I recently read this:
and I was reminded of one of my constant questions about modern day musical theatre - particularly Broadway. The question of revivals. I'm not asking about whether revivals are legitimate, or whether there are too many, or anything like that, although I know there is much room for discussion. My concern with revivals has to do with how old imagery holds up in a modern context, and whether it's possible to stage something that has inherently problematic representations without those representations furthering social injustice.
How To Succeed... is a show that a lot of people really like, or at least that must be what the producers of the revival are counting on, but it's also a show that is very much "of it's time". I certainly find it fun and charming, with songs that get stuck in my head. But, it takes place in an office in the 1960s, where it's taken for granted that the men are the execs and the women are the secretaries (check out the song "A Secretary Is Not a Toy") . No matter how much "modern sensibility" one infuses into the production - the words are still the words, the concept is still the concept, and the basic underlying sexist assumptions are still underlying. Or, in the case of lyrics like "when you put her to use", rather overlying.
So, my question is, and this is one I wrestle with ALL THE TIME: How does one do How To Succeed...and not be sexist?
And, let's not just limit it to sexism and this show, there are PLENTY of other examples. I saw Promises, Promises a few months ago, and that's a show where the material certainly lends itself to this kind of grappling about the portrayal of women and gender roles. Show Boat is a classic example of something that was actually considered progressive in it's time that now can be hard to stomach. On the one hand, it showed an interracial couple who get wrongfully broken up, and we're supposed to think the one drop rule is abhorrent, that wasn't something to take for granted in the 1920s. On the other hand, it has characters and songs that are direct descendants of (if not just straight up) minstrelsy. (I was going to link to a defnition of minstrelsy, but I couldn't find anything on the internet that gave an historic account that I was comfortable with...basically, minstrel shows started in the mid 19th Century in the U.S., are considered by many to be one of the first forms of truly %100 "American" musical theatre, and consisted of White people, mostly men, dressing up in "Black face" and representing horribly offensive and stereotypical character "types" of Black people, including but not limited to mammies, Jim Crow, and Little Black Sambo. They did a lot to introduce racial stereotypes and perpetuate them in a pretty horrible way) There was a production in 1994, directed by Harold Prince, that explicitly tried to address these problems of the script in a modern production. (The Black actors moved set pieces, rather than stage hands, for example, in an effort to highlight the racial divisions of the time).
I feel like the standard argument (and please correct me with more nuanced responses!) in defense of producing dated material in a modern context is that we're now so much wiser as to be "past" these issues. We "know better", so we can enjoy the show for what it is and not worry about buying into the "-isms" because we would never suggest a secretary is a toy to begin with, right?
My concern with this argument is that our society is not nearly as wise and "past it" as we tend to think we are. Just look at the statistics on pay equity or the reality of living in a rape culture or the fact that women have to put up with a lot of shit on a daily basis that most men don't think about (some of my favorite feminist links: Feministing, Hollaback, What it means to be that guy). It's pretty plain to see that we have a long way to go before putting out representations of sexism (and inequality in the workplace) is a museum-style view of antiquated notions rather than part of a living, breathing culture. I'm not saying the revival of How To Succeed...is going to kill the movement for pay equity or convince some young woman she shouldn't try to break through the glass ceiling when before she watched the musical she was all set to do so. But, if we believe musicals have an impact on the culture that's strong enough to push it in the positive direction (which I do), then we have to accept that they have an impact that's strong enough to push it in the negative direction. And reinforcement of stereotypes, no matter how subconscious, is the wrong direction.
But, revivals happen for a lot of reasons, and the culture is always changing (and I hope in a direction that's more progressive - think one of my favorite MLK Jr. quotations "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."), and as someone who writes musicals I certainly hope that they can have a life that fits in with that changing cultural landscape. I don't advocate he tossing aside of shows that are great for many reasons that have nothing to do with "representation" (beautiful songs, insightful thoughts about humanity, great jokes) because they are problematic. There's also the component that if we try to erase the shameful moments of our history by not hanging on to them, we're doomed to repeat them. But, it's really complicated in theatre, because hanging on to a show with racist or sexist imagery so we know it happend is really different from staging something with racist or sexist or classist or ageist imagery which may subtely permit that sort of thinking to go on. I go back and forth, because even if you're really really really conscious of the problems of the show when you stage it, unless you rewrite it, those images still exist.
Anyway, I'm interested in other opinions on this matter, because I think about it all of the time and I wonder if others do, and what insight you all have. And, I'm not specifically targeting How to Succeed... or saying that I won't go see it (I will, I've only ever seen the movie/read/listened to it), it's just what got me thinking to blog about this particular issue.