The first cringe-worthy moment comes early in “The Pajama Game,” the 1954 musical comedy about labor strife in an Iowa sleepwear factory. The new plant manager, Sid Sorokin, is on the factory floor, listening as female union rep Babe Williams recounts an allegation of Sid having shoved a male worker. His response seems the kind of sexist remark that guys have always gotten away with.
“All I can say,” he tells Babe in front of a room full of employees, “is that you’re the cutest Grievance Committee I ever had to deal with.”
As soon as I heard it, during the recent, spirited revival at Washington’s Arena Stage, alarm bells went off. The statement may have come across benignly in 1954 – it is, after all, this show’s first signpost of a testy romance and a signal of the devilishness we’re meant to admire in Sid. But audiences live in a different world now, one with a heightened awareness of the myriad forms of sexual harassment. And certainly, given the cascade of exposés on the topic over the past few months, our collective antennae are more acutely sensitized to these types of outrages, major and minor.
Reviving the hallmarks of our musical theater heritage is such a widespread practice on the American stage that the mores of bygone ages are going to be dredged up and played out, for some spectators who remember, maybe even cherish the originals – and others who are going to wonder: What the heck were these authors thinking?
Consider what happens at a key juncture of “Crazy for You,” the 1992 remake of the Gershwins’ 1930 “Girl Crazy,” now finishing up a run at the Tony-winning Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. You’ve seen this in fictional depictions a thousand times, a ridiculous conceit that is supposed to unlock a character’s desire, but is in actuality a manifestation of sexual assault: Manhattan rich kid Bobby Child, who has gone out West to run a theater he’s inherited, wants to impress upon cowgirl-of-his-dreams Polly Baker how ardent he is. So what does Bobby do? He grabs Polly, spins her and stuns her with an unasked-for smooch.
Now, the uninvited kiss in “Crazy for You” – an affectionate melodic nod to the madcap musicals of the 1930s – may or may not itself be a sendup of a hackneyed romantic device, one dreamed up in the eternally adolescent lobe of the creative brain. Still, “Crazy for You” offers no context for Bobby’s invasive impulse; it’s treated in the same lighthearted vein as the rest of show, undifferentiated from unobjectionable forms of wooing. Why is it the conscientious audience member who’s left with the job of explaining this interlude to the 11-year-old they’ve brought along? Read almost any of the recent horrific accounts of the women confronted in offices and hotel rooms by men in power, and you hear eerie echoes of this very kind of physical aggression; one is compelled to wonder if some of these men aren’t in part mimicking a behavior from movies and musicals that was portrayed as harmless – and even effective.
With all of this in mind, the question arises of whether theater companies, and actors and directors, bear some responsibility to present these antique notions with a greater measure of skepticism. I’m not in favor of outright erasure, and an author’s rights remain preeminent. But at the moment the changing social norms conspire to make portions of a work as mild as “The Pajama Game” seem a distracting affront to members of an audience who are supposed to be charmed by it, then the musical’s compact with its customers is being fatally compromised. Maybe, until someone figures out how to fashion an antidote that doesn’t seriously diminish the original, it should not be done.
The extreme example is probably represented by the longest-running off-Broadway musical of all time, the allegorical young lovers’ tale, 1960’s “The Fantasticks.” A song in which narrator El Gallo offers up scenarios for kidnapping the story’s young girl, Luisa, titled, “It Depends on What You Pay,” originally used the word “rape” repeatedly to describe the varieties of staged kidnaps he could provide. Decades into the run, “rape” had long since been deprived of the connotation its creators were after, that of seizure by force. The solution in that case was that the loaded word was dropped and substituted by the awkward “abduction,” or in other cases, “raid.” The taste of something unsavory, though, lingered.
It can feel as if vestiges of a caveman mentality remain baked into many musicals from the Golden Age. “My Fair Lady,” for instance, which is receiving a major revival in the spring at Lincoln Center Theater with Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle, features a closing line that’s ever more controversial: Confirmed bachelor Professor Henry Higgins, cheered by the return to his home of the young protege, Eliza, with whom he’s fallen in love, greets her not with warm words but with an order that seems to reconfirm her previously subservient role: “Eliza,” he says, “where the devil are my slippers?”
Leaving aside the uncomfortable age differences in some productions, the best actors in the role of Higgins manage to incorporate in that line a playful sense of a man who’s learned his lesson, that Higgins now knows Eliza won’t stick around if he continues to behave as boorishly as he had in the past. Still, that’s by no means a universal understanding of the ending. In a tweet just the other day, Joshua Malina, an actor who has more than a quarter-million followers, proposed a new kicker for “My Fair Lady” in which Eliza replies: “F—- you, dude. Get your own slippers.”
I’ll be curious to see, too, how a starry new revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 “Carousel,” also coming this spring to Broadway, deals with one of the most troubling facets of any book in the musical-theater canon. Audiences are certainly right to be disturbed up by a pivotal element of the story of rough-hewed carnival barker Billy Bigelow, to be played by Joshua Henry (lately, the Aaron Burr of “Hamilton”). Billy physically abuses his wife, saintly Julie Jordan (Tony winner Jessie Mueller), who excuses his behavior in song. “Oh, what’s the use of wond’rin /If he’s good or if he’s bad,” she sings. “He’s your feller and you love him /That’s all there is to that.”
A 2016 revival at Arena Stage dealt with the issue as well as the text allows. The production found a way for us to empathize with Julie’s point of view, even as we felt the full brunt of her friends’ condemnation of her passivity and his brutality. We have to wish on the conveyors of these old musicals the wisdom and the tools to transcend the limitations of ways of thinking on vital subjects no longer in tune with our own.
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