Why We Do the Classics

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  • Freddie Miller

Imagine this.

It’s the biggest day of the school year for the drama department (besides the cast list going up and opening night). It’s musical announcement day. The rumors have been swirling for weeks. You’ve pressed your drama teacher for clues. You’ve theorized with your friends the possible shows and their corresponding casts.

C’mon. We’ve all done this.

My senior year of high school, I had at least 3 shows with 3 definite casts (and their alternates) planned out in my head. My friends and I even organized a stakeout outside my musical director’s office to see what she was up to (if you’re reading this Miss A, I am sorry).

You get yourself all riled up, hoping to do the next contemporary musical with a rock pop score. That’s what the kids want to do today in the era of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Pasek and Paul. Then the text message goes out into the group chat: the show is up.

You race to the choir room window where a poster awaits your eyes.

Then you see it.

Those big letters revealing the show title.

And it’s Kiss Me Kate.

For a few seconds, you’re scratching your head.

“This has to be a mistake”, you think, “What even is that show?”

For the next several hours, you find yourself engrossed in the show’s Wikipedia article learning the plot, the characters, the songs. As you become more familiar with the show, you start to wonder what led your director to choose this show.

Because honestly, it’s a little dated.

Blatant sexism and physical abuse of women (and men) run amuck in Kiss Me Kate. The feuding ex-couple Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi beat the crap out of each other throughout the course of the show and it’s played entirely for laughs. Fred quite literally spanks Lilli on stage in full view of an audience.

No way in 2019 is that appropriate. No way ever is that appropriate.

And then you look at the culture in which Kiss Me Kate first appeared in 1948.

America, a nation thriving and rebuilding after World War II. Harry Truman was President. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was opening on Broadway (another show that contains heavy sexism). Cars were being mass produced. Women were homemakers and men were in the workforce.

A great professor I currently have is well known for saying “a musical theatre piece is not outside of the culture in which it appears”.

Kiss Me Kate appeared in a culture where sexism and spousal abuse was a normal practice. Remember, 1949 was only 29 years after the 19th Amendment was passed.

When I did Kiss Me Kate in high school, I was adamantly opposed to it. This was not the message that needed to be reaching audiences in the 21st century. That same year, I was in an interesting production of Bye Bye Birdie (which that experience deserves an entire article of its own).

Bye Bye Birdie, for those of you who don’t know its storyline, is the story of Conrad Birdie, a teen heart throb, who is about to be shipped off to war. His agent, Albert Peterson, orchestrates a “goodbye” for Birdie by having him perform one last song on the Ed Sullivan Show and give a kiss to one “lucky girl” in his fan club on live TV.

If your skin isn’t crawling by that plot, it should be.

Bye Bye Birdie has it all: sexism, racism, ageism. Albert’s mother, Mae, consistently refers to Rosie Alvarez’s (Albert’s secretary) Hispanic heritage as a reason for Albert to end his personal relationship with her. Once again, Bye Bye Birdie premiered on Broadway during the 1960-1961 season, a time where Jim Crow Laws were still legal and the Civil Rights Act was just a dream. Bye Bye Birdie was a direct product of the culture in which it appeared.

Carousel (1945) is another musical with severe problems. The show’s anti-hero Billy Bigelow physically abuses his wife Julie Jordan and later his daughter Louise. The controversy surrounding this particular plot point really hits home when Louise tells her mother “it felt like a kiss”.

These shows, despite their issues, consistently reappear. Carousel was revived on Broadway just last season, earning several Tony nominations and even a win for my favorite Lindsay Mendez. Bye Bye Birdie was set for an NBC Live remake starring Jennifer Lopez. And Kiss Me Kate is currently making a return to Broadway with Kelli O’Hara and Will Chase.

Why?

Why are we reviving these shows with these storylines that modern day audiences should find repulsive and inappropriate? These shows aren’t relevant anymore, right?

Wrong.

My friends, these shows are just as relevant today as they were when they first premiered, but just now in a different way. One of my favorite choreographers that I’ve ever worked with once referred to the Golden Age of musical theatre as a collection of “museum pieces”.

We look at them and study their value, but we don’t take them off the wall and bring them home with us.

We do shows like Kiss Me Kate, Bye, Bye Birdie, and Carousel not to show how we should be, but how we shouldn’t. I didn’t realize it at the time, but performing Kiss Me Kate in high school was extremely educational. Not just because we were doing a piece of theatrical history, but because it was teaching us young artists how we shouldn’t act in society.

When I first heard that Amanda Green would be adding additional material to the Kiss Me Kate revival, I was excited. I was hoping that they’d fix some of the more problematic parts of the script. But now I worry that they’ll change too much and we’ll lose some of what we can learn from Kiss Me Kate.

By keeping these classics in tack and performing them for what they were, we learn so much about the culture in which it appeared and how it differs from the culture in which we now live in.

I challenge high school directors to do the classics. If you’re worried about ticket sales, don’t. You have your guaranteed audiences of family, friends, teachers, and community members that will come no matter what. This is the perfect opportunity to educate and expose audiences to shows that they may have never heard of.

I also challenge students who may not be excited to do a show like Kiss Me Kate to learn a little bit about the show that you’re doing. If you think it has no significance to your life, dig a little deeper into that difference.

Figure out how this show either complies or resists society today and let that motivate you as you share the story.

What other classic musicals do you think should still be performed on stage today? Tell us in the comments below!