Thursday, June 2, 2016

Musicals that go over the line and need a re-write

When I wrote recently about Camelot, I made a blanket statement. "I love musicals," I wrote.

But musical theatre covers a wide range of tastes and it's not really possible to love it all. In fact, the only show I ever walked out of was a musical comedy.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was playing at Neptune Theatre here in Halifax — probably in the '80s. It had played on Broadway and in London to great acclaim, had won Tonys and other awards, had made stars of some of its actors. I knew little about it except that music and lyrics were both written by Stephen Sondheim and the production we were going to see had some excellent local actors.

I was looking forward to it, as I always look forward to the theatre.

I knew early on that I wouldn't be there for the curtain call.

I was simply appalled. It was openly and blatantly sexist and for those who don't mind if their plays are sexist, it was also stupid and embarrassingly unfunny. It wasn't something I could just shrug off with a cringe and a grimace. It's a damn wonder I didn't get up and throw something at the actors on stage.

The male characters in this play are buffoons and/or slaves. The female characters are shrews or subjects of ridicule and humiliation. The young beautiful women are being trafficked for sex. The virgins are the ones with highest value.

I can't even believe I'm typing this — and this musical is being performed to this day!

We left at intermission. I think — I hope — I was gracious enough to tell Dan he should stay and I'd make my own way home but Dan left with me. Solidarity, I trust.

The hardest part was that our beloved friend, the late Sudsy Clark, had a fairly large role in Forum and I didn't know how we would handle talking about it the next time we saw him. And to be honest, I can't remember how we handled it or if it even came up. I was a militant, angry feminist then — even more than I am now — so it may be that Suds would know that this was not a play I could easily tolerate.

Having said that, I have some very mixed feelings about Stephen Sondheim. I hated A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and I've never understood the appeal of Sweeney Todd. He wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy both of which I like. He's been called the "greatest lyricist of all time" which I wouldn't concede but he's been widely acclaimed by people who should know. Maybe I just can't get the taste of Forum out of my mouth. (Eww. What an ugly image!)

The other well-known musical that I have a problem with is Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.

I don't remember having a problem with it when it first came out as a movie — 1956 — because it wouldn't have been seen as anything unusual at that time. But Carousel is built around a plot of domestic violence which it romanticizes and eroticizes.

I saw it recently and I was shocked — again — by some of the lines: “Is it possible, mama, that you can be hit and it doesn’t hurt? He hit me — and it didn’t hurt! It felt like a kiss.” And Mother assured her it was indeed possible. It’s love. That is so much the age-old mantra — of beaters and beaten.

Carousel is still performed regularly. It was one of the headliners at Stratford last summer. The Globe and Mail gave it a scathingly bad review.

If ever a Golden Age musical called for sensitive reinvestigation, it’s this one – especially at a time when sexual harassment has become front-page news and public tolerance for the trivialization or romanticization of violence against women is at a new low.

Near the end of Carousel comes the infamous line from Julie to her daughter: “It’s possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and not hurt at all.”

How do you create a convincing journey to that line in 2015?

Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some of the most wonderful songs of the era for Carousel: The Carousel Waltz; You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan; (When I Marry) Mister Snow; If I Loved You; June Is Bustin' Out All Over; When the Children Are Asleep; Blow High, Blow Low; Soliloquy

This Was a Real Nice Clambake; Geraniums in the Winder; There's Nothin' So Bad for a Woman; What's the Use of Wond'rin'?; You'll Never Walk Alone; The Highest Judge of All; Ballet: "Billy Makes a Journey; If I Loved You (reprise);

Finale: You'll Never Walk Alone

It's hard to harbour completely negative thoughts when those songs are involved but there's only so much one can take. Carousel steps over the line and if it's going to be performed, it needs to be changed.

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