Is It True That Anything Goes?
In lists of the best, most influential, most classic movies of all time, titles that pop up again and again are movies with blatantly racist or sexist themes. The Jazz Singer (1927) is a movie that revolutionized music in silent film, but ends with a white man learning the “joy” of performing in blackface. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) was the first full-length animated film, but it also was about a woman who felt obligated to care for seven men who could very easily take care of themselves, was poisoned by another woman who was jealous of her looks, and then was kissed while unconscious by a man she didn’t know. Even a more recent film, Sixteen Candles (1984), has been praised as a classic teen movie, but also includes a harmfully stereotypical Asian character and a scene that glorifies date rape.
I don’t mean to discredit these movies’ influence in the film industry, or even to say that they aren’t good. My point is only that the scripts of these movies, if written today, would not make it far off the writer’s desk. It would go without saying that if a movie like Breakfast at Tiffany’s were to be be written today, Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese-American landlord wouldn’t have been written as an Asian caricature, and certainly wouldn’t have been played by a white man in yellowface. As the film industry progresses into the 21st century, blatantly racist practices such as blackface and yellowface have become far less common, but have been replaced by more subtle intolerance–such as whitewashing and cultural appropriation. However, the public is generally on watch for these issues and it would be tough to argue that the movie industry isn’t at least moving in the right direction.
There are movies and television shows that mark major eras or turning points for the industry. We can revisit that art, and, while recognizing its flaws, understand that it served an important purpose in history. The same is true for musical theater: the difference is that there must be an active decision to revisit a flawed play or musical, and directors are faced every year with the choice of revisiting or burying the past.
Part of the tradition of musical theater is revivals. Once a musical closes, the original version of the musical is gone forever. Every director, cast, choreographer, and designer puts a unique spin on every production of a show; I could travel across the entire country and watch 50 productions of the same musical, but I wouldn’t see the same show twice. Today we can film musicals and put them online, but digital copies don’t do the live versions justice. Indeed, Broadway today isn’t only comprised of new musicals like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, but old musicals like Oklahoma! (1943) and The Music Man (1957).
However, the problem with revivals is there isn’t much wiggle room to change the script from the original production. Directors have some freedom, but there are limits. Imagine we remade The Jazz Singer every year, but we couldn’t cut the ending. That’s pretty much what happens every time a theater company puts on a production of Anything Goes, a generally feel-good musical which frustratingly ends in yellowface.
So why choose to do a show that is clearly dated? It’s the same reason that people continue to watch movies that we would consider problematic today: nostalgia and historical significance to the industry. If we recognize a movie or television show as racist or sexist, we can mostly pull it out of public hands, but that doesn’t mean that it entirely goes away (Song of the South, anyone?). Theater, on the other hand, is one of the few mediums that you can truly cancel. If we as a society decide that a problematic show isn’t up to our standards anymore, then that’s the end of the show. If people aren’t performing it, then people can’t see it live, and it’s over. That puts the heat on theater companies to continue to perform important shows so they don’t die off. But doing so is an active choice to justify the racist, sexist, or otherwise distasteful things the actors will be forced to say or do as a result.
The way I see it, there are two types of racism and sexism in musical theater: intentional and unintentional. In this case, intentional bigotry is the “good” kind, as it seeks to criticize prejudice. At my home-town high school, there was an uproar when our director selected West Side Story as our spring musical. West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in New York City which focuses on the repercussions of hatred between dueling gangs of “Americans” and Puerto Ricans in the 1950s. The show was selected to be a commentary on the racism and xenophobia that was growing in our community following the Trump administration’s immigration bans, but many people in our community perceived the show itself as reinforcing intolerance. The white characters in the show are extremely racist, but are also extremely accurate to the time period. The primary criticism was that any show that contained slurs against a certain group was intolerant and should be taken out.
A similar incident occurred at a neighboring high school which tried to take the slurs out of the musical Ragtime, a musical about a black man battling extreme racism and police brutality in the early 1900s. While it is extremely important that high school students understand that racial slurs have no place outside of the rehearsal room, it is also important to separate the character from the actors. Theater is entertainment, but more importantly it is storytelling, and one cannot accurately tell the story of American society in the time of Ragtime or West Side Story without using unsavory language. When a musical is showing a time capsule of history, it is important not to scrub the intolerance out of that time. Doing so doesn’t do justice to the people who were immensely hurt by intolerance during that period.
The same argument could be made about a show that I am working on now, Urinetown, which was written as recently as 2001 and takes place in the near future, not the past. In several scenes of the show, a male character, Fipp, several years older than a female character, Hope, speaks directly to the Hope’s breasts, makes inappropriate comments about her body while the two are at work, and is generally portrayed as a creep. Overall, Fipp could very easily have been the subject of a #MeToo exposé. There was a discussion during one of our rehearsals about whether the sexist statements should be removed, and the general decision was no. Fipp isn’t supposed to be the hero of the story, he is supposed to be a creep. As long as the actor playing Hope consented to every time the actor playing Fipp said or did something unsettling, it was okay for him to play his character authentically.
But in older musicals, sometimes the creep is supposed to be the hero. My freshman year of high school, we did a show called The Pajama Game. If you haven’t heard of it, I can’t blame you. It hasn’t exactly stood the test of time in the same way West Side Story has. The basic premise of the musical is a union strike at a pajama factory in the American Midwest in the 1950s. The part that stuck out to me, though, was not the important lessons about unionization or compound interest, but rather the predatory song “Her Is”, a song sung by a male character, Prez, to a female character, Gladys, who is in a relationship and not interested at all in Prez. Prez isn’t meant to be portrayed as a creep, either. He is one of the heroes of the show, and the song is meant to be funny. That didn’t really come across to our modern audience, though, and I can see why. One line from the song that stuck out to me was: “Her is running away, but her sure can bet him is gonna get her yet.” The choreography involved a lot of chasing within the scene.
But that wasn’t the only unsavory moment of the show. In one of the final scenes, Gladys’ boyfriend follows her to her office with a knife because he believes she was with another man. You know, a classic gag. A gag which I’m sure really landed with the 19.3 million women who have been victims of stalking and the 25% who have been victims of domestic abuse in the United States. Scenes like that made me wonder: why are we still doing Pajama Game?
While I am happy to throw Pajama Game in the bin, I understand the desire to not lose a show like Anything Goes to time. What Anything Goes lacks in plot, it makes up for in iconic songs and show stopping dance routines. Created by Cole Porter, a member of Broadway royalty, Anything Goes remains among the most well known shows, and is pretty iconic to the 1930s style of Broadway, which generally involves dance numbers loosely strung together with a shaky-at-best plot. Although the final scene, which includes the main characters (who are almost always played by white actors) crashing a wedding by dressing up as stereotypical Chinese people and throwing on offensive accents, is difficult for a modern audience to stomach, it is also impossible to deny that the Cole Porter show isn’t a musical theater classic. Nothing says “Broadway” quite like 50 people tap dancing on a giant boat.
I couldn’t tell you where the line should be drawn. I understand the importance of casting racist and sexist rhetoric out of our society entirely, but I also understand the importance of not throwing away our history. As we continue to produce and create theater, it is important to keep in mind who is given a platform to tell stories and whose stories they are telling. The inclusion of all genders and people of color at all levels of production is crucial to putting on better and more progressive shows and telling stories more accurately and with more care.
But that doesn’t answer what we should do about the old shows that have embedded themselves into the theatrical mainstream. Live theater is one of the few instances where the mistakes of the past can’t just be observed from a distance; they must be redone, revisited, and relived every time we decide to revive a show. So when do we make the call to remove a show from our repertoire and kill it? And when can we justify doing a show with a theme or language that we know is wrong?
Illustration: Melina Lawrence is a Design Editor for F-Word Magazine. She is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn studying Architecture and Urban Studies.