To read a more lighthearted takedown of Broadway’s sexist legacy, check out this satirical cabaret piece.
“Complicit” was Dictionary.com’s 2017 Word of the Year – and if the 2018-19 musical lineup continues as planned, it may define Broadway’s upcoming season as well. It’s a trifecta of shows featuring so much gaslighting, outdated gender norms, and straight up domestic abuse that it feels like a season straight out of 1960, at best.
And yet here we are, in 2018: We jump right in with Carousel later this month; then, just in time for Women’s History Month, My Fair Lady starts its revival; and, because Broadway 2018 presumably isn’t portraying enough depictions of abusive relationships, Kiss Me Kate kicks off 2019 – all three directed by white men. (And this isn’t taking into consideration new musicals, which aren’t exactly paragons of feminist representation, either; we’ll be seeing premieres of King Kong, Tootsie, and Pretty Woman, to name just a few.)
Before I dive into why each of these musicals feels so painfully stale, particularly in this political divisive moment of American history, let me address the devil’s advocates: I know that producing Broadway musicals is a years-long endeavor, meaning that seasons are rarely artistic reflections of the here-and-now; I know that all three of these musicals were written for America of yesteryear; I know that white male directors are not always incapable of deftly tackling sexist or otherwise offensively out-of-date material; and yes, I know that Broadway of 2018 is also boasting a lineup of not-sexist plays, so art is not completely dead. But I posit that, even if we view these musicals as historical artifacts rather than politically relevant works of art, the overwhelming combination of such narratives in the wake of a particularly a difficult year for women is at best disconcerting and at worst downright dangerous.
KISS ME KATE
Let’s dive into the arguably least misogynistic musical of the three. Kiss Me Kate eludes more criticism than its counterparts because it is, occasionally as least, self-aware of its sexist tropes, many of which are confined to the musical-within-a-musical adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. Kate, in brief, follows two ex-lovers, Fred and Lilli, playing onstage lovers in a musical version of Shakespeare’s play; although the main plot of Kate is far more egalitarian towards its women than Shrew, life invariably imitates art as Fred engages in less physically violent but still insidious abuse towards Lilli – whose arc in turn mirrors that of Katarina as she slowly learns to submit.
It’s a bombastic and utterly thrill-inducing musical, overflowing with phallic puns and impossibly coincidental twists of fate. Cole Porter’s score has etched Kate into musical immortality: “Brush up Your Shakespeare,” “Wunderbar,” and “Another Opening, Another Show” are colorful and joyful and old-school Broadway at its silliest. Kate is a superficial joke-fest, which is precisely why it’s so dangerous: the subtle (compared to Shrew, anyway) misogyny is easy to miss beneath the laughs. Lilli’s interpretation of Shrew’s infamous speech advocating for women to submit to their husbands is a play-within-a-play, so it almost feels forgivable. This is a musical that one can enjoy, digest, and not critically engage with – precisely the type of abusive narrative that lives on by hiding in plain sight.
To tie the musical up with a little bow of “ick,” I leave you with one of the most iconic images from the 1953 film version. Enough said, I hope.
MY FAIR LADY
I stayed in denial about the seedy underbelly of My Fair Lady until only recently: the nostalgia factor was too strong, and I preferred to remember the beloved 1964 film adaptation with total, loverly fondness. I, unfortunately, made the irrevocable mistake of showing it to my best and most butt-kicking feminist friend, however, and her fresh perspective ripped it to shreds. Aside from the commodification of women inherent in the plot, she was surprisingly most disturbed by Freddie’s stalker song, “On the Street Where You Live” – a stinging point, particularly in a year in which (some) men are finally being held accountable for their misconduct against women.
My Fair Lady may be a product of its time, but as a point of comparison, its source material was markedly ahead of its time. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was decidedly not a love story, but rather a political play to entreat audiences to advocate for women’s suffrage. Shaw was outraged when later productions twisted his ambiguous ending into romantic fantasy – but here we are, more than a century later, and the immortalized musical version ends with a line sure to woo any young woman, regardless of her century: “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”
My Fair Lady was outdated when it was written, which does not bode well for its reputation today. Even Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Eliza, admitted as such when she directed a production of the musical in Australia: “Oh gosh – it is very, very sexist … Young women in particular will and should find it hard.”
Where My Fair Lady and Kiss Me Kate diehards can hide behind the claim that the musicals are lambasting rather than upholding sexist tropes, Carousel has no such defense. Its longevity makes sense: it is arguably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s’ most textured, complex work, an Americana-fantasy blend with a stunning score – but I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to admonish the musical for its portrayals of domestic abuse, only to entreat the audience to sympathize with the abuser. There are enough thinkpieces that have already dissected the hows and whys of Carousel’s problematic elements, so I instead present you with some its most enduring lines:
- Julie crooning about her beloved:
When he wants your kisses,
You will give them to the lad,
And anywhere he leads you, you will walk.
And anytime he needs you,
You'll go running there like mad.
You're his girl and he's your feller,
And all the rest is talk.
- Billy ruminating on his future son…:
Bill... My boy Bill
I will see that he is named after me, I will.
My boy, Bill! He'll be tall
And tough as a tree, will Bill!
I don't give a hang what he does
As long as he does what he likes!
- …or, heaven-forbid, his future daughter:
You can have fun with a son
But you gotta be a father to a girl
She mightn't be so bad at that
A kid with ribbons in her hair!
A kind o' sweett and petite
Little tin-type of her mother!
What a pair!
My little girl
Pink and white
As peaches and cream is she
- A mother-daughter bonding moment about romance:
Louise: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that - real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?
Julie: It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.
Artists and producers needn’t reduce outdated stories down to their problematic tropes (except for the sake of such articles as these, of course) – but we do need to think far more critically about why, for whom, and how we are telling these stories: Does America need to listen to a woman advise her daughter to turn the other cheek to her abusive-but-redeemable husband? Do we need to watch a man gaslight and manipulate a poor flower girl until she looks, talks, walks, and acts the way he desires? What do we gain from watching a man throw a woman across his lap and paddle her, only to have them fall madly in love with each other?
Smart regional theaters take advantage of educational and dramaturgical resources to unpack these questions and narratives with their audiences. As a dramaturg, I have worked on more than a few now-problematic pieces – and with some research and smart questions, I found ways to prompt artists and audiences to think critically about what they saw. Broadway houses, of course, don’t have study guides or post-show conversations or dramaturgical displays. Audiences are presented with two-plus hours of entertainment and not challenged to think of it as anything but just that: entertainment. And that is what makes these production choices so dangerous. Families will shell out hundreds of dollars to watch these supposedly harmless stories, but won’t be prompted to ask challenging questions or draw parallels to their own lives.
Lilli will get spanked and audiences will laugh, because that’s what they’re prompted to do; Henry Higgins will question why airheaded women can’t be more like sensible men, and audiences will chuckle, because that’s how you respond to silly musical numbers; Julie will defend her husband’s abusive behavior and audiences will gasp and sigh, because that’s what beautiful ballads ask of us.
The cynic in me knows that Broadway is more interested in capitalism than art – but in this #MeToo era, it’s finally time to hold our entertainment industries accountable. Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady, and Carousel are the very narratives that have allowed the Weinsteins and Spaceys and Cosbys to hide in plain sight for so many decades. Until theaters engage with these larger social and political questions, then they are part of the problem – and Broadway’s allowance for three abusive narratives in one year is the definition of complicit: perpetuating violence through inaction.
And that is dangerous.