Published in the Hopkins Review, New Series 9.4, Fall 2016
Broadway appears to be focusing more on women these days: female authors, directors, composers and subjects. And as I’m hardly the first to comment, female protagonists, particularly ones for whom a happy ending is untethered to a love plot and hence a man, are definitely receiving a heightened emphasis.
Female Protagonist, Female Creators
In a recent swoop down to the vicinity of Times Square to sample this trend, I had plenty to choose from. My criterion of selection on this visit was that the productions be musicals focused on a female protagonist, adapted in whole or in part by women from women’s works. I chose musicals, because if there are broad tendencies in the larger society and in the theatrical ecosystem, they will surface strongly there. And sure enough, despite differences in tone and in subgenre, my choices turned out to be remarkably similar to each other and significantly dissimilar to what might have been commonplace even a decade ago.
To mention the most obvious commonalities, in each the female protagonist is supposed to be of interest to the audience for her art, be it cartoons or pastry or songs, and her love life is incidental or an actual hindrance to her pursuit of that art. Not one of the heroines ends up with a romantic partner in sight. Triumph for each of these characters may be personal as well as professional, but it does not consist of what is traditionally meant by having it all.
Consider Fun Home, the winner of the 2015 Tony for Best Musical. Fun Home adapts to the stage cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same title. In the book and in the show, Bechdel confronts and tries to make sense of the strangeness of her family of origin, led by a father (portrayed by Michael Cerveris) who is a) a high school English teacher; b) a funeral director; c) a passionate restorer of old homes; d) very uncomfortably in the closet; and e) an incipient suicide. Her mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) takes refuge from the difficulties of being married to such a man by looking the other way from Bruce’s increasingly impossible life and burying herself in her three children and her music, wasting the “days and days and days” of her own life in the process. Alison and her two sibs must try to thrive in this not-terribly-promising environment. In her adult phase (portrayed by Beth Malone) as “a lesbian cartoonist,” Alison attempts to make sense of what befell her, and to determine what if any role her emergence into homosexuality at the beginning of her college years may have played in the death that brings the drama to its close.
That said, depending on the source, describing Alison’s father Bruce as an incipient suicide may be overstating it. His intent to kill himself is a definite fact only in the musical. In the book, though it seems likely Bruce deliberately stepped backwards into the path of a truck, Bechdel acknowledges the possibility that her father’s death could have been an accident, albeit if so, one perhaps contributed to by anxiety over the very issues that could also have led him to a more conscious choice to take his own life.
One of These Things Is/Is Not Like the Other
This is not by any means the only respect in which Lisa Kron, author of the book and lyrics, has sculpted the original material. Another example: to the Alison of the book, it is powerful evidence in favor of Bruce having deliberately killed himself that Helen had just told him she wanted a divorce. That development is missing from the show, and leaves Alison’s coming out as potentially the biggest new stressor on Bruce, sharpening the question for Alison whether that announcement (followed by Bruce’s fumbling failure to communicate adequately with Alison about it) was what drove him over the edge. What renders the question even sharper for her, both on the page and on the stage, was the feeling that her father never really looked at her or considered her – with the almost equally frightening consequence that her coming out might have had no impact upon his decision (if it was a decision) to end his life.
The show’s simplification and omission of such detail certainly has the effect of making the story more accessible, maybe a bit too much so. Bechdel’s book is intentionally tangled and obscure and recursive, not to mention literarily recondite. That is a strength. By contrast, even when the show admits ambiguity, it usually resolves it. Take for example the adult Alison’s signature remark that: “My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike.” It is spelled out exactly how both statements are true.
Right at the beginning of the show, the most important way in which they were alike is stated; rummaging through a box of odds and ends donated by a friend, Bruce happens upon an antique silver teapot bearing the craftsman’s hallmark. This is a clue that will help Bruce learn the piece’s provenance and history, which he is determined to do. He sings to Alison: “I can’t abide romantic notions/ of some vague long ago./ I must know what’s true,/ dig into who/ and what/ and why/ and when/ until now gives way to then.” That of course sums up Alison’s compulsion as well, only the object of that compulsion in Alison’s case is Bruce himself and his wife and their family.
Conversely, Bruce has started with the same fundamental datum of personality that Alison must work from, homosexuality. By failing to acknowledge it, he has taken his whole family on a long trip of lies and at least intermittent misery. Alison by contrast has embraced and been open about her orientation as it has become clear to her, and the truth seems to have set her free. To be fair, we learn next to nothing about her life after her coming out and her father’s suicide. Still, it can be safely concluded that she has emerged whole, and (q.e.d.) wholly different from her father.
Perhaps it is a little pat. But then the truth is not always subtle.
All Hail Tesori
In any case it would be wrong to dismiss what Lisa Kron and her colleague, composer Jeanine Tesori, have achieved as a mere filing-down and diminution of the original text to meet the practical necessities of a commercial entertainment medium. Not only is the book’s grand arc of character and causation sufficiently honored, but some of the best new stuff is conjured up from tiny hints in the book. For instance, there is Come to the Fun Home, a hilarious Jackson 5 pastiche performed by the three children in the form of an imaginary television commercial for the family funeral home, during which they cavort manically around a coffin and show off the funerary accouterments. This bit of macabre hilarity, useful to dispel the heaviness of the subject for awhile, seems to have been inspired by little observations in the book illustrating how casually the real Bechdel children came to take death’s accoutrements. The change in tone is more than a matter of pacing; it also exemplifies the prevailing uncertain mood Bechdel refers to again and again in trying to explain how confusing it was to grow up with such parents.
Tesori’s score contains far more than pastiche, of course. This is a close to a chamber musical in scale, staged in one of Broadway’s more intimate spaces, the Circle in the Square, and the seven-piece orchestra (no horns, one reed, heavy emphasis on cello) has an intimate sound. Song after song emits a lushly brooding tone that elegantly fits the subject matter. Most impressive is some startlingly good polyphonic voice writing, which is surprisingly rare in musicals. But in the finale Flying Away, the three Alisons (Ms. Malone, plus the junior version, currently portrayed by Gabriella Pizzolo plus the college-age Alison, Emily Skeggs) sing contrapuntally, swapping each other’s lines and melodies from earlier in the show, as their personalities gradually merge, leaving only the 43-year-old Alison there, remembering “a rare moment of perfect balance,” the very moment at the beginning of the show (and book), when her father held her up by his feet so she could “play airplane.” It is the music that makes that fadeout so devastatingly lovely. The bittersweet satisfaction of the moment, on the other hand, owes nothing to a union of two hearts; there is no girlfriend in the picture as Alison stands alone.
Polyphonic Perfection, Altered Casting
Ending polyphonically is great. Beginning polyphonically isn’t so bad either. Waitress, which might have had a legitimate shot at this year’s Best Musical Tony were it not for Hamilton, starts out with that unusual musical treat, as star Jessie Mueller, with various voices from the ensemble chipping in little bits of counterpoint, sings What’s Inside, which amounts to a hymn to the main ingredients of pie: sugar, butter, and flour. I can state with considerable confidence that no one has ever before limned these humble staples in such a winsome way. This brief tour de force segues into a showpiece of a different sort, a big, intricately choreographed production number designed introducing most of the cast Opening Up the diner in which the eponymous waitress Jenna (Ms. Mueller) works. It gives the chorus the opportunity to hit some unearthly chords we’ve probably never heard before. By the time these two songs are done, there will be no doubt that composer Sara Bareilles, whom many of us knew only as a pop singer-songwriter, is a serious artist, capable of serving up the most original harmonies. She may not sustain that high level at every turn, but too much of it would overwhelm the audience, so it’s just as well.
Waitress, like Fun Home, is not only presented by a female creative team (in addition to Bareilles, there’s a book by Jessie Nelson and direction by Diane Paulus), but is based on a work by a female artist, the movie of the same name written and directed and co-starred in by the late Adrienne Shelly. It is uncanny how the musical is both like and unlike the much-beloved movie. Most of the plot points are identical, and the characters have the same names. But the casting makes it feel different.
Jenna may not end up with a man, but she certainly ends up with a sisterhood, and the casting of the sisterhood lends a very different feel to the piece. In these days of unconventional casting the ethnicity of actors is supposed to be ignored. Sometimes that is a realistic expectation, sometimes not. In the movie, the unbreakable sorority of three waitresses was portrayed by three white women: Keri Russell as protagonist Jenna, Cheryl Hines as Becky, and Shelly as Dawn. Some of the humor of the original was based on the deep Southern rural setting, accents, sociology, and attitudes, poking fun, in other words, at a definitely and solidly white milieu.
Here Keala Settle (one parent is Maori) and Kimiko Glenn (one parent is Japanese) discharge the duties of Becky and Dawn. The different faces of these performers, and also those of much of the ensemble, are at odds with the feel of the movie. I theorize that the awareness that this cast is not convincingly rural Southern may be the actual explanation for designer Scott Pask’s choice to display on the backdrop of the set, glimpsed through the diner windows, U.S. route shield signs which seem to place the locus of the action at a busy junction around Richmond, Indiana. If my theory is right, and the notion was to make the setting slightly more cosmopolitan, the execution has failed. From my research (since I cannot recall ever having been there, though I grew up one state over) the accents should be Great Lakes-y. From the way the characters talk, however, they all sound as if they’d been transplanted from much further south. So which is it: regional humor or not? (Fun fact: the movie was shot in California.)
I should hasten to add that, accents aside, one quickly grows comfortable with the reimaged and hence reimagined Becky and Dawn. Glenn’s version of Dawn makes her believably nerdy in a way that Shelly, visibly brainy and outgoing, wrote the character but couldn’t quite pull off. And Settle, a big woman, milks the Becky role for physical humor that the slim Hines could never have tried.
Feminist or Not?
Another potential problem area with the show concerns its feminist bona fides. In May, the New York Times published a discussion between two female drama critics, Laura Collins-Hughes and Alexis Soloski, on how much cheer to draw from this apparent year of the woman on the New York stage. Collins-Hughes was outraged that Jenna becomes so sunnily maternal after giving birth near the end, when what had made her interesting and different up to that point had been how little Jenna had wanted the child. Yet this development looked to be in no way inconsistent with the movie; Collins-Hughes’ quarrel seems to lie more with Shelly’s conception than with that of Shelly’s adapters.
My own take is that the baby-bliss that Collins-Hughes objects to works; it is a venerable plot device appropriate to happy endings. It’s realistic; I don’t know many parents of either sex who aren’t transformed, many for the better and the happier, and many to their own surprise, by the arrival of progeny. And here, both in movie and musical, the childbirth is almost immediately followed by Jenna’s declaration of independence from the abusive husband, surely an act of self-liberation. These developments must be viewed together.
Soloski had what a somewhat more valid point. “I don’t read [Waitress] as empowering. It condemns abusive behavior from Jenna’s husband and then rewards it from a nerdy suitor of [Dawn] and the crotchety diner owner who bankrolls Jenna’s liberation,” she said.
I take issue with part of this. I don’t consider the initial nastiness of Joe, the diner owner (Andy Griffith in the movie, Dakin Matthews on the stage), to be demonstrably specifically sexist. Although we see him being crabby only with female employees, we also see him in conversation only with female employees. And his generous side is more fully fleshed out in his dance song with Jenna, Take It From an Old Man. Crotchety? Yes. But if there is any real evidence he is truly sexist or abusive, it went right over my head.
The character of Ogie (Christopher Fitzgerald), however, really is in some respects almost everything we are supposed to dislike about Jenna’s grasping husband Earl (creepily portrayed by Nick Cordero). Dawn has gone out on a short date with Ogie, and decided she wants no more of him; Ogie responds to the brushoff with what could almost be a stalker’s theme song, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, which features lyrics like: “I’m not going. If it seems like I did/ I’m probably waiting outside.” Now I admit that this is roughly like Mama Rose in one of her more endearing moments: “Just try/ And you’re gonna see/ How you’re gonna not at all/ Get away from me.” But Rose is a woman, and like it or not, that makes for a different impression than when a man sings such things.
The only reason audiences accept Ogie’s persistence, to the extent they do, is that Ogie is against all odds correct that he is a good match for Dawn. For instance, the show endows him and Dawn with a shared passion for Revolutionary War lore not found in the movie. And while singing about his devotion, he can simultaneously do a step like a Cotton Eye Joe, which ought to cover a multitude of sins. That said, surely you can’t be entirely feminist if you abandon the rule that no means no?
I’d agree that the feminism in Waitress is not doctrinaire, and lacks a hard edge. The production design is in baby colors, pink and light blue, and in keeping therewith the baby is seen as a burden but also a liberation and fulfillment; the art Jenna practices, the invention of and baking of fabulous pies, is a domestic art; and the sisterhood she achieves is of waitresses, which is to say people whose professional role is servitorial. But feminism must be for moms, for the practitioners of domestic arts, and for the professionally servitorial too, and not just for auteurs and CEOs. Nor is it fair to ignore the fact that in pursuit of integrity and happiness Jenna has rejected not only a monster in her husband Earl but also a terrific if flawed guy, her gynecologist Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), whom she sends back to the wife he has cheated on with her, a rejection that is at once emotionally costly, honorable, and smart. Then too, Jenna’s plight is very explicitly drawn as a consequence of her limited financial resources; maybe Joe is a deus ex machina, but it seems a bit captious to demand of the weak that they fight their way out of a hole without a bit of aid from the strong.
Spare Us the Biopic Conventions
A heroine who might perhaps be more to Soloski’s liking would be Carole King, around whom Beautiful: The Carole King Musical revolves. Beautiful accurately depicts singer/songwriter Carole King’s rise to stardom as a songwriter and performer as springing strictly from her talent. And yet from my perspective, there is a big problem with this show. The many falsehoods in its recounting of the history of King and her circle during the 1960s ultimately sap its success presenting either a feminist tale or showcasing the music.
Why should inaccuracies be of concern? A musical is to some degree a work of fiction, after all. But “biopic” jukebox musicals are in a special category when it comes to historicity, as I have written before in these pages. When you show where the songs came from, you should try to get it right, because the audience cares about the details.
Jukebox musicals are about songs that resonate with us because they were part of the soundtracks of our lives (or for some of us, the lives of our parents, though I was ruefully struck by how the audience at Beautiful was mostly of my vintage). Those of us in the parent generation have participated in the music of the early rock era, whether as creators, concertgoers, or just listeners who first experienced those songs coming out of a cheap monaural AM car radio. We made love to those songs, used them to pattern our longings, our triumphs, and our losses. We are in consequence left with a palpable need to build bridges between our lives and (at least when the jukebox musical is of the biopic subgenre) the lives from which the songs sprang.
We’re not fools; we know performers put on masks. But the masks by themselves are of very little interest to those who attend a biopic musical. Simply recreating a concert, allowing the audience to experience the way the artists presented themselves (think Rain, a faux-Beatles concert), may be an interesting exercise, but it really is not a musical. We care about the lives behind the masks. That care is what’s driven us to follow the gossip about the stars, to stitch together all the fragmentary information about them that has come our way over the years through the media. We want to link our truths to the stars’ truths.
For the audiences of musicals about real musicians, then, a conventional biopic storyline is just another mask that we don’t care about.
That’s what’s wrong with Beautiful. It’s a beautifully-constructed tale which makes heavy use of elements of Carole King’s story and her contemporaries. But it does not actually essay to tell those stories, not really. Putting it bluntly, Beautiful frequently makes a hash of the events in the lives of Ms. King, her former husband and continuing creative partner Gerry Goffin, their close friends and rival songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, publisher/producer Don Kirshner, and the people around them.
It would take too much space here to play fanboy and go over the details (all apparent when one reads King’s autobiography A Natural Woman), but suffice it to say that the departures from the historical record: a) continuously make Ms. King seem weaker as a human being and less technically masterful as a musician; b) underplay the extent to which Goffin’s problematic sanity, as opposed to his moral failings, contributed to the Goffin-King marital breakup; c) fashion Weil and Mann’s relationship into a marriage-plot to contrast with King and Goffin’s divorce-plot, no matter the harm to the real chronology of events; d) badly misstate the circumstances under which Tapestry, King’s all-time monster album, came to be, thereby making of it more the culmination of a personal journey than what it actually was, another stop along the way of a commercially-savvy journeywoman’s deservedly triumphant career. Etc., etc., etc. What comes out of this meat-grinder is “biopic sausage,” the story of a talented performer who had to overcome emotional naivete and betrayal by a loved one, and because of that experience was able to reach new creative heights. Yes, you have seen this story before. We all have. It’s only a shame we weren’t trusted enough with the messier realities which would have brought us to the same upbeat ending.
That may be so, book author Douglas McGrath might respond, and yet the show’s popularity has led to a respectable longevity. (It happened that the performance I attended was its thousandth, attended by none other than Ms. King herself.) Given all that positive audience response, the show can’t be doing everything wrong, right? To which the answer is of course it’s doing some things, many things, right.
To start with the obvious, even a plot that is standard-issue production line merchandise works, however manipulated we may feel as we respond to it. To the biopic sausage is added a cleverly-wrought evocation of the Brill Building era, when mostly Jewish songsmiths teamed up with mostly black performers to galvanize an industry. And when all else fails, as it does from time to time, there is the music, by King, various collaborators, and Weil and Mann, classics like (among many others) Take Good Care of My Baby, Up on the Roof, On Broadway, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, frequently presented as though by the original recording artists. The combination of elements is irresistible. And as a bonus, Chilina Kennedy, tasked with channeling Carole King when I saw the show, looks and sounds even more like King than did Jessie Mueller, currently the Waitress, but three years ago the performer who originated Carole.
So yes, there’s a lot to be said for this show. But there could have been a lot more.
Artists First and Foremost
In summary, what generalizations emerge from this sample of woman-centered and -created musicals? First, as noted, all of the primary heroines in these pieces have love lives that are significant to the plot, but it is their roles as artists, not lovers, that we principally respond to. None of them ends up the show with a mate, or in need of one. And it matters to their art that they are female.
In the case of Alison, her first effort at cartooning is a gendered act; an early drawing is critiqued and “improved” almost to death by her father, whose persistent mansplaining would turn it into a conventionally correct work that would fail entirely to express what she wants it to. What she wants is important, as she knows from the first, and we watch her art develop into a unique combination of memory and graphic art synthesized. Jenna’s pies are an artistic medium that might not command much critical esteem in a world where domestic (read female) artistry is disregarded, including by her doltish husband, who recalls “I had my six-string,/ and you had your own thing,/ but I don’t remember what it is.” The music and the dialogue each leave no doubt, however, we are discussing something difficult, inspired, and sublime. Both the historical and the theatrical Carole King’s gender have mattered less to the quality of her art than to the quality of her art/life balance, and that balance too is a particularly, though of course not exclusively, female concern. King was blessed with talent in two separate musical disciplines: composition and performance. Beautiful chronicles the half-reluctant emergence of the second kind of practitioner from the first, always with an eye on that elusive balance.
Each of these shows reinforces, then, the regard specifically female art and artists deserve. It might seem elementary and unnecessary (even patronizing) for these points to be made at this late date, but if they are being stated with such repetition on Broadway right now, it tells us something about contemporary audiences. Particularly when the points are being made by largely or exclusively female creative teams who may be pardoned a bit of an agenda, it would seem that a marker is being laid down. Parity of esteem is being freshly claimed. These works demonstrate that we will all be better off as the claim is more consistently honored.
Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn