Sexist Broadway Musical Lyric Ethics: Carousel’s “Soliloquy”

“Soliloquy,” also known as “My Boy Bill,” may be my favorite Broadway musical song of all time. (I don’t know, it’s between that and “Losing My Mind” from Sondheim’s “Follies.”) It certainly is among the most ambitious of all the songs from the genre, an emotionally wide-ranging, musical equivalent of a Shakespearean  monologue. Both the song’s lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein, and especially its composer, Richard Rodgers, were at the top of their form when they created it, and the top of their form can match any songwriter who ever lived. It’s also a tour de force for the singer, a seven-and-a-half minute musical mountain that only the very best even dare try to scale

The song comes at a key moment in the plot of “Carousel,” when the brutish and none-too-bright hero, Billy Bigelow, has learned that his wife is pregnant. The arrested-development adolescent muses about the joys and ultimately the responsibilities of his impending fatherhood, and having accepted the fact that his child might be a girl, makes a fateful vow at the song’s climax: Continue reading

Give My Regards To Broadway

Broadway is officially irrelevant to American culture, and it’s their own damn fault.

A half-century ago, Broadway fare provided rich common content for Americans of all classes, creeds and ages. It was rare when a song from a Broadway musical wasn’t on the Top 40. Cast albums were found in most households. Broadway dramas provided the sources for a high percentage of non-musical movies.

Books could be written and have been about the forces that sent The Great White Way reeling toward irrelevancy, from popular music moving away from forms that told stories taking musical scores off the charts for good, to TV supplanting both movies and live stage as  the primary source of drama. Substantially, however, the problem is financial. Unions drove the prices of live theater to an unsustainable level, to the point where most American have no opportunity to see a professional stage show and no desire to spend their resources so recklessly if they did. Broadway shows are routinely priced at three figures, and even far away from Broadway, like near me in Arlington, Virginia, single tickets for musicals often top a hundred dollars. Well, as the Ancient Greeks and Elizabethans knew, live theater is important cultural connective tissue, permitting common experience, group bonding, and mass emotional release. It’s healthy for society, and was once thought to be essential. No more.

The Broadway League has released the results of its annual audience survey, which are being called “good news.” I call the results death throes. The survey already cooked the books by only surveying Broadway ticket buyer, which is a tiny and shrinking percentage of the public.

Among the findings:

  • That good news was that the average age of the Broadway theatergoer last season was 40.6, the lowest it’s been since 2000. 15% of all theatergoers are under 18 years old,, with the average age at a musical at 39,  51.5 at a play. Got it: more very rich people are taking their kids to see Broadway shows. Meanwhile, the family-friendly shows are not teaching new things or breaking new ground, for they are mostly re-hashes of movies the less affluent kids can see for almost nothing, and are better versions too.. Here are current shows deemed “family friendly”: “Frozen,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” “Mean Girls” and “SpongeBob SquarePants,” as well as the continuing runs of “Aladdin,” “Anastasia,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “The Play That Goes Wrong,” “School of Rock” and “Wicked.” Let’s see: four adaptations of Disney animated films, an animated TV show, Harry Potter, two hit movie comedies about schools, teachers and parents, and a couple others.

So Broadway producers pandering to families seeking low-brow “culture” have succeed in masking the aging of the core Broadway audience.

  • The percentage of the Broadway audience made up of people from the New York area continues to rise, with 38 % of Broadway patrons were from the New York metro area, with 20% from New York City. Increasingly Broadway is a local phenomenon.

A question nobody asked: How many people from west of the Mississippi saw a Broadway show last year? Or wanted to? Continue reading

Ann Althouse And “Green Acres”, Or “When Trusted Bloggers Don’t Know What The Hell They Are Talking About”

This is a Popeye-–the Ethics Alarm category in which I have been forced to post because something irritated me so much I couldn’t stand it, or in Popeye’s immortal words,

As frequent readers here know, I am a fan of retired University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse’s wide-ranging blog (even if she does refuse to include Ethics Alarms in her blogroll...). However, loyalty goes only so far.

Today I read this from Ann…

“Green Acres The Musical is a fast-paced, contemporary story that features the best in comedy, music and dance. This is the spirited musical comedy love story of Oliver and Lisa Douglas….He is a high-powered, Manhattan attorney and she is an aspiring fashion designer and, together, they are living ‘the good life’ in New York City. Faced with the overwhelming pressure to run his family’s law firm and live up to his father’s reputation, Oliver longs for the simple life, but New York and all that it has to offer is Lisa’s perfect world. What happens when two people in love find themselves wanting opposite lives sends us on a journey that is both hilarious and filled with heart.”

That’s the press release — published in Entertainment Weekly — for a “Broadway-bound” musical. I guess there’s no limit to how stupid and touristy theater in New York City can become.

When “Green Acres” was on TV in the 1960s, it was one of many sitcoms set in rural America. From the Wikipedia article on the “rural purge” —

the systematic cancellation of all that stuff: “Starting with ‘The Real McCoys,’ a 1957 ABC program, U.S. television had undergone a “rural revolution”, a shift towards situation comedies featuring “naïve but noble ‘rubes’ from deep in the American heartland”. CBS was the network most associated with the trend, with series such as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Mister Ed,” “Lassie,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Hee Haw”….

… CBS executives, afraid of losing the lucrative youth demographic, purged their schedule of hit shows that were drawing huge but older-skewing audiences….

It was decided that those rural shows — a refuge from the social and political upheaval of the 60s — were too damned unsophisticated and irrelevant for 1970s America. I don’t know if the long arc of history bends toward sophistication, but it makes me sad to see that one of the shows that were seen — half a century ago — as too naive and out of it for television is now the basis for a Broadway show. What is happening to us?

Well, what’s happened to you, Ann, is that you have forgotten the #1 obligation of a serious blogger, which is not to make your readers less informed, more ignorant, and more biased than they already are.  Ann is about my age, meaning that she had the same opportunity as I did to actually experience those Sixties era TV shows she is denigrating and lumping together, but either she did not, and is thus relying on a typically half-baked Wikipedia entry by their usual anonymous non-professional researchers, or she is deliberately misrepresenting them to justify a side joke (Donald Trump once performed the “Green Acres” song on TV, and Ann posted the video), or, as I long suspected, she’s a snob. Just as one shouldn’t review dinosaur movies if one isn’t interested in dinosaurs, a blogger shouldn’t pretend to analyze Sixties TV shows if she didn’t watch Sixties TV shows, and if Ann had watched those shows, she would have instantly known that her Wikipedia source article was crap.

At the end of the post, she says, returning to Broadway,

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I saw the Broadway play “Marat/Sade” — “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.” That’s where it looked as though Broadway would go. Into immense creativity and sophistication. It’s so sad what happened instead.

I won’t argue that Broadway, the Broadway musical in particular, hasn’t hit the skids, and that it now generally seeks to be more of a theme park ride or a nostalgia-fest for wealthy tourists than a source of new ideas and daring entertainment. That case, however, could have and should have been made (I’ve made it myself in other venues) without ridiculing an unseen musical based on its source material. Continue reading

Ethics And The Broadway Star’s “Accidental” Pregnancy

In July, just four months after the show opened to rave reviews, producers closed the hit Broadway musical, “Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” “Shuffle Along,” with 10 Tony nominations this year, had the makings of a long-running bonanza, but producers decided that when its acclaimed star, multiple past Tony Award winner (six!) Audra McDonald, had to leave the cast due to a surprising pregnancy (the actress was 45), it was too risky to continue. As soon as a replacement was named, ticket sales plummeted.

The show, which was capitalized for up to $12 million, had purchased a $14 million insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London to cover any damages arising if McDonald “was unable to perform because of an accident or illness.” Now producers are asking Lloyd’s to pay up, covering losses created by the pre-mature closing of the musical and by the  effects on the production occasioned by other health issues related to McDonald’s pregnancy while she was still performing.  “Since the beginning of previews of the Show, Ms. McDonald was unable to appear in numerous performances of the Show due to circumstances related to illness, a knee injury, and her pregnancy,” a lawsuit says. Her role was a strenuous one, requiring, among other things, a lot of tap-dancing.

Why the lawsuit, you ask? Lloyd’s says that the policy’s terms haven’t been met, arguing that the actress’s pregnancy and the associated medical conditions were neither due to an ‘accident’ nor an ‘illness’ under the policies.” The show’s position, as articulated by a lawyer representing the show, is that”‘Shuffle Along’ bought an insurance policy to cover it in the event that Ms. McDonald was unable to perform, and she was unable to perform.”

I love this story! It has everything—cold-eyed insurance executives, a perhaps manipulative diva, the sanctity of pregnancy, buck-passing, Hail Marys, feminist taboos, and Broadway!
Continue reading

From Curmudgeon Central: The 2012 Curmie Results and “Legally Blonde” Redux

and-the-winner-is

The Curmie votes are in. This is Rick Jones’ annual prize awarded to educators who embarrass their (and his ) profession. Go to his blog, Curmudgeon Central, to see the winner and the vote totals. I don’t want to spoil the suspense.  Check out the nominations here if you haven’t already. A couple of observations, though: Continue reading

Ethics Hero and Artistic Champion: Stephen Sondheim, Defending “Porgy and Bess”

Steve has your back, George.

I read with horror last week that the Gershwin estate, lured by the temptation of an increased revenue stream from the works of their more talented forebears, have agreed to allow director Diane Paulus and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to mess with ( that is, “improve”) “Porgy and Bess,” the classic 1935 opera that is one of the towering works in the history of American musical theater. This is, of course, vandalism in the name of ego and commerce, and a full-fledged assault on the masterpiece of not one but four great artists: the Gershwins, George and Ira, and the Heywards, Dorothy and DuBose, who wrote the novel and the play the opera was based on.  It is also stunning disrespect and abuse of power, with the living director and adapter wielding the power of celebrity and influence, and the dead artists retaining no power at all (being dead), having unwisely entrusted the protection of their legacies to greedy and tasteless relatives all too willing to sell out their kin for thirty pieces of silver.  Now, as the New York Times reported, the creators of the New Improved Porgy and Bess are readying new scenes, jazzed up dialogue, back-stories for the characters and an upbeat ending.    

This, as you might imagine, struck to the core of my work as an ethicist and in my position as the co-founder and artistic director of a  professional theater devoted to classic 20th Century stage works. I began to prepare a post on the rape of “Porgy and Bess,” but was distracted by other matters, and didn’t get the piece finished.

That was lucky. I should have remembered that Stephen Sondheim, the only musical theater artist alive who can claim the right to be mentioned in the same breath as George Gershwin, had extolled “Porgy and Bess” as the very greatest American musical in his autobiographical work, “Finishing the Hat.”  Needless to say, Sondheim is an authority on these matters, and also an artist who can appreciate what Paulus and Parks are doing to his colleague, peer and fellow geniuses, the Gershwins. On top of that, he has the wit and rhetorical skills to defend the rights of artists and dissect the rationalizations of vandals like few others.

And he did. John Glass of Drama Urge kindly alerted me that Sondheim has written a letter to the New York Times explaining…not arguing, because there is no argument…why the new “Porgy and Bess” is wrong.  Here it is; you just can’t do it better than this: Continue reading

“Finishing the Hat”: Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert, and Expert Malpractice

Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” is a fascinating reflection on a remarkable career and the craft of making musicals by the greatest living master of the form. In the course of recounting his formative years, triumphs, failures, and duels with producers, authors and composers, Sondheim also critiques the lyrics of his predecessors, contemporaries and role models—as long as they are dead. In a nod to gentility or cowardice, the only living lyricist he subjects to his expert critiques is himself.

Sondheim is a tough judge, as one might expect from a composer/lyricist who meticulously measures each vowel sound and stressed syllable for maximum effect. He is also, by virtue of both his reputation and technical expertise, an influential one. The lyricists he grades highly in the book, such as Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields, are likely to have their reputations burnished by his praise, and those he slams, like Lorenz Hart and Noel Coward, will suffer by comparison. Because of this, Sondheim had an obligation, as a respected expert in his field, to make each case carefully and fairly. To his credit, Sondheim seems to recognize this, and all of his critical discussions of an individual lyricist’s style and quirks include specific examples and careful analysis. We may disagree with Sondheim as a matter of personal taste, but it is difficult to argue with his specific points, because they are backed up by examples, technical theory, and the weight of his authority.

It is therefore surprising and disappointing to see Stephen Sondheim slide into expert malpractice when he undertakes, clearly half-heartedly, a critique of the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Continue reading

Mailbag: Why Different Ethical Standards for Food and Theater Critics?

“Dear Mr. Marshall: Don’t you find it odd that in one post you condemn theater critics for coming to review a play uninvited, yet slam a restaurant owner who exposes the identity of a restaurant critic trying to review his establishment surreptitiously? Why are consumers served by secret food reviews, but not by secret show reviews? This is why people hate people like you.” Continue reading

The Ethics of Reviewing “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” During Previews

John Simon, long the toughest of American theater critics and undeniably the most erudite and eloquent writer among them, has launched a blog. His very first post is on an ethical issue: is it ever appropriate for a critic to review a Broadway show that is still in previews?

The issue has emerged because the much-anticipated and incredibly expensive Spiderman musical, Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, has been engulfed in all kinds of intrigue since the very first preview: falling actors, injuries, malfunctioning sets and special effects, and most recently the surprise withdrawal of the show’s leading lady. A couple of critics, Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News and Linda Winer of Newsday could not resist paying for tickets and coming uninvited to performances, resulting in one diagnostic feature story on the production’s progress (by Winer) and one full, and not very complimentary, review by Gerard. Simon properly calls foul, describing the act of reviewing a show before its official opening as the equivalent “grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked, and then judging the meal by it.”

Exactly. The critics have their rationalizations ready, naturally. The musical is the most expensive in Broadway history. Is that a reason to suspend critical fairness? There is unusual interest in the show and its pre-opening travails. Should the degree of interest suspend long-standing critical standards? The usual excuse, also trotted out in this case, is that preview audiences are paying regular show prices—up to $300 a seat—to see the production right now. Isn’t this a case of “the public has a right to know” if the show is a stinker or not?

No, it isn’t. Broadway audiences know that previews are early glimpses of works in progress, and that is part of their appeal. The audiences for previews are part of the creative process, for how they react to a performance will help decide what stays and what gets cut. The prices they pay for the privilege of being Broadway guinea pigs are fair if they choose to pay them. Continue reading