The Problem With Broadway Revivals: They Revive Gender Stereotypes, Too

“Are these the shows I’m going to take my 12-year-old daughter to?” asked Georgia Stitt, a composer, lyricist and musician.

Billy Bigelow hits Julie Jordan. Henry Higgins molds Eliza Doolittle. Fred tames Lilli. And Edward rescues Vivian.

Amid a national reckoning with sexual harassment and misconduct, Broadway is mounting a cluster of musicals this season and next that, some theatergoers already contend, romanticize problematic relationships between women and men.

The titles are beloved: “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady” and “Kiss Me, Kate” are classics of the canon, while “Pretty Woman,” a new musical, is adapted from a smash film. And each of their female protagonists has her own strength — strength that in some cases changes the men in their lives.

But elements of the stories — and the fact that all four productions are being directed and choreographed by men — are prompting new scrutiny at this #MeToo moment.

“It’s a huge conversation,” said Carole Rothman, the artistic director of Second Stage Theater, a nonprofit that has become Broadway’s newest theater owner.

Ms. Rothman pointed to concerns about “Carousel,” in which the lead female character tells her daughter that “it is possible, dear, for someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all,” as well as “My Fair Lady,” with its famous closing line: “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?”

“So the music is beautiful,” Ms. Rothman said. “Does that mean you want to spend $20 million producing it?”

Georgia Stitt, a composer, lyricist and musician who worked on a women-led Off Broadway revival that rethought another problematic classic musical, “Sweet Charity,” sounded an alarm on social media last fall, as the productions were first being announced.

“It’s frustrating that the material people seem to want to throw their energy into is old properties where women have no agency, and then there is the real scarcity of women on the creative teams,” Ms. Stitt said in a recent interview. “And are these the shows I’m going to take my 12-year-old daughter to?”

The issues are not new, but they are felt especially intensely this year, in the aftermath of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, which led to a wave of accusations against other prominent men, including many in the entertainment industry, and a broader discussion of how women are portrayed in the culture.

“We’re in a moment of heightened awareness in the best possible way,” said Stacy Wolf, the author of “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical” and a theater professor at Princeton University. “There will be many more audience members who will be alert to these dynamics.”

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Revivals are a staple of commercial theater, in part because there are a lot of great musicals that were written decades ago, and in part because audiences often flock to the familiar. And many of the best roles for women — those with the attention-getting songs, the compelling story lines, the showy dancing — are also loaded with stereotypes. “The characters are rich and changing,” Ms. Wolf said, “but the characters are also pathetic.”

Similar challenges have come up around racial stereotypes and ethnocentrism. Creative teams have sought to rework problematic classic musicals, either by changing wording (only possible with permission from the writers’ representatives), or by rethinking staging.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“It’s important to not shy away from our past, but there has to be an interrogation, for all of us, about what kind of art we’re making now, and why,” said Leigh Silverman, the director of that rethought 2016 “Sweet Charity,” which rendered the heroine’s travails darker and less comic.

The first of the coming productions to arrive on Broadway will be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” which begins performances Feb. 28 and opens April 12. First produced on Broadway in 1945 (and most recently in 1994), the show is about the fraught relationship between a carnival barker named Billy Bigelow (played by Joshua Henry) and a millworker named Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller).

“Carousel” has long upset some, not only because of the exchange between Julie and her daughter, Louise, about whether a slap can feel like a kiss, but also because Julie seems to accept being hit by Billy, while his best songs can make him seem more sympathetic and ultimately redeemed. (In a 2011 New York magazine debate about the greatest musicals, the critic Frank Rich said “I love Carousel” — to which the writer Nora Ephron responded: “Yes, but you’re a boy.”)

“There weren’t many concerns when it was first staged in 1945, and most productions in the ’50s and ’60s tended to move very quickly over the problems,” said Tim Carter, a professor of music at the University of North Carolina and the author of a book on “Carousel.”

But, he said, in recent years there has been increasing focus on how the central relationship is understood. In 2016, Connecticut College students met with a local domestic violence organization while rehearsing the show, and wound up getting permission to change a line so Julie appears to reject, rather than accept, the idea that being hit hard might not hurt. But the change was for that production only.

“It is almost impossible to rescue the show from Julie Jordan’s apparent acceptance of domestic abuse,” Mr. Carter said. “The only sensible solution — in my view — is to accept the problem and then engage with it, rather than, say, sanitizing the work to remove the problem in the first place. Otherwise there’s no end to it.”

Scott Rudin, the lead producer of the current revival, said the creative team, led by the director Jack O’Brien, would not be changing the show’s text (other than a possible minor tweak to reflect the fact that Mr. Henry is African-American).

“We’re going to do it as written — it’s what they wrote, and it’s the truth of the characters,” he said. “Julie does not stand for every woman, and Louise does not stand for every teenage girl.” (The production declined to make Ms. Mueller available for an interview.)

Mr. Rudin, who frequently produces revivals of plays and musicals, noted that “half of the great works depict troubled relationships, and I don’t think it makes any sense to whitewash them.” He said he understood that some audience members would see the show in the context of the #MeToo movement: “If people choose to look at it through that lens, that’s great, and if they don’t want to, that’s their right.”

“The job of a play or a musical is not to answer a question, it’s to ask a question,” he added.

The Lincoln Center Theater revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” arrives shortly after “Carousel,” with previews starting March 15 before an April 19 opening. The musical — adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and made indelible by the 1964 Audrey Hepburn/Rex Harrison movie — stars Lauren Ambrose as the flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, the phonetics professor who gives her speech lessons.

Critiques of “My Fair Lady” have focused not only on the show’s final exchange, but on the Pygmalion narrative itself: a man transforming a woman to meet his standards. Not to mention Henry’s bullying tone with Eliza, and her return to him at the end of the show.

“Oh gosh — it is very, very sexist,” Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza on Broadway in 1956, told an interviewer last year. “Young women in particular will and should find it hard.”

The “My Fair Lady” team, led by the director Bartlett Sher, has had great critical and commercial success with recent revivals of the Rodgers & Hammerstein mainstays “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” each of which had cultural pitfalls of its own to navigate.

In a joint interview, Mr. Sher, Ms. Ambrose and André Bishop, the producing artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater, argued that the show’s final exchange — in which Henry asks Eliza, “Where the devil are my slippers?” — is not a demand, but an allusion to an earlier exchange. By that point in the show, they said, Eliza is Henry’s powerful equal, and the question of whether she ultimately stays with him is unresolved.

“The investigation that #MeToo forces you to do is quite important,” Mr. Sher said. “You watch sitcoms and you’re like, how did we ever get away with that? But strangely with Shaw, his sensitivities are so profound that you don’t feel that.”

Ms. Ambrose said she sees “My Fair Lady” as “a story about a woman who comes into her powers, and whatever happens afterward, we don’t know, but in that moment, they achieved equality.”

“Every set I’m on, I have to always try to preserve the dignity of the woman,” she added. “I have a young daughter, and there are going to be a lot of young women and young girls who come to see this show, and I don’t want to be ashamed that they’re here.”

“Pretty Woman” faces parallel but different challenges, as a new musical with no pre-existing book or score. The show is adapted from the 1990 film, with songs by the rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime co-writer Jim Vallance; it will have a production in Chicago this spring and is then scheduled to open on Broadway in August, starring Samantha Barks as Vivian Ward, the prostitute made famous on film by Julia Roberts, and Steve Kazee as Edward Lewis, the businessman who introduces her to a new life.

The show’s creative team has already made what it views as significant changes to the story to strengthen Vivian’s self-determination — in particular, by making clear early in the show that she is eager to leave prostitution, and by reworking a scene in which she is assaulted so that she defends herself, rather than, as in the film, being rescued by Edward.

“Unlike in a revival, we’re not locked into delivering what’s been done before — we have the freedom to create something through the lens of today, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said Paula Wagner, the show’s lead producer. “If you study the movie, she is a girl who is very much in charge, and what we’ve done is give her more of that.”

Ms. Barks said she grew up loving what she saw as the romance of “Pretty Woman” but has come to appreciate the way that Edward is changed, as is Vivian, by their time together. “I love a Cinderella story,” she said, “but this turns it on its head: The prince and the princess need rescuing, and both help each other to grow.”

The Roundabout Theater Company revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” a 1948 Cole Porter musical, is scheduled to begin performances next February, with Kelli O’Hara in the leading role of Lilli Vanessi. The show is about Lilli and Fred, once-married actors starring in a production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” a Shakespeare comedy (often vexing to contemporary audiences) in which a fierce woman is persuaded to humble herself to please her husband.

The musical has not yet begun rehearsals, but the director, Scott Ellis, said the #MeToo movement will clearly affect the production. He led a benefit reading in 2016, and said he and the cast had already decided that they did not see the ultimate reconciliation between Fred and Lilli as him subduing her.

“These are two extremely strong people, who are jockeying throughout the show,” Mr. Ellis said. “How do we keep strength on both sides?”

With cultural values shifting quickly, even updates can grow dated.

A 1930 George and Ira Gershwin musical, “Girl Crazy,” was substantially rethought and reworked in 1992, when gems in its score were absorbed into a new show called “Crazy for You.”

Now that production’s choreographer, Susan Stroman, is directing a planned revival, and giving “Crazy for You” another brush up.

“We cut a lot of jokes that 25 years ago were very funny — they weren’t appropriate for today,” she said. “We wanted to make it more palatable for an audience of 2018.”

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