Carousel, Flower Drum Song, My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, South Pacific, etc. The list goes on. Many of these shows are beloved classics by many, yet many other people take issue with these shows. From white washing, to blatant portrayal of domestic abuse, to outright sexism and antiquated themes. We’re living in 2018. We’re living in a time when founding fathers, their spouses, and cohorts are being played by people of colour. We’re living in a time when a Disney princess doesn’t have to find her happily ever after in a prince. We’re living in a time when while theatre still has a long way to go, there are still more roles now for minorities now than there has been, we’re living in a time of #MeToo and when women can share their stories of assault, abuse, and harassment. This begs the question; how can we recognize and enjoy pieces of theatre as being transformative to the art and as an objectively well written piece when it has so many problems? Or can we?
The first aspect of this question becomes what are the big issues of the show? Is it something that’s written into the script? Or is it more of a perception on how a character is presented? The answer to this question goes a long way in how you perceive or take on a piece of musical theatre. To some extent you can do the same thing for both, but there are other answers that go in wildly different directions.
In both instances, whether the offending content is written right into the script or if it’s a perception thing. Directing, lighting, and staging can go a long way. For example, if the issue of the show is domestic assault (i.e. Carousel) where it is obviously right in the script that Billy is abusive a director can put everything around the show in a darker, more reserved context that is more appropriate for domestic abuse today. Kristina Dorsey of theday.com writes about such a production where some modifications have been made. You can read that article here https://www.theday.com/article/20160228/ENT10/160229294. This musical is presented in a light that is more appropriate, and this can be done with more musicals. Direction can go a long way. Another thing you will notice is a script change.
If the issue with the show is written in a script sometimes the rights holders will allow for special changes to be made in a production. In fact, the recent production of Carousel did have one of the songs removed. Whether it’s an offending slur or a song with just a putrid message that is unacceptable by today’s standards sometimes script changes can be made to bring a production up to date. However, this begs the question. What if there’s too much to change in the script or a script change will screw up the story too much? Or what if a simple change isn’t enough and it’s still too problematic?
In this case you need to ask a really important question. Is this piece important enough to musical theatre and its history that it is still worth being watched or even performed today?
Keep in mind that even in these instances the direction of a show can go a long way. However, on the flip side in some circumstances direction can only go so far. There are shows where problematic messages are just woven in. What should be done in this case? Should that piece of theatre just be buried to never see the light of day again?
While some might say yes, I think this view is also problematic. Can we just ignore a piece of theatre history? Some pieces that are now considered problematic are huge pieces of theatre that did wonders for advancing the art. From a historical stand point I’m not sure if we can just ignore something that means a lot to history. Not only this; but ignoring these shows is also ignoring prejudices that used to run rampant and to some degree still exist today.
Is Billy Bigelow being abusive uncomfortable? Good. Is seeing yellowface or blackface done in old shows cringey to see and something you never want to see done ever again? Good. Is the stereotypical portrayal of Asians in Flower Drum Song make you mad? Good. You see to some degree seeing these things done in old shows also serves as a reminder of things that used to exist. A reminder of what we shouldn’t and cannot be, a reminder of a route that we should never travel down with modern theatre.
It’s also worth noting that watching something does not equal supporting it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing if a person likes an old show and appreciates the music, how it’s done, and depending on the show- even the story in some cases. I don’t think it’s wrong to appreciate what a show is and does as long as you also realize and understand the problems the show has and why certain messages are hurtful to some people or why some people can’t or won’t watch the show. For example if someone who has been in an abusive relationship- or for another reason the subject hits close to home- can’t stomach watching Carousel, or if someone with close ties to Vietnam finds Miss Saigon to be offensive or too much; rather than calling the “Snowflake” or some other nasty modern day name we need the be respectful and understanding that not everyone can stomach watching or having an objective view of certain shows. On the flip side I don’t think it’s fair to immediately condemn someone if they enjoy an old show that has some problems. As long as they understand the issues and don’t turn a blind eye to things like abuse, racism and sexism.
Overall these shows can be appreciated as classic pieces. They did some things really well that helped shape musical theatre as we know it. I don’t think that can be ignored. However, if other people struggle with them or for one reason or another can’t stomach them or just find them too problematic to study too much in full that is understandable as well. We need to have a healthy respect for the past, while moving forward and adapting for the future.