Songs for the Struggling Artist


Mature
July 20, 2018, 9:27 pm
Filed under: age, art, clown, comedy, music, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I have arrived at the point in my career wherein people are starting to call my work “mature.” It has happened with my playwriting. It has happened with my singing. And I do not like it. In both of these instances, “mature” seemed to be meant as a compliment. “Mature” is not (yet) code for “old” – but meant to suggest a kind of complexity and evolution. I think. So why don’t I like it? Surely I want my work to mature, right? I want my work to age like a good cheese or a fine wine, don’t I?

Don’t I? I don’t know. I’m trying to understand why “maturing” doesn’t please me. At the heart of my discomfort of it is the dismissal of what came before. If this play is mature, it suggests that the plays that came before were immature, just little adolescent saplings running around untethered. It implies a kind of linear artistic development and I just don’t think such a thing exists. An artistic life does not travel in a straight line. It circles. It comes back around to ideas from the past and brings them to the future.

It’s like this conversation my partner and I had about Shakespeare. He noticed that sometimes when scholars don’t have definitive evidence for when a play was written, some of them will group the plays thematically. That is, they think because Shakespeare wrote a play about fathers and with disobedient daughters in one year, that that would suggest the undated father-daughter play would be around the same time. To me, that’s bananas. While certainly we all have our artistic phases where we obsess over one thing for awhile – we also have artistic touchstones, ideas that we return to again and again, ideas that we investigate anew from a new place in the life circle.

And maybe that’s why I find the idea of maturity so uninteresting. I mean, Shakespeare, again, is a good example of this. Some might say Hamlet is his most “mature” play. It sits at the top of achievement in Western literature. And yet it sits right in the middle of his career. Probably written in 1600, Shakespeare had many more plays to write after that one. Some of those plays are very silly and some of them are quite wild (including my favorite, Cymbeline.) Which are the most “mature”?

Maybe it’s my clown training but I am not particularly interested in maturity. Maturity has airs of seriousness, waves of severity that just don’t connect with my sense of play. When someone calls me immature, they are usually pointing out my irreverence, silliness or non-conformity. I value all those things tremendously.

I know maturity doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve lost my irreverence but maturity smells like mothballs to me. What I hope people who tell me my voice has matured (either metaphorically or literally) mean is that my stuff is complex, layered and interesting. I sometimes get called “wise,” too. And I like that just fine. I like it a lot, actually. Because there is always space for a wise fool.

I suppose, too, that I can’t help but keep returning to the idea that labeling my current work as “mature” suggest that my previous work is less than. And I just don’t appreciate any compliments for my newborn that insult my previous creative children.

I don’t mean to make anyone self conscious about giving me compliments. I don’t receive quite enough of them to start getting picky about them. Believe me, I sincerely thanked every person who called my work “mature” because it feels appropriate to accept a compliment in the spirit it was given, even if it has an odor of backhandedness about it.

I will say, though, that no one has seen enough of my body of work to make such a judgment. The only human to have a thorough enough experience of my oeuvre would be my mother. She’s the only one who’s seen enough of it to make that call. And I think the last time she called me “mature” was when I was a teenager. (I was very mature then. I’m not sure I am anymore! )

So, if you are tempted to call someone’s work mature, maybe dig a little deeper. What do you mean?

Is the work complicated? Layered? Deep? Rich?

I mean – let’s look at wine and cheese. We don’t stop at describing a wine or cheese mature. We call it nutty or grassy or robust or smooth.

I would be so delighted to have my work described with the subtlety of wine or cheese descriptions. Some of my work may be mature. It may be immature. Neither of those categories is useful to me. Call it robust or nutty, though? I’m gonna eat that up.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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You can help support both my maturity and immaturity

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Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 

 

 

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A Big Disappointment (and How to Go On)

When I was in college, I had one goal and one goal only and that was to be part of a particular Shakespeare company I’d been inspired by a few years earlier. While I was still in school, I auditioned for them and secured my very first acting job at what was then my dream company. The fact that I was making $50 a week did not matter to me in the least. I was on track for the life I wanted. I thought I’d just keep working there forever and my artistic destiny was set. But then I had rather a rude awakening when none of us were cast in the next season.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off and worked in Atlanta, Roanoke and Memphis before returning to audition again a year later and got to do another season of Shakespeare with them. It wasn’t long after that that I moved to NYC and away from performing.

But that theatre where I started is firmly imprinted on me. It was formative in my aesthetic, my career path and my sense of self. I’ve done a LOT of other things since then and grown and shifted in lots of directions I’d never have predicted – but there’s something about that company that will always have a quality of home for me.

So when this writing opportunity with them came up, it had a sense of fated poetry to it. Artist returns to artistic home in a new role to a new beginning. It also had a curious quality of uniting what has always felt like two parallel tracks that would never meet – that is, my Shakespeare identity and my feminist playwriting identity. I just generally assumed those two aspects of myself would never have much call to meet (aside, of course from the devised Shakespeare piece I made a few years ago – where I used my dramaturgical skills to “write” with Shakespeare’s words.)

Anyway – something about the call for submissions for this just felt like little blocks of fate, slotting one into another. I wrote a play VERY QUICKLY that grappled with things in Comedy of Errors that I have always struggled with and found I’d woven together two strands of my artistry that I hadn’t known I could. Because I know the company well, I wrote it with them in mind. I saw their space, I saw their actors. It came to me more easily than almost anything else I’ve ever written. Part of me thought, “They’d be crazy not to select this play. It is for them. It is their aesthetic. It will showcase their particular skills. It gives their actors – particularly the women – opportunities that they don’t often get – and because I’m a former actor in their company from twenty years ago, this press release just writes itself.” As a friend of mine said, “That’s a marketing gold mine. They’d have to choose you for that alone.”

But I am pretty used to rejection and pretty used to not being the choice of the status quo so I was actually pretty delightfully surprised to be first a semi-finalist and then a finalist for what would be a life-changing prize and a kick ass opportunity to return to an artistic home.

When I received the email that I was a finalist, I started to fantasize about what would happen were I to get it. I’d return, not just to a theatre that was once a home, but also my home state. I’d finally get some recognition as a playwright in a well-publicized prestigious situation. It would have paid me more money than I have ever made in a year.

I began to acknowledge to myself that it was something I really wanted. (Generally, I try not to do this. I just apply for stuff and move on.) I thought about it a lot. It started to feel a little bit like when I was in college wanting to work for this company. I started to feel like the poetic circularity of the thing meant that I was destined to get it.

When the rejection came this morning, it hit me harder than any rejection has in a long while. The O’Neill was hard but I never really thought I’d get even as far as the semi-finals so I wasn’t surprised not to get an acceptance there. But this one, I knew I had a shot. The poetry of the story was too good.

But real life doesn’t really work like a story. I seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again. I suppose that’s the peril of being a story maker. I am infinitely vulnerable to good stories. (For example: I cannot be 100% positive that I didn’t partly choose to go to the graduate school I went to due to the serendipity of my sharing a name with it. This would not be a good reason to go to a school, btw.)

I have twenty plus years of practice at dealing with rejection. When the American Shakespeare Center (then known as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) didn’t hire me in 1996 as I expected them to, it was a shocking betrayal that took me a while to recover from. Here in the spring of 2018, I saw that rejection email from them, felt the blow to my solar plexus and then just got on with making things. I finished recording a song for the podcast and practiced the choreography for the Nelken line I’m joining this weekend. I’m grateful for the decades of artistic practice that has helped me put my eggs in multiple baskets so that when, say, the playwriting basket falls to the ground and all my eggs break, I can just reach into the music basket or the blogging basket, as I’m doing now, and I know I’ll have eggs enough for an omelet later.

I can’t say I’m not sad to not get to see my play performed on that damn beautiful stage by those actors I tailor-made that play for. I am fucking sad about it, no doubt. But, I now have a play that is much more easily produced than most of my other work. I have a prequel to Comedy of Errors that maybe one day someone else might want to do.

It’s sad. I’m sad. And the Hope Hangover (a phenomenon and song I wrote about recently) will be brutal, I know. But I have weathered disappointment consistently for the last two decades. I can do it some more. The thing to do when you are disappointed by art is to make more art. It is the only way through.

This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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You can help me deal with disappointment

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



The Imbalance of Talent Crushes

When I was in my twenties and touring the country doing Shakespeare, I was struck by a curious phenomenon. Everywhere we went, women threw themselves at the men in our company. Girls everywhere became besotted with our boys, especially the ones with swords.

But the reverse never happened. Boys in our audiences didn’t chase after the women in our company, we didn’t have groupies. We didn’t have admirers. One of the women got a secret admirer message once but it turned out to have been from one of our fellow actors in the company.

In my years as a performer, I saw this happen over and over. Men onstage inspired desire while women onstage did not.

I started to think about this again recently while I listened to an interview with Rhett Miller and found myself thinking how intelligent, curious and committed he is. We’re about the same age. He even went to the same college as me, briefly, right before I got there. He’s a dynamo onstage and a sensitive thinker. Ever since I saw his band open for Cake in 1999, I’d see him perform and sigh. This time, though, I heard him and thought, “Oh, I’m actually LIKE him in a lot of ways.” I mean, he’s prettier than me but otherwise, we have things in common.

I thought, “Why not only be the change you wish to see in the world? Why don’t you also be the man you once wished to be with in the world?” This is a thought I’ve had before but somehow this was the first time I felt it viscerally.

There are some philosophers and psychologists who frame desire for others as a calling to some part of ourselves. They theorize that we are attracted to things that mirror and amplify our own qualities. Me? I have discovered that I am a sucker for anyone who takes their art incredibly seriously. And I take my own art incredibly seriously. So. Of course. But until I met my current partner, I’d never met a man who was as interested and invested in my artistic journey as I was in his.

Throughout history, women have found men doing things/making things attractive and slipped into the supporting role in partnerships, to play help-meet to the “real” genius in the family. The Thank You for Typing phenomenon is a great example of this (this is where “great” men thank the women in their lives for typing their work and you realize that the women did much more than type. Like, they actually wrote the book, for example.) Or even Albert Einstein’s wife, who was, some theorize, more of a partner in his work, if not a dominant voice, than anyone realized.

I think there is something in the water that encourages women to find achievement attractive and that same thing (very possibly) socializes men to find achievement unattractive in women. I have only very rarely heard of a man developing a crush on a woman because of her book or her play or her leadership or even her acting prowess. The trope is that he will fall for her in spite of those skills. If she’s pretty enough, a man can overlook her accomplishments but because of the accomplishments? Not so much. Is this true of every man? Of course not. But it is the dominant cultural impulse.

And, of course, I am mostly talking about hetero-normative behaviors here. I know it is infinitely more complex than this. But it does seem important to identify this undercurrent that flows through our dominant culture.

Women develop talent crushes. Men (generally) do not. This is a hugely damaging pattern that hinders many women’s achievements. In the interest of attracting a man or even to just seem attractive, women may downplay their intelligence, hold back at their jobs. It happens. I’ve seen it happen so many times. Case in point: Hillary Clinton. She is the epitome of a high achieving woman and the dominant response to her is distaste. Women across the world developed crushes on Obama. And I don’t want to think about it, but there those who find our current men in government attractive.  Is there a man out there with an achievement crush on Hillary Rodham Clinton? I’ve never heard of one. I’m going to guess not. Is there some dude out there who finds Elizabeth Warren impossibly hot due to her political prowess? Is there an Angela Merkel fan club? Or a dude who finds Theresa May’s rise to political power irresistible? I doubt it.

I think real progress in creating spaces for women’s achievement will happen when men start to find women’s achievement as attractive as women find men’s achievements or talents or skills. The moment when women are seen as sexy, just for making something or achieving something, for expressing something or leading something, for being funny, or talented, or smart, or brave, or for their expert sword skills – that is the moment we will have finally turned the corner on equality.

I’ve seen ladies get talent crushes on Falstaff, y’all. Falstaff.

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You can help me take my art even more seriously

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs and an album of Love Songs. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Ready for the Fight
January 16, 2017, 1:04 am
Filed under: art, feminism, resistance, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

After November, I cowered, I shook, I felt defeated and demoralized but I have turned a corner. I walk through the streets of NYC differently. I move like a truck. I don’t get out of men’s way. I take up space like it’s mine.

I wore army green on New Year’s Eve because I was ready for battle this year. I am on notice to fight for every one of my rights, the rights of others and even the rights we haven’t got yet.

Then – listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the host read her feminist version of the famous battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and I cried like a baby. It was such a rallying cry. Particularly the first line about closing up the wall with our female dead. And I realized that in all of history, we’ve never had a speech like this for us. (At least not that I know of…) There’s never been a “Let’s storm the bastille” sort of battle for women. For all of history, women have borne the brunt of rape, of domestic violence, of domestic murder, of honor killings, of female infanticide and genital mutilation and we have never had a war over it.

And I’m not saying we should. I’m generally opposed to war. But…to imagine a world wherein we call upon our sisters to come together and go over the breach…well it’s a very different world than we’ve always lived in. We may need more models like this – a female Henry V – Imperator Furiousa liberating other women in Mad Max, Katniss Everdeen defending her sister in the Hunger Games.
I’m usually not a big fan of “Let’s re-write Shakespeare” but in this case, I make an exception, as this feminist breach undid me. And I needed undoing. And now I’m ready for the fight.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Juliet Capulet, Feminist Role Model
August 31, 2016, 10:29 pm
Filed under: feminism, Shakespeare | Tags: , , , , , ,

While working with some 9th graders on Juliet’s “Gallop Apace” speech in Romeo and Juliet, I opened the door for the students to tell me what was happening. They worked it out faster than most groups do and quickly leapt to interpretation. One girl reported that Juliet was scared to have sex for the first time. I asked her to tell me where she saw that in the text and the line she pointed to means nothing of the sort.

 

In response to all of this, I did something I try to never do when teaching Shakespeare. I declared a meaning. I declared that, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be a stitch of fear in this speech. I felt bad about denying this girl her interpretation (which, let’s face it, is, of course, really about her own fears) and felt like I’d dropped my teaching ball a little bit. It happens. And when it does, rather than put myself in the corner for failing to live up to my own standards, I try to figure out why I slipped.

 

My guess is that this is an example of my Shakespeare teaching agenda intersecting with my feminist impulse. This culture tells girls that sex is the most important thing and simultaneously suggests that it is something to be afraid of. The cult of virginity is such that many girls come to believe that sex is something that will be painful and irrevocably transforming. The good girls, the nice girls, the one’s many of us identified with, wouldn’t WANT to have sex! Gasp! Horror! We’re nice girls! We don’t have DESIRE.

 

But here is Juliet. No fear. Just desire. Just excitement. She knows she’s supposed to put on a show of disinterest about her feelings for Romeo – but she doesn’t. In the balcony scene, she dismisses propriety and coyness and she’s like, direct. “Dost thou love me?” She then suggests they get down to getting married ASAP. Once she’s married, all she wants is for night to come so she can be with Romeo. And maybe it’s not explicitly sexual. Maybe the consummation of the marriage isn’t what she’s looking forward to. But in any case, she wants Romeo. She wants Romeo as soon as possible. Even if she hasn’t the slightest clue about sex (which I doubt, she was raised by the Nurse – who does not hold back in discussing the body) she is till clear that Romeo is what she wants.

 

And then of course, they do consummate the marriage, and she is very satisfied with whatever happened in that exchange and she does not want it to end. Juliet has desire upon desire and she (mostly) gets what she wants. She’s a feminist role model.

 

I am so very tired of this culture telling girls that they must be sexually attractive but not sexually active. I am weary of girls twisting themselves into knots to be appealing objects while simultaneously negating their own desire. We, as a culture, need to learn how to allow girls to be sexual subjects, to take ownership of their bodies and their desire.

 

There are a lot of women working in this arena. There are Ted Talks. There are academic papers on sexual subjectivity. There’s an anti-slut shaming podcast. We have Caitlin Moran advocating for Lady Sex Pirates. There’s an expanding sense of changing how we deal with women’s sexuality. It’s hugely important work. But it feels as though it will be a while until this sort of things makes its way down to girls who are coming of age now.

 

Meanwhile, there’s Juliet Capulet, a character that almost every girl in high school will encounter. And yes, that 400 year old character had to get married to enjoy her sexuality and yes, it’s true, ends up dead. But not as punishment for sexual transgressions (as many more contemporary stories would have it.) Juliet models an enthusiasm and yearning that is culturally significant, even now, so many years after she was written.

 

That’s why I tripped over myself a little bit on this topic. It was all a little bigger than I was prepared for. I couldn’t not advocate for Juliet’s desire. Juliet’s desire is as boundless as the sea.

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You can support both my feminism and Shakespearean life by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. Soon you’ll be able to hear me read this one too. If you’d like to listen to a previous entry on Soundcloud, click here.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



“Shakespeare Sucks”
December 16, 2015, 12:04 am
Filed under: education, Shakespeare | Tags: , ,

Every few months or so, my social media channels light up with outrage about the latest article or blog in which someone declares that s/he hates Shakespeare or thinks Shakespeare is over-rated or that they just don’t want to teach him anymore. The first of these that I read made a little angry, I confess. It was a pretty bone-headed look at work that is complex and intelligent. But the subsequent ones have barely registered with me. I had to check the dates on each new post. Was this the same one or some new one? They all sound the same.

I think sometimes with these sorts of essays, people feel like they’re saying something revolutionary and edgy when they declare their dis-allegiance with Shakespeare. Like when Ira Glass declared that Shakespeare sucks. To me it just seems silly. It‘s like someone writing a post every few months declaring that pizza is no good and we should not have to eat it anymore.

I feel about Shakespeare like I do about pizza. They’re both delicious, classic constructions full of infinite possibility. If you don’t like pizza, that’s fine. You don’t have to eat it. If you haven’t had it, though, you should try it. Try it maybe more than once. If you just have school pizza or frozen pizza, it’s probably not gonna be terrific. Get yourself to a high quality pizzeria that uses fresh ingredients and it will be hard not to find SOMETHING you like.

I realize that, in schools, people sometimes forcefeed folks their Shakespeare – that in that context, it’s a little like that cardboard stuff they call pizza in school cafeterias. Of course people don’t want to eat or teach that. . .but there are dozens of ways to approach teaching Shakespeare that don’t require swallowing it like medicine. (If you need help finding those ways, I know many organizations who could help, not to mention a Shakespeare Consultant who’d be glad to be of assistance – full disclosure – it’s me.)

There are a million pedagogical reasons to teach Shakespeare in schools. Working with Shakespeare can teach you such educationally valuable skills as close reading, text analysis, poetic devices, narrative structures, empathy, motifs, themes and so on. It is rigorous, complex and interesting text. Engaging with it can expand your view of the world. But for me, all of that is beside the point. I teach it because it tastes good to me. It’s the best pizza. And people have continued to teach it for centuries, not because it’s their medicine and they have to take it, but because it gives back when you engage with it.

I have, on occasion, started my residencies with students by asking them to tell me why they think people are still reading and performing these plays 450 years after the writer’s death. Their answers (once they get a taste for it) are never “because it’s part of the canon” or “because we have to.” They point to the richness of expression, the power of the words. Those things work across the centuries.

Are there other plays, other writers, other stories we could be and should be exploring? Absolutely. Explore them too. No one needs to eat ONLY pizza every day. But a world without pizza would be emptier – and less delicious.

I will say, though, that if pizza doesn’t float your boat, then maybe you don’t need to be the one to introduce it to people. Let someone who loves pizza take a newbie to their first pizzeria. And if you honestly hate Shakespeare, it’s fine with me if you don’t teach it. It’s probably better for everyone involved if you don’t have to force something you don’t like down the throats of your students.

But, if you’re an English teacher, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find something to love in it, too. Its basic ingredients include some of the most exciting uses of words in the language. If you love words and hate Shakespeare, it’s a little like loving dough, tomato sauce and cheese but hating pizza. But anything’s possible. If you were forced to eat pizza as a child or there’s just something about it that doesn’t suit you, there’s no need to feel like you have to have it. I’ll be happy to bring your students the Shakespeare. And we can all have pizza together.

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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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