Comment of the Day: “Now THAT Was A Rape Culture…”

Blogger and esteemed commenter here Rick Jones shares my passion for theater and is also, like me, a stage director, but seldom has a chance to weigh in on that topic. My post about the troubling lyrics in “Standing on the Corner,” the best known song in Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” gave Rick a chance to swing at a pitch in his wheelhouse, as the baseball broadcasters like to say, and he didn’t disappoint.

I want to clarify something from the original post. Having noted the lyrics, I was no way  criticizing them or the song, or the musical itself. Older shows are valuable and fascinating in part because they serve as windows on past cultural values and attitudes—that was one of the reasons for the ambitious, important and doomed mission of the theater I have been artistic director of for the last two decades. Such politically incorrect references should never be excised in performance.

“The Most Happy Fella” is a slog, however. Ambitious, sure, but too long, too sentimental, and with too many unavoidable “wince points,” as I call them, to make the show worth the huge investment in talent, money and time that it takes to produce competently. Any time the best songs in a musical are the ones that have nothing to do with the plot (“Standing on the Corner,” “Big D,” and “Abondanza!”, which in in the clip above) it’s ominous. The 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning hit play this pseudo-opera was based on, “They Knew What They Wanted” by Sydney Howard, is much better.

Here is Rick’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Now That Was A Rape Culture…”:

I actually saw a production of The Most Happy Fella a couple of weeks ago. It was staged by our School of Music as their annual “opera” performance, and it certainly has a number of roles to challenge even strong voice majors; the title role in the original production was played by Robert Weede, better known for his Rigoletto than for any Broadway work. As a work of theatre, of course, it’s pretty dreadful. As a snapshot of the social values of the era in which it was created, it is illuminating.

What struck me about “Standing on the Corner” was not that the men singing that song seemed sexist or predatory, but rather that virtually no one in the audience thought so. (Indeed, I was more put off by the music-hall pseudo-Italian accents.) Part of the reason is that, as you noted, Jack, the most problematic part of the lyrics comes near the end, by which time we’re paying more attention to the music itself and to the staging than we are to the words. Moreover, the fact is that, in the moment, we often react differently than we would if we really had a chance to think.

Also, aesthetic distance works the same way in these situations as it does in, say, portrayals of violence. We may not like it that (to reference another 1950s musical) the Sharks and Jets “rumble,” but we have no inclination to intervene. The women—neither the actors nor the characters—who scamper across the stage to avoid the leers of the titular corner-standers in “Standing on the Corner” are not in any real danger, and we know it. A real-life situation, however, has a more open-ended second act, the stakes are higher, and the consequences of action (or inaction) are real and palpable. (And we know it.)

It is easy, in other words, to get caught up in the story and the music of The Most Happy Fella and to leave the social values unexamined. That happens a lot when we consider plays and musicals from the 1950s. My Fair Lady is far more sexist (to the point where I can’t enjoy it at all) than Pygmalion, the George Bernard Shaw play from 40-something years earlier on which it is based.

I used William Inge’s Bus Stop as a text in my Beginning Directing class this spring. Anyone who has seen the Don Murray/Marilyn Monroe movie is likely to regard the play as something of a romantic romp: attractive young couple ends up together despite the odds. Yet when I say it’s a play about a stalker who wins, virtually everyone in the room nods in agreement. Why? Because those students have been asked to read the play carefully, to determine character motivations, etc., not simply to be caught up in the play’s apparent lightness of tone.

The point is that what we see at first glance and what we see upon examination aren’t always the same. Moments like these allow us interrogate the presuppositions to our understanding of events. Yes, that moment in The Most Happy Fella is a more than little creepy when we think about it, but it isn’t presented that way for a variety of structural and thematic reasons.

If we play it right, we might be able to turn moments like these into actual conversations, perhaps even to have all of us pay a little more attention to the consequences of our actions. There’s a line at which “boys will be boys” ceases to be a defense: where is that line? Am I hearing more complaints from female students about cat-calling now than I did two decades ago because the problem is worse, or because the worse problems are better? Many African-Americans suggest that racism is no longer socially acceptable, but that also means its still very real manifestations now come as a surprise, and victims are blindsided—does a similar phenomenon apply here with respect to gender? Is it inconsistent for a young woman to be angry about being cat-called one day and to say her day was made when a stranger complimented her appearance the next? (This is the only one of these questions to which I have an answer: No. There’s a difference, and I’m going to trust her to know it.)

2 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Now THAT Was A Rape Culture…”

  1. Some critics can’t help but to inject their modern day psychotraumas into innocent lyrics from a more innocent time. Political correctness has rendered a lot of fine old tunes and productions demeaned and, often enough, unavailable.

  2. Whew! I can’t thank you enough, Rick, for making it possible for me to not finish the essay I got stuck in trying to respond to the original blog. Which leaves me the option of dumping my notes here and walking away whistling the tunes.

    Another not-so-small feature of Most Happy Fella at the time it played was to change the perception of Italian males as mobsters, and from Axis enemies into American grape-growing immigrants with old world charming accents… at least until The Sopranos came along, but they didn’t sing and dance much.

    I’m not denying the “rape culture” idea: it’s a valid comparative. But the ambience of Most Happy Fella was a rape culture only as concommittant to a sexist culture expressed within a separatist culture – already shattered by Rosie the Riveter, all the more denied by Betty White advertising the avocado-toned refrigerator. Artificial rules for artificial boys and artificial girls sprung from different (opposing) species. It was a setting of colorful coverup, one of shame, guilt and above all, ignorance about sex. Dads thought their sons’ ideal first sex experience – or reward for winning football games – should take place at the local Best Little Whorehouse. (do I hear a smatter of applause?) 1956 was still on post-war high, and reality was still sugared over with romantic fantasy, a promise of good life for all the happy fellas and gals; it was, at bottom, a time of higher stakes for both sexes: poor access to prophylaxis or pre-natal care, unlikely single mom-hood, no credit, risk of loss of family-neighborhood-employer respect which could lead to loss of membership in any or all groups. Saintly morals ruled, backed by a firm belief in every one of what Jack calls ethics alarms’ rationalizations.

    Teens herded by gender. As I was off to college; my cousin was “rebelling” in the old neighborhood. She and her friends performed a cappella “watching all the BOYS go by” with the other lyrics intact. (No libretto: they sung “the oooo! look in her eye” and invented a sailor salute to go with a snappy “aye-aye!” before the next line): The song lent itself to a casual soft-shoe routine and it fit the reality of the time to a tee. Guess what a bunch of girls would do on the way home from school or on a Saturday afternoon “down the corner” by the Loews Theater or the drug store catercorner to it (which was the the necessary passing point to and from the open ball field behind St. Bridget’s)? — yeah, that’s right — stand around and ogle and tease and look just like what they were thinking, all the while knowing they’d be in hot water if they ever said it out loud — even if they’d known the precise words in the first place. “You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking” was a cliche, literally, a matter of teen bravado: ha-ha, you don’t know what’s going on in My mind. Whichever gender got the corner first held it until it was ice cream and juke box time. The behavior was never directed at a single or pair, and only at a group that included at least one relative or schoolmate. Really old passersby (17+) were viewed sideways and talked about/thought about later, if at all. About as many boy as girl victims responded by either blushing or catcalling back, more like a mild version of “the dozens” (hey there, yo mama cut yo hair?) than anything overtly sexy. By the time Most Happy Fella came along, the custom had been entrenched for at least five years; the song – both versions – gave it style.

    Standing On the Corner was the HAPPY part of the show. These were some of the others. This is what I meant by a larger-than-rape culture:

    PLENTY BAMBINI (barefoot-‘n-pregnant – that’s the way it is, period):
    Oh, Giusepp’
    ‘At’s-a what I want, ‘at’s what’s-a gotta be.
    Plenty bambini, plenty bambini
    Plenty bambini, like-a step, step, step
    Alfonso, Fiorello, Mattilda, Giusepp’

    I DON’ KNOW NOTHING ABOUT HER (assumptions about single working women):
    I don’ know nothing about her
    Where she ever go, what she ever done,
    I don’ know nothing about her,
    I don’t wanna know, I don’ gotta know
    What I was-a see is kind-a young lady,
    I want to get marry.

    I SEEN HER AT THE STATION (here’s your puppy, mister!):
    Yep, I seen her at the station,
    So I hauled her for free,
    With the compliments of Route Eleven
    R.F.D.
    Here she is in fair condition
    With a slightly damaged pride,
    Special delivery!
    One bride!

    SUCH FRIENDLY FACES (rule is women don’t get angry; they get accustomed):
    I’m sorry I got mad,
    I’m sorry I got sore,
    You see, I’ve never been a mail-order bride before.
    But now I’m happy I’m who I am
    And I’m happy you’re who you are.

    JOEY (take what you want & move on):
    You’ve been too long in one town
    And the harvest time’s come and gone.
    That’s what the wind sings to me
    When the bunk I’ve bunkin’ in
    Gets to feelin’ too soft and cozy,
    When the grub they’re been cookin’ me
    Gets to tastin’ too good,
    When I’ve had all I want
    Of the ladies in the neighborhood.

    YOUNG PEOPLE (no options for seniors}
    Young people gotta dance, dance, dance
    Old people oughta keep in mind:
    That young people gotta dance, dance, dance,
    Old people gotta get left behind.

    Old people gotta sit dere
    An’ watch, watch, watch,
    Wit’ da make-believe smile in da eye.
    Young people gotta live, live, live,
    Old people gotta sit dere an’ die.

    And the one I still sing because I remember what it felt like and it’s one of the reasons I will always tip:

    Then there’s
    BIG D (I tried to make it Austin, but it just wouldn’t scan):
    And that spells Dallas
    I mean it with no malice
    But the rest of Texas is a mess . . . .

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