Thursday, March 27, 2008

Maybe We're the Problem, Musical Theater Edition

I just watched Mr. Burton's adaptation of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd for the second time, and Court Theatre will soon be opening a revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel. (Spoilers, obviously, follow.) Both pieces (actually, it's more Sondheim's general oeuvre than Sweeney Todd in particular, but this was the viewing where I started thinking about it in the context of his oeuvre) put me in mind of their sexism, and if it's possible to work with that today in a productive way, allowing it simply to overact with, rather than overshadow, the other amazing elements of the pieces.

I've heard any number of complaints about Carousel in the last several years from feminists I respect, who consider it "the wife-beating musical." And it is true, and undeniable, that the piece contains the following exchange of dialogue between
daughter and mother, after daughter has been visited by father's ghost: "Is it possible for someone to hit you that hard and have it not hurt at all?" "Yes, darling, it is possible for someone to hit you that hard and have it not hurt at all." (That is probably not a *precisely* verbatim quote, but most of those words are included in that order.) I'm not going to claim that's easy to swallow from where we live today; it's pretty disappointing to me that it was swallowed in 1945. And yet I have a lot of trouble reducing the work to that.

The opening scenes of Carousel, set at the end of the nineteenth century, follow three characters: a New England mill worker named Julie Jordan, her friend and co-worker Carrie Pipperidge, and a carousel barker named Billy Bigelow. Carrie and Julie have been riding the carousel on their day off; the carousel owner forbids Julie from returning because Billy put his arm around her while she was riding. Carrie tries to tease Julie about it, but ends talking about how distant Julie's been at the mill, and then opens the door to talk about her own much more conventional romantic interest. When Billy comes to talk to Julie and Carrie departs, the "bench scene" begins.

The bench scene is honestly one of the best love scenes I know, in musical theater, non-musical theater, film, anything. Two misfits meet and experience the most intense attraction they've ever known, which neither quite has the vocabulary to talk about. This is expressed in song, an exchange of beautiful, awkward recitatives and then the exchange of the song "If I Loved You," in which each explains to the other, using the same words, how they'd feel if what is in fact happening to them were happening to them. By the end of it, their first real kiss, they're clearly and deeply bound to one another, clearly so isolated in the worlds they've been living in and needing one another so much they seem to have been waiting for one another all along.

Of course, when the musical flashes forward into its next scene a couple of months later, Billy and Julie's marriage has turned abusive and Billy has proved himself a ne'er-do-well who associates with ne'er-do-well seafaring friends (Jigger, the supporting character who fits that description, was one of my main fictional crushes for several years). Learning that Julie is pregnant makes Billy desperate to get money to support his child, leading him to commit a robbery with Jigger that leads to his death, though of course it's more complicated than that. He ascends to heaven, where time passes faster, and is allowed to go back to Earth, where his daughter Louise is now fifteen, to redeem himself. Observing her misery, all of which is caused by him, is difficult for him, and when he in his earthly manifestation actually speaks to her, he becomes quickly frustrated and slaps her. And yet—Julie arrives, and the notoriously creepy lines of dialogue are spoken. An invisible, insubstantial Billy whispers to Julie that he loves her, truly, and at Louise's graduation whispers to her to have confidence in herself. They invisibly, insubstantially hear him and as such he is allowed into heaven.

Summarized in any way, the musical's problematic; I can't fight it. And yet the bench scene honestly is one of the best love scenes out there. My question is, why does Carousel have to become "the wife-beating musical," rather than a musical about two fucked-up, lonely, desperate people who find each other and figure out, in fucked-up, desperate ways, that finding each other isn't always enough, but is always deeply valuable?

As Silvana pointed out in a conversation about this, when the play is onstage much of the ability to portray what I outlined above depends on the portrayal of the rest of the townspeople. This New England fishing village, a small industrial center, is a very cohesive community where everyone has clambakes together, and it's an ethos to which both Billy and Julie are outsiders, even with a close friend like Carrie. However, they are too bound to and by love to be entirely outside of the confines of this society, like Jigger is—they have something to care about. Both Billy and Julie are trapped, and would simply have been more trapped if they hadn't found each other. If Julie's happy she found Billy in spite of his clear and acknowledged shortcomings, why do we have to cast her as a victim?

Okay, if I'm going to make a fair argument around this I do have to look at the lyrics of Julie's love song, which she sings to convince Carrie to stay with her obnoxious fiancé Enoch, who threatens to leave her when Jigger hits on her.

Made him the way that he is
Whether he's false or true,
And somethin'
Gave him the things that are his,
One of those things is you,
So when he wants your kisses
You will give them to the lad
And anywhere he leads you you will walk
And anytime he needs you
You'll go runnin' there like mad,
You're his girl and he's your feller
And all the rest is 'talk'!

Obnoxious. Dated. Makes my skin crawl just a little, as it has since I first heard it—or at least listened to the lyrics closely—in high school. And yet, can't it be in part of its time and in part a truth about the character and the relationship? They are desperate, and lost outside the margins of their society, and they truly love each other.

The long and short of it, to me, is that relegating Carousel to the position of "the wife-beating musical" is to limit your faith in its character development. Julie is in some ways a product of her time, in other ways an exception to it, and she's stuck. And she loves him, and must we place so little faith in her as to say the love isn't actually real? Billy is a fucked-up guy who does terrible things, and the power of theater, of art, is that people don't have to be limited to that. I don't think Carousel in any way endorses Billy's abuse; it says he both hit Julie and loved her. This is possible. It means he was terrible at loving her in action, but the show acknowledges this.

It says that good intentions are enough to get you into heaven, and if I believed in heaven I'm not sure I would want that. I can see this show being slightly more offensive to the liberal religious. But the heart of the show is two differently fucked-up people who love each other desperately, and that love does not stop them from being fucked up.

This, too, is what should be at the heart of Wheeler and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, to make it accessible and successful, although the people in question are much less realistic and much more fucked up than those in Carousel. But Sweeney Todd should, at heart, be a deeply disturbing love story.

I wouldn't admit it for quite some time, but Mr. Sondheim, in addition to being something of a general misanthrope, is really rather misogynistic in his work overall. (Yes, he has collaborators, but as this is a common thread to his musicals with various collaborators, I feel safe assuming it has something to do with him.) I've yet to get to the point where I think this devalues the work for the most part (although my fondness for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has certainly tapered off over the years, especially when I recall our rather offensive attempts to perform it at my single-sex summer camp), but he ain't so good with making female characters anything other than objects determined by men.

Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, however, can get beyond that. She has her own motivations, some of which have to do with love and some of which do not; she's not purely a device in the piece, her desires aren't mocked by the script and music (though they often are by bad productions), and it's her decisions and changes of heart on which the show hinges.

Once Mrs. Lovett is limited to a broad comedic device, of course, she's useless and emotional connection to the show is lost. Sweeney Todd, whatever his ostensible motives, is psychotic, and his transition from wanting to kill only the Judge to wanting to kill absolutely everyone is not an easy one to hook into. Mrs. Lovett's unrequited love, however, can take you there. Yes, she's as mentally ill as Todd is, but slightly more hooked into reality, practical, in a way that grounds us with her. If we have no one to follow the musical falls apart; Todd is too insane, Anthony and Johanna too boring. Mrs. Lovett, however weird, is our hook, and we have to see her sickness as born of a desperation we have access to in "The Worst Pies in London." This isn't to say that she shouldn't be funny, but that if you play her honestly she's going to be hilarious, and if you do play her honestly she can also be a story.

It's likely, then, that I would have hated the original production of Sweeney Todd. From what I've heard of the recording, Angela Lansbury played Mrs. Lovett for broad comedy rather than the relationship, in which case I really don't know why I'd be watching the thing rather than listening to it, and even that doesn't sound like that much fun. I could be wrong, of course—Ms. Lansbury has declared it the most important role of her theatrical career, and of course I didn't see it—but the point I intend to make is that the piece's ability to be something other than good songs relies almost entirely on that character.

I also postulate that "A Little Priest," if done correctly, is one of Sondheim's best love songs. Again, it's easy to play for broad comedy and so much is lost when you do. But what's really happening in the song is that these two people, these two deeply fucked-up people, are creating a powerful idea together out of love. That's what that song is if you play it from the inside, and playing it from the inside, in addition to just being better acting, makes it all the more scary for the audience. (See Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, for instance.) Todd, in this song, sees Mrs. Lovett for the first time, sees that she thinks as he does and he wants and values that connection, that he no longer has to be alone and isolated with his insanity but has a true partner. Mrs. Lovett, for her part, has trying to get through to Todd from the first moment, and her joy in finally doing so, in finally finding the point at which they meet. The joy in the song is the joy of two lovers creating something together. We as an audience can and should be repulsed by what they share and what they're planning to create, but the song is about what's between the two of them, and for the first time, what's between them is indeed love.

The film doesn't quite succeed in creating the love story, but it comes fairly close. Tim Burton, I've finally realized, is grievously afraid of sex, always creating (or adapting) a story that casts favor on those shy, sexually hesitant and/or chaste, and if adapting placing more emphasis on the distinction between those characters and their more brazen counterparts. (Corpse Bride, anybody?) Fortunately, his wife and favorite leading man have no such hang-ups, which allowed for a workable amount of sexy in their scenes, but couldn't quite salvage the force of romantic joy that "A Little Priest," done correctly, could have.

In other words, both of these shows could be sexist; neither has to be. Whether they are inherently is a question as delicate as the question surrounding Taming of the Shrew. They have sexist elements—in Carousel I'd say mainly the product of its time, in Sweeney Todd mainly the product of its author—but they develop the characters strongly enough for good productions to ... not transcend the sexism, per se, but allow the pieces to turn on another axis.

This is totally one of those pieces no one's going to read, but I needed to write it anyway. I am so okay with that.


At 8:49 PM, Blogger tyromaven said...

helena bonham carter was the only thing i enjoyed about burton's todd.

and 'a little priest' was my favorite part.

look, i read!

At 11:34 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Alan Rickman didn't do it for you, huh? I know he didn't have much to do, but I thought he still achieved the mystique. Sadly, the film didn't give 'im much.

I'm glad you read. :>)

At 1:21 AM, Blogger tyromaven said...

all i could see was snape and pettigrew. it made me long for fan fiction, but was distracting from the plot. :}

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Not just a wife beating musical but a xtian religious mythology themed musical. Polishing stars in heaven as a rewarding afterlife sounds like hell to me. The music is pleasant enough but the entire story line needs reworking to make it both contemporary and pertinent. I recently went to see Musical of Musicals and they made a big but pointed joke about being hit being like a kiss. On that basis I suppose a broken jaw must be like an orgasm. Observations have been made that women who return to violent men get off on the adrenalin surges thus created but there must be more to such masochistic behavior.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Peg said...

Glad to have found this article. I just saw Carousel for the first time on TV last night and have been trying to understand why so many people love it (apart from the fantastic music and appealing actors.) The comment right before mine - apart from misinterpreting religion - is spot on. Carousel must be the most misogynistic story of abuse, rationalization, and denial I've ever seen. I can't find a single sympathetic character in the whole story, except for maybe Julie's aunt, whose fatal flaw is the inability to lay down the law with the lazy bum who mooches off her.

Sweeney Todd OTOH is a whole different ballgame. It's not meant to be socially acceptable, it's not meant to represent true love, and if it is misogynistic it is equally misanthropic. It is essentially a horror story with a sense of humor. I love the show and watch it every chance I get. Love the movie but my favorite version is the video of the stage version Angela Lansbury starred in - she is absolutely brilliant in it!

At 9:29 AM, Blogger s. said...

You said no one will read this.....I am glad you wrote it. I just went to a local production of "Carousel" and while I very much enjoyed the performances, I was disturbed by what I perceived as sexism. I understand that it was the "norm" of the time period, although, that doesn't make it okay. Anyway, I just needed to hear someone else explain what I had felt while watching this musical.


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