As Soft and as Pink as a Nursery -- 13 Really Sexist Musicals

In this moment in our cultural history, in which we're finally calling out expressions of sexism, racism, and other bias, it's worth looking closer at the shows we produce. Maybe the Era of Trump has made it necessary.

A while back, I wrote a blog post about musicals that are much darker than most people think. Now we're having debates about problematic content in older musicals, and whether or not some older shows should be largely retired.

Sometimes people tell me -- apologetically, but not really --that they don't really like "the new musicals." They like Rodgers & Hammerstein because they "just want escape." You know, like the "escape" of World War II in the Pacific, or the "escape" of watching the King of Siam lose his culture and then his life, or the "escape" of watching Jud Fry buy pornography from Ali Hakim, then try to murder Curly and Laurie, then die in a knife fight...

Escape is awesome.

Some people (usually white straight men) are enraged that anybody would suggest that Annie Get Your Gun should be retired for good. But it should. Times change. We are no longer the people, the culture, or the country we were in the early and mid 20th century. A great many of the shows written before 1960 (and some since then) are no longer relevant, and many of them are embarrassing or full-out offensive.

Here are some examples...

My Fair Lady -- This is a story about a narcissistic misogynist who keeps a young woman hostage in his home, using psychological torture, including sleep deprivation, to break her will and brainwash her, in order to make her socially acceptable and marriage-able to other men. Although, to be fair, the original poster laid out the show's sexism pretty clearly. At the end of the show, we debate whether the ambiguous ending means Eliza loves Henry or not. Let's hope not, for her sake! Why the fuck did she come back...?

Sure, you could argue this is a near-masterpiece in many ways, and like some of Shakespeare's plays, it should be kept in the canon even though it's problematic. But you can't call Annie Get Your Gun anything remotely like a masterpiece.

Annie Get Your Gun  -- Like My Fair Lady, this show is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men. Ultimately, Annie can only win Frank's heart by letting him win fraudulently, so his tiny male ego isn't hurt. WTF? And what's with that toxic song, "The Girl That I Marry"?
The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery.
The girl I call my own
Will wear satins and laces and smell of cologne.

Her nails will be polished and, in her hair
She'll wear a gardenia, and I'll be there;
'Stead of flittin', I'll be sittin'
Next to her and she'll purr like a kitten.
A doll I can carry, the girl that I marry must be.

Seriously, "a doll I can carry"...??? She is literally an object to him, a toy. This is twelve years after Reno Sweeney had told us that "times have changed."

Carousel -- This is a show about a serial womanizer and abuser, and petty repeat offender, who dies in the commission of a violent crime and leaves behind a wife with PTSD and a fucked-up daughter who tries to find validation in the arms of other men. Of course, these days, this show is most infamous for this exchange between Billy's widow Julie and her daughter Louise:
Louise: I didn't make it up, Mother! There was a strange man here and he hit me -- hard -- I heard the sound of it -- but it didn't hurt, Mother! It didn't hurt at all -- it was jest as if he -- kissed my hand!

Julie: Go into the house child.

Louise: But is it possible, Mother, fer someone to hit you hard like that -- real loud and hard -- and not hurt at all.

Julie: It is possible, dear, fer someone to hit you -- hit you hard -- and not hurt at all.

Anybody want their daughter to see that scene...?

Kiss Me, Kate -- Another show about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men. This story is literally about the "taming" of a woman. Animals are tamed, not people. The only way to make it work is by subverting the text, by suggesting through the staging, line delivery, etc., that Kate is "in on the joke." But even if you change the ending that way, it doesn't erase the abuse he has subjected her to, throughout the rest of the show. She's going to be happy with this guy?  No.

Guys and Dolls -- Yet another show about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men. Adelaide is in a psychologically abusive relationship with Nathan. They've been engaged for fourteen years, in a time and place when women had to get married. There's no way he actually loves her. And Sky gives Sarah the 1950s equivalent of a date-rape drug. And notice in the song "Marry the Man Today," we discover Adelaide and Sarah don't really like a whole lot about their men. So why would they marry them? They had to.

And Republicans want to return to the 1950s.

No, No, Nanette -- Yet another show about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men. Surprisingly for 1925, one of the central plot lines is about how Nanette cannot enjoy independence without money, and all the money is controlled by men. It's an unusually honest and truthful comedy for 1925, though Nanette can't live Happily Ever After till she gets her man. Yawn.

Camelot -- Not only is this another story of the subjugation of strong women by insecure men, but here, the woman's punishment is literally burning at the stake. She is to be killed for the crime of being sexually active and choosing for herself who she loves. The irony gets even uglier when you consider how much the serially adulterous JFK loved this show. And let's not forget that Guenevere is a truly fucked-up young woman who has been taught to be attracted to (and aroused by?) violence.

The Sound of Music -- Here's one about a damaged young woman who falls for an angry, abusive, distant daddy figure, who has raised some monster children. Aw, isn't that sweet? What's that rule about workplace romances? Yeah, but the Alps are so pretty! Maria is never allowed to decide her own fate -- everybody tells us what to do, and then she does. And how about the treatment of the Baroness -- how did Georg's legitimate fiancee become the villain here...? It's not exactly the old "virgin vs. whore" scenario, but it's close...

Once Upon a Mattress -- This is a comedy entirely about how women have to be twice as good as men to get the same job. In the late 1950s!

Tell Me on a Sunday (Act I of Song and Dance) -- This is a great show in a lot of ways, but it's about a woman who has learned to define herself only in terms of the men in her life. Yikes! We produced the show with New Line because as weak and fucked-up as this woman is, we did see a lot of truth in her, and ultimately, we think she will take control of her own life...

Beauty and the Beast -- Sorry about this, Michelle, but this is a story about a young woman with Stockholm Syndrome, imprisoned by an insecure man... er, monster. It's creepy in a similar way to My Fair Lady. Why do we accept these stories? Why do women find them romantic?

Miss Saigon -- Kim is a depressing, weak, Asian stereotype, who literally cannot talk about anything other than love, and who is helpless unless the White Savior can rescue her. But the White Savior has a White Wife, so the Asian woman is fucked.

The Robber Bridegroom -- The story's hero Jamie Lockhart tells us repeatedly (most explicitly in the Act I finale) that he doesn't enjoy sex if it's consensual. Think about that. He only likes sex if it's rape.
I never was a courtin' kind of boy;
Them flirtin' games ain't nothin' I enjoy.
I hate a girl to give me goo-goo eyes;
If she'd turn her back, I'd sneak attack,
And get 'er by surprise!

‘Cause I like
Love stolen from the cookie jar!
I like love stolen on the sly!
Oh yeah!
I just love snitchin' what ain't meant for me;
Oh the more forbid,
The sweeter tastes the pie!

A lot of girls are willin' to be had;
The more I see, the more it makes me mad.
You grab ‘em good; it doesn't faze 'em none.
Well, that may be cool by the modern rule,
But they're killin' all the fun!

You know, the "fun" of raping someone. How can anyone produce this show anymore?

We did it in 2004, long before the #MeToo movement, and it was a difficult show even then -- which is the point. I'm told a recent local production essentially removed the rape from the story by making it all more playful and making Rosamund more obviously eager and compliant. That's fine I guess, but then it's a different show making a different point (if any) about different things. It's no longer about the intersection of violence and sex in American culture and in our American DNA.

Yes, it's in our DNA. We can never forget that mid-century America was fine with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a freakish MGM romanticizing of abduction and rape; and also The Fantasticks, in which abduction and rape are ironic comic devices.

So what do we do with this show? It's awfully hard to make a case right now for a comedy about rape.

Women characters in many musicals are weak. That's partly because companies still produce a lot of really old musicals when our culture not only accepted that, but expected it. It's also because until the last decade or two, there were virtually no women writing musicals. And since lots of musicals center on a love story, it was almost always a love story from the male (fantasy?) point of view. When there were strong women characters, they were generally the secondary "comic" lead.

Because after all, you can't take a strong woman seriously!

There were exceptions (almost always written by gay men) like Dolly Levi and Mame Dennis, but even they needed men before they could end their stories happily. Most disturbingly, since it opened in 1966, Mame is about a nonconformist who is repeatedly forced to conform. It's not an accident that a year later, the American theatre answered with Hair -- which admittedly, is awfully sexist in its own ways.

What's my point with all this? My point is not that we should abandon all the old shows. But I do believe we need to think more critically about work we're really familiar with. It took me a long time to realize what a dirtbag Harold Hill is, because I grew up watching him in one of my favorite movie musicals. It never occurred to me as a child to question any of it. And really, that's the genius of The Music Man, that Harold cons us (the audience) as successfully as he cons the River City-zians. We can be eassily seduced by our favorite musicals, by great songs, etc., and we have to be careful about that.

In other words, just think about it. More than we have been.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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