Monday Meditation: I am Not Over the Old Masters

Sheet music from Victor Herbert's BABES IN TOYLAND

Sheet music from Victor Herbert’s BABES IN TOYLAND

Hamilton may be breaking new ground in musical theatre, with Lin-Manuel Miranda consolidating breakthroughs in mainstream musical theatre production that may or may not redefine the form, but while I enjoy keeping up to date with new developments in musical theatre, I find myself continually returning to the works of the book-writers, lyricists and composers who laid the foundations of the form as it know it today. Sometimes its easy to forget just how far musicals have come; it’s also easy to dismiss how much the ground-breakers were doing at the time.

I don’t know why I have such an intense obsession with musical theatre history. I guess I like to see the origins of things and to imagine what making and seeing theatre might have been like prior to the 1930s.

What was it like to hear Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” for the first time in 1928? What must it have been like for Herbert Fields, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to create Dearest Enemy in 1925? How do the “new” Gershwin musicals really compare with the their originals? When Irving Berlin saw his debut musical, Watch Your Step, staged, did the audiences of 1914 anticipate a full score by the writer of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” the same way that the audiences of today anticipate the full score of Waitress from “Love Song” songwriter Sara Bareilles? How much do Disney’s new fairy-tale musicals on stage owe to Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough’s Babes in Toyland and The Wizard of Oz, with its The Lion King-like – in length – list of contributors.

There were of course many more – including Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and others who came before them – who crafted and influenced the musical in its formative years and some of these theatre-makers were still making musicals decades later, reacting to later developments in the form and – in some cases – innovating these developments themselves. When you’re downloading Hamilton later this week, why not pick up a recording of Fifty Million Frenchmen, Oh, Kay!, The Red Mill or Sunny and see what you think?

In the meantime, tell us who your favourite “old master” of musical theatre is in the comment block below. Any recommendations of recordings or books to read would be great too!

This post is inspired by and a response to “I Am Not Over the Founding Fathers” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

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Musical Theatre Sunday School: In Pandora’s Box, There Was Also Hope…

Lea Salonga and George Takei in ALLEGIANCE. Photo credit: Henry DiRocco

Lea Salonga and George Takei in ALLEGIANCE. Photo credit: Henry DiRocco

Many of us are familiar with the Greek myth of Pandora, a woman who opened a container holding all of the evils that would become manifest in the world. (Why does mythology place always slander women by placing the burden of sin in their hands? Eve too received what some might call a bum rap.) At the bottom of the box or jar, was hope. And while the situation surrounding The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ now-cancelled production of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado is just one sign of the insidious prejudices that still lurk in our midst, still there is hope.

One recent article I read that is a testament to that hope appeared in The New York Times on 10 September: “This Broadway Season, Diversity Is Front and Center”. The article discusses productions like On Your Feet!, Allegiance, The Color Purple, Amazing Grace, Shuffle Along, Hamilton, The Gin Game, Hughie, School of Rock and Spring Awakening, which give voice to Latin American, Japanese American, African American, Caucasian and Deaf narratives.

In the article, Lea Salonga – the first Asian woman to win a Tony Award – is quoted as saying:

Whether it’s providential, coincidence, or meant to be, the fact is what’s happening on Broadway is so diverse it’s almost utopian. It shows how many stories are out there that should be told, and can be told — so many experiences that make America what it is.

The telling of diverse stories is, of course, not only a challenge for Americans, but also one that faces us all. So, if you’re the kind of person who’d like to share your story with us, what do you do to encourage diversity in the arts in your community? Maybe your groundbreaking work will inspire us all.

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The Saturday List: 10 Reprehensible Responses to the NYGASP “MIKADO” Fiasco

George Grossmith made up as Ko-Ko in THE MIKADO

George Grossmith made up as Ko-Ko in THE MIKADO

Yesterday, in Musical Cyberspace’s Forgotten Musicals Friday column, I discussed the situation that surrounded the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ planned production of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado, a controversy that has been widely covered on theatre websites like Playbill and BroadwayWorld. With the announcement yesterday that the production had been cancelled, indignant responses that criticised the Asian American community’s response to the production’s marketing materials, which featured Caucasian actors representing Japanese characters, and the fact the inclusion of Pan-Asian actors and actors of Asian descent in the production was embarrassingly minimal. Reading through some of these responses left me bewildered. In what world are these people living? Alongside which people? Why are they missing the point?

My Saturday List would normally consist of a light-hearted collection of observations about musical theatre, but after reading some of the reprehensible responses to the fiasco surrounding the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ cancelled production of The Mikado, I felt that I had to address these in some way. One could select ten similar responses to these on almost any social media platform that engages with musical theatre or opera, but I thought it useful to respond to a set of responses in one place: the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook, a public group on Facebook where people volunteer their opinions in an open forum. In fact, these responses are all to be found in a single thread, started by group member Anthony Garcia, who describes the entire affair as a ‘how-de-do’, a phrase taken from one of the songs in The Mikado.

Right. A deep breath. And here we go.

Rutland Barrington as Pooh Bah in THE MIKADO

Rutland Barrington as Pooh Bah in THE MIKADO

1. One belief, held by many and put forward in this thread by Mathias Kayser, is that The Mikado is a parody of Britain in the 19th century, therefore casting white actors is not problematic. It’s true that Gilbert and Sullivan were presenting a satire of the politics and institutions of Victorian England. But here’s the thing: we are not living in Victorian England or one of its colonies. The society that is being put under the spotlight existed 130 years ago. The satirical aspects of The Mikado are largely no longer valid unless we assume that the British have remained stagnant as a society for that period of time. Britain’s “imperial century” is over. Many countries continue to deal with post-colonial trauma following the United Kingdom’s process of decolonisation and decline. The defense that The Mikado remains relevant as a satire is a pretense. The world in which The Mikado was written has been dismantled; the conventions around the casting of white actors in this comic opera should be too.

2. Cathy Bulfin offers the view that critics of productions that cast white actors in The Mikado ‘don’t get it at all’. What is it, exactly, that we don’t get? Racism perpetuated in the name of art? That white men have suppressed opportunities for people of colour in every industry over time, including the entertainment industry? That there is such a thing called restorative justice, which is a valid and necessary process? Because those are some of the things that Ms Bulfin and her peers seem to fail to understand.

1885 poster art for THE MIKADO

1885 poster art for THE MIKADO

3. You get some folks who only read the headlines and who get lost in their own gut reaction. Like Robert Watson, who considers anyone who might take offence at the use of white actors to represent Japanese people in 2015 to be ‘blind inartistic trouble-makers’. He should consider the grace that actress and writer, Erin Quill, extends to Gilbert and Sullivan about the intentions of their piece before offering any sort of criticism of The Mikado. Only then does Quill say, ‘We, the Asian Americans, do not want to ‘take away’ your precious Mikado – we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes – more full of the respect G&S were trying for.’ Somehow, Mr Watson and his ilk interpret this as persons suffering from ‘white guilt and bigoted Asians’ simply attempting to ‘wreck the whole story’ of The Mikado – an inconceivable point of view for any rational person.

4. Mr Watson voices another popular response to situations like these: ‘These are simply PC troublemakers who want to censor art.’ It is not the denotation of political correctness with which Mr Watson is concerned, namely ‘the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against’, but some connotation of the word whereby the noble intentions of political correctitude is stripped of its integrity. Is it really censorship to suggest that an established practice should be interrogated? And when did art become a free platform for bigotry?

Gilbert’s own illustration of “A More Humane Mikado”, one of the numbers in THE MIKADO

5. There is something wrong when white communities are denied access to a potential theatre production when roles representing members of any suppressed ethnicity cannot be played by white actors, is Ian Bond’s summary of the situation. His suggestion? That it is ‘time to start fighting back’ to preserve the tradition of yellowface performance in productions of The Mikado and of blackface performance in productions like Show Boat! The world of which Mr Bond dreams is one where white performers can dress up as Japanese people, Chinese people, African people, Indian people, Middle Eastern people or Native American people for the diversion of white audiences, no matter whether this compromises the dignity of the people being represented or not. The solution is very simple, though no doubt a difficult one for Mr Bond and his cohorts to hear: if the show cannot be cast appropriately, the show should not be produced. Somewhere, someone will value the great sacrifice made by white audiences in this regard.

6. Because it was done in the past, that makes it acceptable today. So thinks Mr Bond, and Helen Booker, who herself performed in blackface in Show Boat in 1985, agrees. ‘It wasn’t considered racist then,’ she protests, ‘and I can’t understand why it should be now.’ Just because something wasn’t considered racist doesn’t mean that it wasn’t. Injustices are always perpetuated and justified by those who reap the benefits.

J. Hassal's THE MIKADO illustration

J. Hassal’s THE MIKADO illustration for a theatre poster for the show

7. Mr Garcia returned to the thread he started to propose that avoiding the trappings of yellowface – buck teeth, slanted eyes and so on – fixes everything. The thing is, representation is about more than make-up, whether this may be full yellowface, some variation of Geisha makeup, or any variation of generic Orientalism. An assimilation of an entire culture has to take place.

8. Mr Bond returns to the fold to posit that because the satire is about the British, there are no Japanese stereotypes in The Mikado. I never knew that the use of baby-talk (Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum Pooh-Bah, Pish-Tush, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) as a substitution for Japanese names, the Westernised depiction of the Japanese Emperor or the invention of national traditions could be considered free of prejudice. There’s also something in the viewing of an entire culture – no matter how tasteful the intentions for its portrayal might be – as nothing more than a vehicle for exploring the concerns of another.

9. Offence is in the eye of the beholder, claims Sarah-Jane Hall, who says ‘there is a conscious choice on the part of the offended to feel that way’. It follows, then, that ‘the offended’ should have no opinion on the way they are portrayed in the arts or whether, indeed, they should have the first option to represent not themselves, but their cultural background. Worst of all, it means that being offended by an insulting depiction of your culture is an adopted posture, an academic position that has no basis in public historical practice or personal emotional resonance. What a degrading view to have of the genuine suffering of ‘the offended’, a mendacity constructed to preserve one’s own supposed superiority.

A 1926 costume design for Ko-Ko by Charles Ricketts

A 1926 costume design for Ko-Ko by Charles Ricketts

10. The issue of race in productions like The Mikado is an American issue brought about by the American mindset. As far as AJ Ua Néill is concerned, ‘the rest of the world isn’t obsessed with race’. Well, if there are Americans who are working to counteract the effects of centuries of racism, they should be applauded. But they are not the only ones. People in countries around the world are engaging with these issues. Sometimes without elegance. Sometimes at the cost of human life. Sometimes taking small steps forward. Sometimes making huge strides that take them into the future. Perhaps it is time for Mr Ua Néill and his cronies to be present in the world in which we live, where – to cite just one example – economic wars fought over resources in central Africa have everything to do with serving the technological whims of people around the world. It must be comfortable to pretend that race is not an equation in contexts like these, but that’s yet another reality willfully ignored by those who benefit from, in this case, war caused by corporate competition. The issue of racial representation in the arts may seem like small fry in comparison, but the same attitudes inform both situations.

While this tenth item brings my Saturday List to a close, the thread from which these statements are taken continues to flourish and so does, one hopes, the discussions that push us forward in this renegotiation of generations of rehearsed practices that continue to flourish in contemporary performance practice. Feel free to join the discussion using the comments section below, or visit the the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook to enrich the discussion of these points there. This is one of those things about which we need to talk, so that tomorrow can be a better day.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE MIKADO

The image that caused all the trouble: promotional photography used to promote the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' production of THE MIKADO

The image that caused all the trouble: promotional photography used to promote the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of THE MIKADO

All right. It’s hardly forgotten – and, strictly speaking, it’s not a musical either. But The Mikado has been placed under the spotlight once again this week, so I thought I would feature W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s classic comic opera in this column to reflect upon some of the issues raised in the controversy around the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ planned production of the piece, which was announced as having been cancelled earlier today.

The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu debuted in 1885, the ninth collaboration by the widely popular Gilbert and Sullivan. A satire of Victorian England, looking both politics and other institutions of the time, librettist Gilbert used the setting of Japan as a disguise for his commentary. Plot-wise, The Mikado tells the tale of Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado of Japan who has fled his father’s court to escape marriage to the elderly Katisha. Disguised as a ‘wandering minstrel’, arrives in the town of Titipu, where he falls in love with Yum-Yum, the young ward of Ko-Ko. Complications ensue, but everything works itself out before the final curtain.

The creation of The Mikado was itself the subject of a film, Topsy-Turvy and, if you are unfamiliar with the show, there are many audio and film recordings through which you could familiarise yourself with this much-beloved comic opera, including an adaptation using jazz and swing music (The Hot Mikado) and one set in the Caribbean using rock, reggae, blues and calypso to flavour the score (The Black Mikado).

Caucasian actor Peter Kramer as the Japanese Mikado in the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society's production.

Caucasian actor Peter Kramer as the Japanese Mikado in the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production.

I must admit, this is not the first time The Mikado has been on my radar this year. Earlier this year, a local amateur dramatics troupe, the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society, mounted a production, which included many – mostly – Caucasian actors in both principle roles and the chorus. Back then, I had had problems with the fact that nobody seemed to bat an eyelid at this casting and the production company’s silence on how it would enable its mostly white cast to represent Japanese people in the production – given that cultural appropriation was a trending topic on many South African social media accounts at the time and that South Africa is a country which has its history and present tied up in tensions around race adn ethnicity. That The Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society and its production of The Mikado escaped any kind of scrutiny whatsoever, barring two tweets where I tried to start a conversation about the issue, is – at the very least – surprising to me.

But let’s get back to the issue at hand.

An etching of Gilbert and Sullivan

An etching of Gilbert and Sullivan

On Wednesday, Playbill reported that a flyer sent out by The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players about their upcoming production of The Mikado had offended members of the Asian American community. The flyer featured four white actors playing Japanese characters from the play. When it was reported that the company barely featured any cast members of Asian descent and that the company’s previous production of the comic opera was historically inaccurate and culturally insensitive, things worsened. Speaking to Playbill, actress and writer, Erin Quill said that a character named “The Axe Coolie” had been added to that production, “coolie” being a slur used to describe Chinese workers, while another character ran around the stage shouting the stereotypical exclamation, “High ya!” She added that:

(Some actors were) just in a costume and doing their track, others were taking special delight and making a large effort to use stereotypical behavior. There was pulling of the eyes, there was shuffling of feet, there were exaggerated gestures in many regards, but when one cast member both pulled his eyes and gnashed his teeth — it was clear that this production had nothing to do with Gilbert and Sullivan any longer, it was an excuse to indulge in caricature that was degrading and hurtful.

With a precedent like that, is it any wonder that Quill and others who spoke out against this new production feared that The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players would once again mount a production of The Mikado ‘for cheap laughs at the expense of Japanese Heritage.’

J. Hassal's THE MIKADO illustration

J. Hassal’s THE MIKADO illustration

The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, of course, claimed the opposite, choosing to focus on the fact that – in a statement released to Playbill – the production would have avoided the practice of Yellowface, the use of make-up to appear Asian, that – on their Tumblr page – the production was simply in line with the original intent of The Mikado as a vehicle to satirise Victorian England. There’s almost a sense of surprise in Exective Director David Wannen’s statement, “I really believe that the issue is a larger issue, obviously, than who is Asian and who isn’t.”

Of course there are larger issues at play! One only has to take a look at the responses on social media sites about this situation to see that. Today’s column is getting a little long, so I’ll share some of the shocking attitudes reflected in social media statements about this situation in tomorrow’s Saturday List – statements that point to some of those larger issues.

But to close off for today, I’ll share a final quotation from Quill:

No Asian American disputes that The Mikado is a staple of the G&S canon, nor that the music is lovely. The Mikado, in mocking British mores of the time, says many things about being an individual, about standing up against petty tyrannies, that love will find a way no matter what age you are, and that ultimately if you speak your truth to power, reason will prevail. (Yes, there are large amounts of ‘poo’ references in the names of characters and the town itself. At the time, it was funny, now it is a bit of a ‘groaner.’) We, the Asian Americans, do not want to ‘take away’ your precious Mikado – we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes – more full of the respect G&S were trying for.

I think these words offer an incredible gesture of grace towards Gilbert and Sullivan’s intentions, with a reasonable request for a shift in the way that a piece like The Mikado is handled today. I hope that people are listening.

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The Saturday List: A Fine, Fine Life for I’D DO ANYTHING’s Nancies

The original Nancy, Georgia Brown, surrounded by Broadway cast members Alice Playten (Bet), Davy Jones (Artful Dodger) and Bruce Prochnik (Oliver)

The original Nancy, Georgia Brown, surrounded by Broadway cast members Alice Playten (Bet), Davy Jones (Artful Dodger) and Bruce Prochnik (Oliver)

August is Women’s Month in South Africa, and so one of the things I want to do with The Saturday List here at Musical Cyberspace this month is to focus on women in musical theatre: actresses, theatre-makers, great roles for women and so on. With a wide range of possibilities for themed list, I didn’t know where to begin, but when I remembered that Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s landmark 1960 musical, was celebrating its 55th anniversary this year, I thought it might be an idea to take a look at where the 12 musical theatre performers who competed for the role of Nancy in I’d Do Anything, the 2008 BBC talent show cum reality series that searched for performers to play Oliver and Nancy in the 2009 London revival of the show, are today. Listed alongside the videos performed by the Nancies that opened each episode of the show, here they are.

12. Amy Booth-Steel, whose dress was lime green was the first potential Nancy to be eliminated. This didn’t seemto be too much of a stumbling block for her: some of the credits she has racked up since the show aired include Tori Amos’s musical, The Light Princess, Sister Act and The Sound of Music in the West End and the UK tour of Betty Blue Eyes. See her singing “I’d Do Anything” with her fellow contestants in the week of her elimination below.

11. The “lilac” Nancy, Cleo Royer, was eliminated second. A self-confessed music nut, Royer seems to have faded into the background somewhat, although she appeared in the West End production of Dirty Dancing. Here she is singing “Oom-Pah-Pah”, with all of the other Nancy hopefuls.

10. Tara Bethan – seen here in the orange dress singing “It’s a Fine Life” with the eight remaining Nancies – has performed in Bugsy Malone in London and the UK tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat since her appearance in I’d Do Anything.

9. Following her involvement in I’d Do Anything, Francesca Jackson – who wore the baby pink dress in the competition – has toured in Dreamboats and Petticoats, traveled to Paris to perform in A Little Night Music and appeared in the Barry Manilow jukebox musical, Can’t Smile Without You. In the 2011-2012 season, she performed in the West End production of Million Dollar Quartet. Here she is in her elimination week, singing “Consider Yourself” with her competitors.

8. One of my favourites in the competition, the gold-clad Keisha Amponsa-Banson‘s career bloomed following I’d Do Anything, with appearances in The Pajama Game, From Here to Eternity, The Lion King, Stand Tall: A Rock Musical, Footloose and Little Shop of Horrors all keeping her on the stage, where she belongs. In her final week, the remaining Nancies performed (along with the Olivers) “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”.

7. Sarah Lark, the pale Green Nancy, was an early favourite of mine and ended up as an understudy for the role of Nancy in the West End production that followed I’d Do Anything. She has since performed in two Snow White pantomimes, as Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and in Les Miserables. “Who Will Buy?” was the opening number in her elimination week.

6. Dark Blue Nancy, Ashley J Russell‘s musical theatre credits include Sister Act, We Will Rock You, Shrek and The Phantom of the Opera. She also appeared in the workshop of Love Never Dies at Sydmonton. In her final show, the Nancies once again belted out “It’s A Fine Life”

5. Like Sarah Lark, Niamh Perry also appeared as a pantomime Snow White, while also appearing in Love Never Dies, Mamma Mia! and The Little Prince. “Consider Yourself” was the song that introduced her last appearance as a competitor on the show, in which she wore the pink Nancy dress.

4. Rachel Tucker, who wore the yellow Nancy dress, has had a fine career since the show ended. As well as appearing in a reading of Love Never Dies as Meg Giry, Tucker has played Elphaba in Wicked and made her Broadway debut in the Sting musical, The Last Ship. “Food, Glorious Food” was Tucker’s final ensemble number as a potential Nancy.

3. Blue Nancy Samantha Barks is the best known internationally of the I’d Do Anything contestants, having played Eponine in the film version of Les Miserables, a role she played on stage in London. She has also played Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Nancy in Oliver!, Velma in Chicago, Jules in the workshop of Bend it Like Beckham and Mallory/Avril in City of Angels. Placing third, she performed in the final group Nancy number, when all the finalists returned to sing “I’d Do Anything”.

2. Runner up Jessie Buckley – who wore the dark green Nancy dress, turned down understudying Nancy to play Anne in A Little Night Music. Here’s her version of Nancy’s showstopper, “As Long as He Needs Me”, from the final episode of the show.

1. Purple-clad Jodie Prenger won the competition and the role of Nancy in the 2009 UK revival of Oliver!. Appearing in Les Miserables in between the competition and the opening of that productions, she has subsequently appeared in Monty Python’s Spamalot and Street of Dreams, the musical based on popular soap, Coronation Street. Here is her winning rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me”.

Having just had the opportunity to revisit I’d Do Anything and its twelve finalists, do you think the right person won the competition? Who would you like to see more of on stage in the future? And what other shows do you think could have similar series leading up to opening night? It would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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The Saturday List: 10 Times the Musical Challenged Its Dismissal as a Relevant Art Form

Artwork for the original production of FOLLIES

Artwork for the original production of FOLLIES

Driving in the car this morning, with the original cast recording of Dreamgirls blaring from my speakers, I was reminded just how vital and versatile an art form the musical is. Although many people dismiss the musical as a relevant form of artistic expression, the musical can easily hold its own alongside any form of theatre you might care to mention. So I thought that today, I might put together a Saturday list of just ten times musicals have been completely in step with the world around them, ten times the musical did more than simply entertain – despite its easy dismissal by those with limited points of reference when it comes to this glorious form of theatre.

10. Dreamgirls

Let’s start with the song that made me think about all of this in the first place. I was grooving along with Effie and company when “Cadillac Car” started playing. There’s been so much to read online about cultural appropriation recently, but I had forgotten how directly Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen address the issue in this musical and in this song in particular. This is even more remarkable when one considers that Dreamgirls was written in 1981! The film version, from which the clip below is taken, softens the commentary a little without losing it completely, so you’ll have to track down a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording if you want to absorb to the full impact of Krieger and Eyen had to say – or better yet, catch a production of the show when it’s playing near you.

9. Fun Home

Caitlin Jenner is big news at the moment. Not only because of the actualization of her own identity in what has been a landmark shift in awareness around transgender narratives, but also because of how she is using her celebrity as a catalyst to positively shift the experiences of others coming to terms with their respective identities. In a recent speech, made when accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Awards, Jenner said: “If you want to call me names, make jokes and doubt my intentions, go ahead because the reality is I can take it. But for thousands of kids out there coming to terms with the reality of who they are they shouldn’t have to take it.” More than ever, the worth of open honesty about gender identity in the world that we live in was affirmed. There’s a similar moment of triumph in the current Broadway hit, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home, a song about the recognition of one’s identity: “Ring of Keys”. The performance of that song on mainstream television at the Tony Awards, in which the musical’s protagonist Alison, recognizes her kinship with a delivery woman – ‘an old-school butch’ – in a luncheonette, was a special moment. There’s a huge sense that the time for LGBTIQ issues to take centre stage is now, despite the overwhelmingly and sometimes devastatingly different LGBTIQ experiences that exist internationally. Even in it country of origin, Fun Home wasn’t awarded the Pulizter Prize for Drama. What a difference a year makes.

8. Show Boat

Show Boat was a breakthrough musical in terms of weaving serious issues into the fabric of a show. It’s no mistake that the name Oscar Hammerstein II, who created the show in collaboration with Jerome Kern, appears on three musicals in this list. The man knew what the musical could achieve and he had the vision, the courage and the tenacity to shift the form into something more malleable than the operettas, light musical comedies and revues of the day. Show Boat still told a story of enduring love, but it told its tale against a backdrop of racial inequality, miscegenation and racial prejudice, all of which shifted the potential melodrama of its through-line towards tragedy, without ever straying into the pitfalls of the operatic. “Come now,” I hear the skeptics say, “the show is set in the South. It’s impossible for a narrative set in that period not to reference slavery. Besides, it’s a musical. Like Gone With the Wind, Show Boat views the black experience in a cursory and sentimental fashion.” It’s a common misconception that Show Boat deals with slavery; the piece is set some some twenty years after the abolition of slavery. What Show Boat addresses, is the dynamics of race relations that came about as a result of the abolition. And while it does not approach the full complexity of black narratives of the time, it did not sugarcoat those experiences either. The hardships faced by Joe and Queenie – characters that are written like real people, not caricatures – are not viewed with a patronizing eye. Interracial marriage was treated seriously, its destruction a biting commentary on the prejudice against black people that raged through the country both in the 1880s and in 1927, when the show premiered. And on the production side, Show Boat was the first musical to feature a cast that was racially integrated from the leads through to the chorus. It was a landmark show that acknowledged the complex social and cultural situation of the time.

7. The Wild Party

There has been no other song since the dawn of the 21st century that has captures the existential crisis of the new millennium as lucidly as Michael John LaChiusa’s “People Like Us” in his version of The Wild Party, created with George C. Wolfe. This adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s poem achieves something that Andrew Lippa’s simply does not assimilate: it manages to capture the period brilliantly as well as the reason why the poem and its characters still resonate in this day and age. And this song, this meditation on life, exposes humanity’s deepest personal fears to itself. “People Like Us”, like the musical from which it originates, is strident and glorious, a stark reminder of where we’ve come from and where we are.

6. Oklahoma!

In 1943, people were feeling the full force of World War II. It must have been devastating. Seeing your friends and family going off to war. Hearing news about Hitler. Wondering whether peace would ever return. Wondering whether people could ever rise above their differences and circumstances to make a better world. And in the midst of this, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was born – not simply a musical about a picnic, as some would have it, but a musical about the making of community, about building bridges, about contributing to something bigger than yourself. It’s little wonder, then, that Oklahoma! was a smash hit and that it has endured for more than 70 years, enjoying a landmark revival at London’s National Theatre in 1998 where Trevor Nunn reminded picnic-minded naysayers about everything that Oklahoma! has to offer.

5. District Six

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Broadway isn’t the be all and end all of musical theatre. Internationally, musical theatre also looks the world around it directly in the eye, and District Six: the Musical is one such example. Broadway babies will most likely know David Kramer and Taliep Petersen by Kat and the Kings, their show which ran on Broadway in 1999. Kat and the Kings is, like Kramer’s recent adaptation of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, was also a story set in District Six, the residential area in Cape Town from which more than 60 000 of its residents were forcibly removed during the 1970s at the hands of the apartheid regime. Neither of those shows captured the edginess of Kramer and Petersen’s original collaboration, which brought together, during apartheid, diverse audiences in the theatre, highlighted the trials and tribulations of those who were affected by forced removals and served as a springboard for the careers of many disadvantaged performers. Although a post-apartheid revival of the show was preserved on film, the original production captured a moment in time, reminding us that the arts are also a socio-political record of a country’s history.

4. On the Town

Another wartime musical, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town premiered in 1944. It’s story detailed the events of three sailors on shore leave at that precise moment in time in New York, its resonance clear to all who were living in that context. But there was something that pushed On the Town beyond narrative resonance. Although Show Boat had a mixed-race cast, On the Town was also noticed for its multi-racial casting, most notably perhaps for the presence of Japanese American dancer Sono Osato as Ivy. Why did this particular cast member draw such attention? Well, consider for a moment that the USA’s entry into World War II was a direct reaction to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Think about the heightened conflict between the Americans and the Japanese in the years since that attack. Weigh up what the internment of Japanese Americans meant for those who were forced to relocate their lives and who were subject to incarceration that the government of the time found ways to justify. And then look anew at the original production of On the Town. Ivy is a leading role. She is first presented as a beauty queen, “Miss Turnstiles”. She is the love interest of the US naval officer who is the protagonist of On the Town. And she turns out, like everyone else in the musical, to be just another person trying to make sense of the crazy intensity that World War II forced upon everyday life. Connect the dots, folks – it isn’t difficult.

3. Pacific Overtures

In the context of 20th century history, the 1970s is viewed as something of a pivot point. Social progression clashed with political conservatism. Economic systems faced huge upheaval. Women’s rights and economic freedom were on the rise. It was the time of Watergate, Harvey Milk, the Camp David accords and Idi Amin. Individualism, conformity, community, decolonization, neo-liberalism – all of these were key points of this decade of change. Perhaps one of Stephen Sondheim’s most difficult shows, Pacific Overtures, with its book by John Weidman, takes a look at the effect of shifting global politics by placing the westernization of Japan under the spotlight. There’s so much going on in Pacific Overtures than it’s hard to sum up briefly: at once, Sondheim and Weidman are tracking the (d)evolution of Japanese culture, deconstructing orientalism (a topic that would become the subject of a critical study by Edward Said two years later) and exploring the interface between American and Japanese musical and theatrical expressions. The original Broadway production was filmed and broadcast on Japanese television in 1976, giving us insight into everything that was packed into two hours and twenty minutes of an unadulterated coup de théâtre. If there’s a place to begin, its by watching that broadcast.

2. South Pacific

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were under huge pressure to cut the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” during the tryouts of South Pacific. James Michener, who wrote the short stories upon which the musical was based, was approached by a delegation urging him to add his voice to their outrage at the song’s statement against racial bigotry and the insidious manner in which it seeped into society. One of the critics of the show’s Boston tryout, Elliot Norton, also recommended that the song be cut or, at least, softened. Hammerstein would have none of it, exclaiming that the song was what the show was about. And indeed, South Pacific is about that very issue, how learned prejudices affect our daily interactions. Exposing the lie that Americans uphold one of the ideal of equality that is so prominent in the Declaration of Independence is what earned South Pacific its Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and what makes it endure almost seven decades after its premiere.

1. Follies

There are people who think that James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is just about a party. There are people who think that “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” is about Phyllis and Sally. There are people who struggle to see why it’s Ben and not Sally who is at the centre of it all, although Sally certainly does pull one’s attention – after all that’s who she is. But these people aren’t listening to what’s going on. They aren’t watching the show or listening to the score or appreciating the book mindfully. And yet, there are those who simply get it. Who hear in songs like “I’m Still Here” not only a damn good song, but also a deconstruction of American history through the lens of popular culture. Follies also has had the misfortune of suffering a number of revisions and the piece that it was intended to be exists only in legend. One day, perhaps when The Widow Goldman has passed on, Follies will be restored to its original glory, finally able to resonate and be as devastating as it is in its original version.

I am sure that by now you, dear reader, have realised that this is neither a ranked nor a comprehensive list of musicals that responded to a moment in time and that managed to capture it as well as any other art form could. Musicals are, after all, a medium rather than a genre, capably of embracing any number of subjects and styles. What’s your favourite musical that challenged dismissals of the form as a relevant artistic expression? Share it in the comment box below.

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Monday Meditation: I’m Over the Closing Night Blues

The Official Poster for THE VISIT

The Official Poster for THE VISIT

The Visit closed last night. The adaptation by Terrence McNally, Fred Ebb and John Kander of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s classic play shuttered after two months of performances, garnering a handful of Tony Award nominations without winning any. A sense of sombre regret hangs in the air, and musical theatre fans are posting on Facebook, Twitter and message boards about how much they will miss the show.

I wonder how I would have reacted to this closing five or ten years ago. I think I might have been genuinely angry to see a show that has something complex to communicate close so quickly, especially when The Visit appears to do this in a manner that doesn’t shy away from its complexities and achieves a remarkable level a musical theatre technique to boot. I may have lamented the latest victim in a world where simplistic musicals, with arid technique evident in lazy books and sloppy lyrics, crawl on into thousands of performances.

I guess it would be untrue to say that there aren’t echoes of that attitude wrapped up in my feelings about The Visit closing and, of course, there are sad practicalities like people being out of work each and every time a show curtain lowers for the final time.

But here’s the thing. Endings are part of a full life experience, no matter how difficult they are to bear. It’s a clichéd observation, but endings and beginnings are one and the same. Closing nights are a part of the natural order of things. A run in excess of 11 000 performances doesn’t indicate a show’s worth; it’s simply a reflection of the capitalist culture in which a show finds itself produced. We all know from our own high school experiences that the most popular kid isn’t always the one with the most integrity, although sometimes that can be the case. “Nice is different than good,” Stephen Sondheim wrote – and so it is in the theatre as it is in life.

What does a closing night mean for a musical? It can mean a new life. Theatre, after all, is an ephemeral transaction. Without closing on Broadway, The Color Purple wouldn’t be returning this year following what many are calling a production that goes beyond what its original staging achieved. And it was only after many closing nights that La Cage aux Folles found a similarly successful revisionist staging in the 2008 London revival.

Sure, we have yet to see a staging top the respective original excursions of West Side Story or Follies. Even in instances where, say, the former is criticised for not speaking to contemporary sensibilities, I’m unconvinced that there’s someone who can match what Jerome Robbins achieved along with his assistant, Peter Gennaro. Watching “Love and Love Alone” was such a beautiful reminder of the potential power of dance within the context of musical theatre and there don’t seem to be many prominent musical theatre choreographers like Graciela Daniele, who work in such detail to create a communicative language of physical expression on stage. Athleticism too often trumps storytelling.

So while I think it is appropriate to salute The Visit as it passes on, survived by video footage, photographs and its upcoming cast recording, I don’t feel the need to mourn it. The show will live on for as long as it has something to say. Any show will.

This post is inspired by and a response to “I’m Over Being Concerned About What I Shouldn’t Do” in Shirley MacLaine’s
I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

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