s desire, about embracing it, about celebrating it. (See also the awesomeness of Indecent. Or a stage production of I Love Dick? Could we have that? Can Jill Soloway start a theatre wing of Topple?) I declare a personal moratorium on any story that celebrates a dude for transcending a sullied woman. I henceforth will avoid any and all shows that hinge on the purity of some beautiful girl. Fuck purity. Fuck congratulating men for being able to get over the “obstacle” of an “impure” woman. I am done with this story for now and forever.

Again, unless your name is Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Then, I’m good. Do what you got to do.

 

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Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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In which I Turn my Feminist Lens on Legally Blonde, the Musical
March 19, 2016, 12:14 am
Filed under: feminism, musicals, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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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